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Architect Alexander Jackson Davis

Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) New York City, New York (A.I.A.)

One of the leading professional architects in the country and partner in the well-known firm of Town & Davis for a number of years prior to the mid-nineteenth century. In New York, where he was born and educated, Mr. Davis entered the Antique School which occupied rooms of the Philosophical Society and afterward merged with the Academy of Design, later served as apprentice-designer under Josiah R. Brady, at that time the only practicing architect in the city. In 1827, during a visit to Boston, he was allowed to study at the old Athenaeum and made the most of an opportunity to enlarge the scope of his training. Returning to New York, the young man entered Ithiel Town's office where his skilled draftsmanship and the meticulous accuracy of his drawings brought him renown.

In 1828, Mr. Davis was listed in the City Directory as "Architectural Composer" and the following year was taken into partnership by the older Mr. Town. The firm established an office in the Merchants Exchange and carried on a large and very successful practice before Mr. Town's death in 1844, commissioned to design many outstanding buildings in New York and other cities in the east and mid-west. Among their most important works were the old State House at New Haven, Connecticut, built between 1827 and 1831 and razed in 1889; the New York Custom House, Wall and Nassau Streets, 1832-1842, remodeled in 1862 for the Sub-Treasury Building, and later occupied by the New York Passport Office; Church of the Protestants, 1832-1834; Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island, 1834; State Capitol, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1833-1841; State Capitol at Indianapolis, 1831-1835; the old Illinois State Capitol at Springfield, later used for the Sangamon County Court House, 1838-1841; and the Wadsworth Athenaeum at Hartford Connecticut. In addition the firm built a number of distinguished residence of that period, notable examples being the Gilmer house in Baltimore, 1832, and the Stevens "palace" in New York completed in 1845, perhaps the finest Greek Revival work done by Mr. Davis.

After the death of his partner, Mr. Davis carried on an independent practice for nearly thirty years, the busiest period of which was during the 1850s when the range of his work widened to include college and institutional buildings at Yale University, 1852, now site of Wright Hall; buildings for the Virginia Military Institute, 1852-1859; Assembly Hall at the University of North Carolina, dating from 1844; Main building of the North Carolina State Hospital at Raleigh, opened in 1856; Academic Halls at Bristol College in Pennsylvania, and Davidson College, North Carolina, 1858. His residential work in these latter years was designed in various styles, noted examples of which were the Paulding Mansion at Tarrytown, New York, and the home of John T. Herrick at Irvington, New York, a type of baronial castle.

For many years, Mr. Davis was a prominent figure in the artistic life of New York, and the Library which he established as a part of his office, comprising a remarkably large and valuable collection of architectural books and drawings, added not a little to his professional reputation. Many of his own drawings have been preserved and may be seen in the New York Metropolitan Museum also in the rooms of the New York Historical Society.

In 1836, he was one of a group to ten architects who met at the Astor House in New York to discuss the formation of a National Institute of Architects. Among those assembled were Ithiel Town, Charles Reichard, William C. Strickland and John Haviland of Philadelphia, and Richard Bond of Boston. Twenty years later, when in 1857 the American Institute of Architects was incorporated, Mr. Davis was appointed one of the Board of Trustees.

In 1857 he was instrumental in establishing a select residential district known as Llewellyn Park, at West Orange, New Jersey, and in his own home there, he passed away at the age of eighty-nine.

Davis and the Greek Revival in America

Like many of his counterparts active in the field of American architecture in the antebellum period, Alexander Jackson Davis came of age professionally during the 1830s, a decade personified in the imposing figure of Andrew Jackson and set largely before a backdrop of economic vitality and heightened cultural activity. The culmination of the Greek Revival and its acknowledgment as a popular national style mirrored closely an age defined by Jackson's presidency, 1829-1837, which signaled the beginning of a new era of popular democracy. Nurtured by the prevailing economic conditions contemporary with its development, the Greek Revival provided the definitive physical expression of the overriding spirit of the era as a mood of confidence and national self-assurance prevailed, dampened only by the Panic of 1837 and the ensuing recession. An unprecedented urge to embrace the distinctive qualities of the American experience captivated the native imagination, stimulated by the heightened mood of the period, and lent considerable impetus to the fledgling creative traditions.

