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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Alexander Jackson Davis

Gothic Villa, Virginia Military Institute,
ca. 1850, Alexander Jackson Davis
Today, we either laugh at them or tear them down...sometimes both at the same time.  With their steep roofs, pointy windows, and squirming turrets they are an architectural anachronism in our world--pretentious, uncomfortable, drafty, maybe a little spooky, and certainly quite our of step with our twenty-first century lifestyle. And when someone does manage to save one of the better examples of Gothic Revival style domestic architecture, it's done so as a museum piece. No one would actually want to live in such a relic. Even a hundred years ago, they were rapidly slipping out of favor among American home builders. America was born with neoclassical swaddling clothes, the founding fathers, recollecting back to Greece and Rome for our governing institutions, found security and stability in the logical, Neoclassic, symmetric progression of columns and windows stoically capped by a gently sloping crown, tastefully adorned with sedate, stripling, carved warriors and goddesses. But when they moved up from the Piedmont and over the mountains, such civility seemed totally out of place on the frontier. Once our homes moved up from log cabins, Greek temples were not the next logical step.

Tudor Villa, New Rochelle, New York,
Alexander Jackson Davis
Alexander Jackson Davis saw this phenomena start to happen. Horace Walpole, over in England might be credited (or blamed) for starting it. The writer, indeed the originator, of the "Gothic novel," started toying with medieval towers, turrets, spires, and crenelated parapets as early as 1750 in various additions to his estate, Strawberry Hill, which he then used as a setting for his novels. It took a while, but the novels and the architecture eventually made it to this country and into the fertile mind of a teenage boy living in Alexandria Virginia. Davis worked as a typesetter and read every word he could lay his eyes on, especially Walpole's novels. He worked designing stage sets for Gothic plays as well, and eventually, taking the advice of his art tutor, John Trumbull, decided to devote himself to architecture. Of course there was no school in this country he could attend to learn his trade, so like Trumbull, he set out to train himself. He did so by drawing practically every house in town.  It didn't hurt any that the towns were New York and Boston. He even added the art of watercolor to his talents and sold his renderings.

Gothic Cottage, one of the original
designs from Davis' 1837 catalog,
Rural Residences.
His big break came when Ithiel Town employed him as an artist and draftsman in perhaps the only architectural firm in the whole country at the time. Town had made a name and a fortune for himself in designing the Town Truss, which allowed wooden bridges to span distances of up to 160 feet without central supports. Along the way, he began picking up jobs designing houses in the then popular Neoclassical style. These, he often passed on to Davis who loved that sort of thing. When Town retired, Davis took over the firm and, minus Town's restraint, plowed headlong into the Gothic style. His designs became so popular he even evolved a mail-order business. A frontiersman, ready to build himself a house, sent him a check for $20 asking for as much of his services as that fee would buy. Mail order designs ranged upwards in cost from that to more than a thousand dollars. A house plan catalog Davis published in 1837 titled Rural Residences (left) further embellished his name and was responsible for sprouting Gothic cottages as far inland as Louisville, Kentucky, even an army post in Oregon. Teaming up with landscaper and promoter, Andrew Jackson Downing (be careful the names here, folks, they can get confusing) in 1838, the rich and famous came to him, from Samuel F. B.  Morse to George Merritt, for whom he enlarged an earlier Gothic style home he'd also designed. It became his largest and most famous work, Lyndhurst (below), just outside Tarrytown, New York (later the home of railroad financier, Jay Gould).

Lyndhurst, Tarrytown, New York, 1838, Alexander Jackson Davis
The problem with the Gothic style was that it became a victim of its own success. In the hands of skilled designers like Downing, Davis, James Renwick, and Richard Upjohn, the basic elements could be woven together into a romantic, nostalgic, picturesque, satisfying whole. But as home owners and home builders began to copy the designs of their neighbors down the street, the grim results made even Davis cry foul. It's no wonder we take such delight in tearing them down. (Davis might even applaud our efforts.) Yet surprisingly, unlike the Beaux-arts structures of Hunt and Richardson which were to follow, quite a number of Davis' works survive. A whole community of them, in fact, still sits today in Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, which Davis and Downing not only helped design, but where Davis built his own home, Wildmont. And yes, people do still live in them--romantics, no doubt. I guess it takes a special breed to feel comfortable among such dark elements. I know I couldn't do it--not my favorite style of architecture.

It's when Davis' Gothic Revival begins to flirt with Queen Anne
that we find the bastardized Victorian offspring we love to hate.

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