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Guide to the Alexander Jackson Davis Architectural Drawing Collection
1827-1884
 PR 16

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on July 27, 2018
Finding aid written in English.

Biographical/Historical Note

Alexander J. Davis (July 24, 1803-Jan 14, 1892) was born in New York City, the son of Cornelius Davis, a bookseller and editor of New York Theological Magazine, and Julia Jackson. His early years were spent in Newark, New Jersey and in upstate, frontier, New York. In 1818, at age 15, Davis was sent to Virginia, to learn the printing trade. In 1823, after several years of apprenticeship, Davis moved back to New York City and supported himself by typesetting while studying art. He took classes at the American Academy of the Fine Arts, the New-York Drawing Association, and the National Academy of Design. At the suggestion of painter Rembrandt Peale, one of the founders of the NAD, Davis started concentrating his drawing talent on architectural design and renderings.

Davis began to draw views of buildings in New York City and throughout the Northeast. He published many as engravings and lithographs. Davis worked with meticulous care, many of these early lithographs are valuable in their accurate details. He became an expert delineator and watercolorist, one of the finest architectural renderers of his period. Perhaps due to this intense artistic background, architectural design, rather than structure or theory, was always his main interest. Davis began his architectural career in 1826 by drafting for New York architect Josiah R. Brady. In 1827 and 1828, Davis journeyed to Boston where he made detailed studied of Greek architecture from books in the Boston Lyceum. He began to create original designs, using Greek styles as models from which to deviate.

In 1828, Davis set up an architecture practice. His first executed design was a country house outside of New Haven, Connecticut for the poet James A. Hillhouse. This Greek Revival design generated the interest of Ithiel Town, one of the premier architects of the time and the leading designer of Greek Revival style buildings. In February 1829 Davis became Town's partner. Town held one of the greatest architectural libraries in the United States at the time, which benefited the young Davis greatly.

Over the course of the next 6 years, the pair designed many public buildings and a few private homes, churches, and commercial buildings. They built mainly in the Greek Revival style; buildings included deep porticos, columns, and massive anta-type piers.

Important Town & Davis commissions include the State House at New Haven, Connecticut (1827-31), the state capitols of Indiana (1831-35) and North Carolina (1833-40) and New York's Custom House (1833-42). They also designed a Blackwell Island Lunatic asylum (1834), only some of which was ever built. Town & Davis built the first iron shop-front in New York City (Lyceum of Natural History, 561-3 Broadway, 1835). This building was one of the first to be built with what would become Davis' signature, "Davisean," windows – multistoried, recessed, and paneled at floor levels, an effect that vertically unified facades. Important New York churches built by Town & Davis are the Ionic-style French Church du Saint Esprit (1831-34) with a high dome and distyle-in-antis façade and the influential West Presbyterian Church on Carmine Street (1831-32). Town & Davis also built several impressive residences: Samuel Ward's New York City house (1831-33) included an art gallery, pilasters and introduced columns in the townhouse doorways. "Glen Ellen," (1832) a large country estate built for Robert Gilmor outside of Baltimore, Maryland, was an early indicator of Davis' future career.

In May of 1835 Town retired and Davis struck out on his own. By this time Davis' name had been made. In 1836-37 he was instrumental in forming the American Institution of Architects, a professional association which soon failed, perhaps due to the small size of the profession. Twenty years later, Davis was an original trustee of the American Institute of Architects, an organization that fared much better, and is still in existence. Davis continued to design grandiose public buildings on his own. The Illinois State Capitol (1837) and the Wadsworth Athenauem (1842) were important commissions. Davis was also named expert architect on the Ohio State Capitol (1838-61).

Despite Davis' success, the financial panic of 1837 and subsequent economic trouble meant few of Davis' building designs were built. In addition, his interest in introducing new architectural styles was not always appreciated by clients; he designed several buildings for the University of Michigan, but the plans were deemed too radical for construction. He began to focus on the design of romantic country houses, second residences popular in England. In 1837 he published Rural Residences, Consisting of Designs Original and Selected for Cottages, Farmhouses, Villas and Village Churches, the first American book about country houses. He combined drawings of several of his early constructions, such as gate houses built for Robert Donaldson's estate "Blithewood" in Annandale on-Hudson, New York (1836), with theoretical designs and drawings.