America's fascination with classical Greece peaked during the 1830s and in architecture left its most profound imprint. "Associationalism" with the classical past and the romanticized notions equated with the ancient Greeks found a considerable outlet and helped lend form to a nation seeking a definition for its own place in time. Admiration for Greece intensified in the 1820s during her war for independence against the Ottoman Empire, which deeply stirred American and European sentiment. The events of the Greek revolt, widely chronicled, recalled the young nation's own war against colonial repression and the spirit of revolution, now waged on the soil that nourished the earliest institutions of democracy. Few issues, if any, garnered the attention of the American public during the 1820s in the same manner as the Greek revolt, an episode fraught with the implications of the Monroe Doctrine and further charged with rumors of Turkish atrocities. Tempered by this heightened sensitivity to the cause of distant independence and veneration for classical accomplishment, the widespread acceptance of Greek architectural forms into American design was all but assured.

Davis, like other Americans of his day, took an avid interest in Greece and the legacy of revolution. An entry in his Day Book in 1830 indicates he was reading Moore's biography of the English poet Lord Byron, whose death in 1824 further enhanced the romantic imagery of the distant conflict. An admirer of the classical cultures, Davis was clearly taken by the idealistic sentiment that charged the American perception of the Greek revolt and sustained considerable Pan-Hellenistic feelings, manifesting itself in New York City with the formation of associations to promote the Greek cause. In a letter to the chairman of one of these organizations, which carried the notation "For the Cause of Greece," Davis offered his services "in advancing the cause of education in Greece- in fallen Athens" He continued: "I therefore am ready to contribute my might, as soon as a subscription is opened, together with any professional knowledge, which a long course of study upon the Athenian antiquities may have enabled me to exercise. . ." As an architect, Davis felt a particular affinity to Greece, "a nation to whom we are not only indebted for the best of the worlds literature, but for all that is excellent or expressive of moral beauty in architecture. . ."

Confronted with the building needs of an increasingly self-conscious society, the developing American architectural field; centered largely in the urban centers of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, answered by exploring in earnest the forms of ancient Greece, from which they forged a national style. Of central importance to this new interest in Greek classicism were James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's volumes The Antiquities of Athens, the first comprehensive archaeological study of Athenian architecture that sought, in effect, to restore the Greek orders from their perceived Roman corruption. "As Greece was the great Mistress of the Arts," James Stuart wrote in the preface to the first volume, "and Rome, in this respect, no more than her disciple. . . all the most admired buildings which adorned that imperial city were but imitations of Grecian originals." Published in London following an expedition to Greece in the early 1750s, The Antiquities of Athens included reconstructed elevations, details, and historical data of Greek architecture meant to foster an appreciation among British collectors and antiquarians for the achievements of ancient Athens. Stuart and Revett's carefully delineated and measured engravings offered an alternative to the Roman classicism honored by the English and admired by Thomas Jefferson, bringing to life the distant monuments that would form the point of departure for American architecture in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The Ionic of the Erectheum and the Doric of the Parthenon would soon leave their distinctive mark throughout the young republic.

Referring to The Antiquities of Athens, Davis himself wrote in March 1828, "First study of Stuart's Athens, from which I date professional practice." Throughout the long course of his career Davis continued to refer back to Stuart and Revett, even as other influences, in particular the Gothic, commanded a larger share of his attention." Davis studied the architectural forms of Greek antiquity endlessly and experimented fluidly with their example, contending that they alone represented the pinnacle of building achievement:

The character of the genuine architecture of the Greeks, in their brightest days. . . is that of imposing grandeur united to pleasing simplicity, elegance of ornament, and harmony of proportion in an eminent degree, together with a certain relation or coincidence of parts, as necessary in works of art as those of literature."

Although prompted by similar revivals of Greek antiquity in Europe, and indebted to Stuart and Revett and other published sources from abroad, the American Greek Revival occurred to an extent and with an intensity unmatched on the Continent, infused with the nationalistic sentiment of the era. Admired by a society increasingly conscious of its built environment, the Greek temple provided an idealized model for a broad array of building types to which its straightforward structural system proved easily adaptable. The style's rampant application to all modes of native architecture did not go unnoticed in Europe:

The Americans seem to be affected with an absolute mania for Greek temples, or what look like such at first glance, or from the distance. . . so preposterously has that style been taken up, without any regard to principle or character, as to be rendered anything but classical."

