Alexander Jackson Davis

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

Alexander Jackson Davis

Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) was a leading figure of the 19th-century Gothic revival in American architecture.

Alexander Jackson Davis began as an apprentice architectural draftsman to Josiah Brady of New York in 1826, though his early painting ambitions remained evident in his lifelong picturesque approach to architectural design. In 1829 Davis joined Ithiel Town in what became the first architectural firm of a modern sort in the United States, lasting until Town's death in 1844.

Davis specialized in domestic architecture, leaving more public or monumental commissions to Town. Hundreds of houses were built directly or indirectly from Davis's designs; he was also among the first architects to design furniture for his larger houses. He claimed to have been first to introduce to America "the English Gothic Villa with Barge Boards, Bracketts, Oriels, Tracery in Windows … in 1832" and also the Italianate villa, with a drawing exhibited about 1835. In the early 1840s Davis began moving into the orbit of A. J. Downing, illustrating Downing's book, Country Houses, in 1850. After Downing's death Davis designed and supervised all buildings in Llewellyn Park in West Orange, N.J., conceived by Downing and financed by Llewellyn P. Haskell as America's first "garden suburb" (1852-1869).

Picturesqueness was predominant in all Davis's works. Yet in his last major project, an unsuccessful submission in the 1867 competition for the New York City Post Office, he designed a metal and glass structure which clearly presaged 20th-century "functional" concepts. Far from being contradictory, however, both picturesqueness and functionalism were from the first inherent in the American—as distinct from English or French—Gothic revival.

In America, Gothic revival architecture never challenged the Roman or Greek revival in mass popularity; indeed, its associations were fundamentally "antiestablishment." Gothic was an "arty" style, associated with the idea of the "natural man." There was always something eccentric about it: a typical example was the exaggerated asymmetry and anticlassical proportions of Davis's H. K. Harral house in Bridgeport, Conn. (ca. 1846; demolished). Such stylistic self-consciousness inevitably encouraged self-conscious formalism—emphasis on the "naturalness" of Gothic forms and structure as an end in itself—and thence to the kind of "functionalism" exhibited in Davis's 1867 Post Office design. For historical reasons, however, the picturesque side of Gothic revival architecture predominated in America so that its chief legacy was the Arts and Crafts movement of about 1890 to about 1910, prefaced by the Romanesque of H. H. Richardson and climaxed by the early work of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright. Combining something of both trends, Davis has claim to be the most representative of all American Gothic revivalists.

Further Reading

Though many articles have appeared in recent years on various aspects of Davis's life and career, the only book-length biography is Roger H. Newton, Town & Davis, Architects: Pioneers in American Revivalist Architecture, 1812-1870 (1942), which has serious limitations. Davis's influence and career are discussed in Alan Gowans, Images of American Living: Four Centuries of Architecture and Furniture as Cultural Expression (1964).

Additional Sources

Doumato, Lamia, Alexander Jackson Davis, 1803-1892, Monticello, Ill.: Vance Bibliographies, 1980.

Harmon, Robert B. (Robert Bartlett), Greek revival architecture in America and the designs of Alexander Jackson Davis: a selected bibliography, Monticello, Ill.: Vance Bibliographies, 1981. □

views updated

Davis, Alexander Jackson (1803–92). American architect, one of the most imaginative of his generation. His first important design was Highwood, a house at New Haven, CT. (1829–31), which brought him recognition, and, as a result, Ithiel Town invited him to become a partner in his office. Town&Davis evolved a bold Greek Revival style, and designed a series of public buildings that are among the most distinguished Greek-inspired works of architecture in the USA: a good example is the Indiana State Capitol, Indianapolis (1831–5), with its octastyle Greek Doric porticoes, long side elevations of antae-piers, and domed drum set over the centre of the roof. The firm also designed the State Capitol of North Carolina, Raleigh (1833–40), and several Greek Revival churches with distyle in antis fronts. The powerful range of antae-piers was used again at the New York Custom House (1833–42—now the Federal Hall Memorial Museum). Davis invented a variety of multi-storey fenestration in which the windows were set in recesses with panels between them at floor-levels, anticipating later developments. This Davisean window (as he called it) appears to have been used first between the antae-piers at the Lyceum of Natural History, NYC (1835–6).

The partnership was dissolved in 1835, after which Davis mostly practised on his own. He designed several Picturesque houses, such as the influential cottage orné at Blithewood, Barrytown, NY (1836). In 1836 he started writing Rural Residences, the first American book on the subject that really marks the birth of the Picturesque movement in the USA: it was illustrated with ingeniously planned eclectic designs, although only two parts were published (1838). From 1838 to 1850 he also provided illustrations for A. J. Downing's works. Thereafter, for some twenty years, Davis ran a successful practice, designing Picturesque houses, generally favouring the Gothic and Italianate styles. His first large villa was Lyndhurst, Tarrytown, NY (1838–42—later expanded (1865–7) ), which, with its asymmetry and Gothic style, was widely admired. In his many commissions Davis also re-interpreted the English ‘cottage’ style, although he returned to Neoclassicism for Montgomery Place, Barrytown, NYC (1843–67), and the refined and beautiful Greek Revival John Cox Stevens House, New York (1845–8). Davis was interested in the possibilities of cast-iron construction and kits-of-parts (he designed a cast-iron shop-front in 1835). Among his other works the Tuscan Town Hall and Court House, Bridgeport, CT (1853–4), and the estate of villas and cottages at Llewellyn Park, West Orange, NJ (1857–66), deserve mention.


W. Andrews (1955);
A. Davis (1980);
A. J. Downing (1967, 1967a, 1968);
Newton (1942);
Peck (ed.) (1992);
Pierson & and Jordy (1970–86)

views updated

Alexander Jackson Davis, 1803–92, American architect, b. New York City. He was the partner of Ithiel Town of New Haven, with whom he designed many important buildings in both the Greek and Gothic revival styles. Works by him include the New York Customs House (1832), now the Subtreasury; the state capitols of Indiana (1832–35), North Carolina (1831, in association with David Paton), Illinois (1837), and Ohio (1839); and a number of villas along the Hudson River, including Lyndhurst (1838–42). The most prolific practitioner of his time, Davis also anticipated, in a New York shop front designed in 1835, the architectural use of iron.

More From

You Might Also Like