Inspired by English picturesque models, Davis introduced villas and cottages with the harmonizing irregularities and dramatic lines of romantic Gothic, Italianate, and Bracketed forms. In Rural Residences. . . Davis criticized "the bald and uninteresting aspect of our houses" and the lack of connection between the house and its site. His designs worked to overcome these deficiencies. Davis almost single-handedly created American interpretations of English cottage, Bracketed, and Gothic Revival styles. Early examples of his country homes were Henry Sheldon's Gothic cottage "Millbrook," near Tarrytown, New York (1838-40), William and Philip Paulding's "Knoll," also near Tarrytown, New York (1838-42; enlarged as "Lyndhurst," 1864-67), Joel Rathbone's "Kenwood" near Albany, New York (1842-49), and North Carolina Governor John M. Morehead's "Blandwood" in Greensboro, North Carolina (1844).

Davis's country houses were first built along the Hudson River Valley in New York, at the same time as that setting was being popularized and romanticized by the Hudson River School of artists. The English idea of picturesque was transformed into an American Romanticism. Davis felt the English house style was too grand for the new republican nation, and insisted on the individualism of Americans by varying each house design to it landscape as well as owner's tastes. His designs were instrumental in opening up the boxy American house form, and moved toward open floor plans.

Although only two parts of his Rural Residences. . . were issued instead of the planned six, Davis' ideas and patterns were widely disseminated in the Horticulturist magazine and in Andrew Jackson Downing's architectural books, most published between 1839 and 1850, publications on which Davis often collaborated. Davis's houses were mainly grand in size and included ample verandas and asymmetric heights often involving towers and turrets. This style appealed to the newly wealthy businessmen who existed up and down the east coast of the United States in the middle of the 19th century, and guaranteed Davis a long list of influential clientele.

Outstanding in design were Davis' Gothic villa for Philip St. George Cocke's (1845-48) Belmead on the James River in Virginia, as well as his cottage residence for William J. Rotch (1845-47) in New Bedford, Massachusetts. John J. Herrick's "Ericstan" at Tarrytown, New York (1855-59) was one of the few Davis houses cut in stone. Davis also produced many homes of an "Americanized Italian" design, notably druggist Llewellyn Haskell's "Belmont" (1850-52) in Belleville, New Jersey, Richard Lathers' "Winyah" (1851-52) in New Rochelle, New York, and Edwin C. Litchfield's "Grace Hill" (1853-58) in Brooklyn, New York. Richard O. Morris's "Harkwood" in Green Springs, Virginia, was distinctive with an encircling arcade instead of a veranda (1851-54). Davis also designed a few large country houses in the classical style, notably the Livingston Family's "Montgomery Place" (1841-44, 1863-64) in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

Sometimes Davis brought features and decorative details from his rural designing into the urban scene, in such forms as bay and oriel windows, verandas, and bracketed eaves. Terracotta corn and wheat were seen on columns. New York City residences include: John Cox Stevens' "Palace" (1845-8) with exquisite, neoclassical detailing, and a set of twin houses for James W. Phillips and Charles C. Taber (1847-48). These row houses were among the City's first built in the Renaissance Revival style.

Davis continued to design institutional and public buildings as well as country homes. Davis and Town often entered competitions for public buildings together, and reestablished their partnership for a year in 1842-43. In non-residential projects, Davis often stuck to symmetrical designs, which were popular with universities. He designed an Assembly Hall for the University of North Carolina (1844), several buildings at the Virginia Military Institute (1848-61), Alumni Hall at Yale (1852), and buildings for Davidson College in North Carolina (1858).

Davis married Margaret Beale in 1853 and only then did he seem to begin to consider his own personal residence needs. In 1857 Davis helped to establish and settle Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey, a "select residential district." Llewellyn Park was the brainchild and namesake of Davis client Llewellyn S. Haskell. Davis designed several houses, including one a "summer lodge" for himself, in the romantically landscaped suburb. During the late 1850s Davis became disenchanted with the architectural styles in vogue (Ruskinian High Victorian Gothic and French Second Empire) He continued to design homes and other buildings, but his popularity waned. The Civil War halted all building in the U.S. for several years, which adversely affected Davis's career. He executed few projects after the war, although his postwar designs for the Gothic "Lyndhurst" and the Neoclassical "Montgomery Place" have been considered the climax to his rural residential designs.

In 1878 Davis closed his New York office, where he had both lived and worked for most of his professional career. He joined his wife and their two children in New Jersey, and set about enlarging "Wildmont," previously his summer lodge, for year-round use. "Wildmont" burned down in 1884, before the family could move there, and Davis died in a small house designed by his son on the same site.

Sources: Dictionary of American Biography MacMillan Encyclopedia of American Architects