Davis's sometime associate Andrew Jackson Downing likewise took note of the "Greek mania" in his Cottage Residences, 1842, commenting on the increasing inability "to distinguish with accuracy between a church, a bank, and a hall of justice." "A wooden caricature of a Grecian temple," Downing's brief partner Calvert Vaux observed, "has been the most popular form adopted, and this is repeated in a thousand meaningless, ugly ways. . ." Yet regardless of these and similar criticisms, and the apparent limitations of the form, temple-inspired buildings dominated the American architectural vocabulary of the 1830s. New edifices in the Grecian taste, to borrow from contemporary terminology, offered a conspicuous reference to the timeworn monuments of antiquity, thereby lending the perception of stability and order to the native tradition and an assertiveness largely new to American architecture. Drawing on the earlier example of Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Jefferson, an emerging field of American architects employed the temple form as the preeminent icon of republican virtue, its classical associations proclaiming optimism in the democratic system and offering visible evidence of national achievement.

Rather than being a restrictive force whereby designers were, in Talbot Hamlin's words, "inhibited or regimented," Greek forms and details instead provided native architects with a new range of expressive possibilities. American architecture increasingly displayed the influence of Greek sources as the 1820s unfolded-owing to the growing body of information provided by The Antiquities and other publications-though specific models were rarely copied in their entirety to the point of pure archaeological imitation. Many of Town & Davis's major Greek Revival designs, including the Custom House (1835-42) and the French Protestant Church in New York City, displayed this tendency toward eclecticism, employing as they did specific classical precedents fused with other sources. The combination of the Greek temple form with a Roman or Renaissance-type dome emerged as a standard for Town & Davis's civic designs, meeting, on occasion, with vigorous criticism. In this amalgam of classical forms lies the essence of "free classicism," a term used by Roger Kennedy in describing the Greek Revival as "very seldom Greek and almost never scrupulously exact in its use of antique models." Ancient models were to be studied, absorbed, and contemplated. From their lesson a distinctive native style, classical in detail and spirit, could emerge.

Davis and Greek Revival Style Residential Design

Davis found a considerable and informed mentor in Ithiel Town in the area of residential design in the classic vein. During the decade of the 1820s Town fielded a number of residential commissions in the Greek Revival style for prominent clients, among them New Englanders Eli Whitney, Henry Bowers, and Samuel Russell. In the mid-1820s Town collaborated with sometime partner Isaac Damon in the design and construction of a house for Bowers in Northampton, Massachusetts, around the same time he executed the commission for Whitney. At the end of the decade, he designed the Samuel Russell House in Middletown, Connecticut, regarded by many as among the preeminent examples of Greek Revival residential design in the United States. While the Russell House offered a hexastyle Corinthian portico of elegant detail and proportioning, the Bowers House offered a common Greek Revival design theme, consisting of a central, Ionic portico-fronted main block flanked by lower, symmetrical wings, the "upright and flanker" formula that became widely popular in that era. The Russell House, now owned by Wesleyan University, features generously scaled rooms opening off a center hall with sophisticated detailing, some of it designed by Davis, who became personally familiar with its salient features and of which he subsequently produced a lithograph. The Bowers and Whitney houses have long since been razed. Also of note is the house Town designed for himself in New Haven, which included accommodations for his extensive library of books and prints, and a handsome facade betraying English Regency sources.

Residential design formed an important staple of Davis's work in the Greek Revival style. His earliest recorded commission, "Highwood," executed for prominent New Haven resident James A. Hillhouse, was completed in 1830 and featured an exterior with a central projecting portico with two in antis Ionic columns. Davis's designs for residential commissions utilizing Greek motives are, not surprisingly, diverse in their forms and treatments and were conceived for urban and rural settings alike. In New York City Davis provided plans for William Torrey for London Terrace, a row house grouping on Twenty-ninth Street (1844) and had earlier, along with Town, Davis & Dakin partner James H. Dakin, provided details for speculator Seth Geer's monumental marble-fronted Colonnade Row or LaGrange Terrace. Davis, in somewhat characteristic manner, took credit for the introduction of numerous design motives made in New York during his association with Town and the advent of the Greek Revival style, including the introduction of entrance porticos such as those that adorn "The Row" on Washington Square, among other innovations.

New Haven provided fertile ground for the firm of Town & Davis, who greatly benefited from Town's Connecticut ties and prominent social standing. Aside from the Hillhouse commission, Davis likewise collaborated on designs for the Ralph Ingersoll House and the Aaron Skinner House, the latter derived substantially from the example of a London Regent's Park prototype. In Northampton, Massachusetts, the Bowers House was followed with a design of similar conception for Samuel Whitmarsh. These designs featured prominent porticos drawn from the example of specific ancient Greek protoypes derived, in large measure one can assume, from the plates of Stuart and Revett if not another source.