Downing; the Father of American Landscape Architecture

"Portrait of Andrew Jackson Downing"

In 1841, the renowned American architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–92) was hired to redesign the Mansion House at Montgomery Place, as well as consult on the surrounding grounds. Between 1841 and 1844, Davis introduced the property owners Louise Livingston, her daughter Cora, and son-in-law Thomas Barton to landscape designer, editor, and writer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–52), the seminal figure now regarded by historians as the father of American landscape architecture. Downing had learned practical planting know-how at his family’s nursery in Newburgh, but he was more than an expert on botanical species. He was also a tastemaker of the highest order who did more to influence the way Americans designed their properties than anyone else before or since.

Left: Portrait of Andrew Jackson Downing.

Downing’s enormously influential work, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America was published in 1841. It contained descriptions of the proper use of ornament, the importance of coherent design, use of native trees and plants, and his most important principle—that, when it came to designing a landscape, nature should be elevated and interpreted, not slavishly copied. Downing required that any formal ornaments, including urns, finials, and statues, be placed close to the house, so as to relate to the architecture. Further out on the property, where the gardens were less formal in design, the best ornaments were rustic in character.

The horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste, August 1846, Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 56-57

Above: The horticulturist and journal of rural art and rural taste, August 1846, Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 56-57.

As the owners’ trusted adviser on landscape design and planting, Downing made frequent visits to Montgomery Place. In 1846, when he became the editor in chief of the widely read, trendsetting magazine The Horticulturist, and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, he chose Montgomery Place as the estate that best illustrated the American rural ideal. Downing intended that ideal to inspire and guide his readers in their own gardens, however modest they may have been.