Romanticism's Influence on Architecture

"Portrait of Andrew Jackson Downing"

Engraved portrait of Andrew Jackson Downing (1852). While Downing is most associated with his work in Newburgh, New York, his influence carried onto the design of estates and churches in Red Hook and Rhinebeck.


Gazebo at Wilderstein Mansion.

"The Delamater House in Rhinebeck"

The Delamater House in Rhinebeck, NY.

"Church of the Good Shepherd in Rhinebeck"

Church of the Good Shepherd in Rhinebeck, NY.

            Romanticism’s impact arrived at the Hudson Valley towns of Red Hook and Rhinebeck in the early 1800s. Its impacts were characterized by the architecture of both the estates built around the area, and local churches.

            Andrew Jackson Downing, a New York landscape designer best known for his book A Treatise in the Practice of Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, played a substantial role in Romanticized architecture around the Hudson Valley. An influential writer, Downing suggested that country residents abandon “the prevalent Greek Revival architecture in favor of a style more suited to the country.” Greek Revival architecture, very popular throughout the United States from the late 1700s to the 1800s, included “the formal or geometric arrangement of gardens” in a way that displaced the natural landscape. This was in stark contrast to the romanticized idea of picturesqueness: A picturesque landscape would retain inconsistencies and subtleties, as opposed to consistent, rigid formations. For instance, a picturesque estate would involve “meandering, as opposed to straight, paths” to the house, or allow a stream “to retain its natural course rather than be canalized in the French manner.”

            Downing saw the retention of the scenery as a way to preserve a romanticized view of history, writing that the picturesqueness of a place needed to be preserved with development as “a counterpoise to the great tendency towards constant change, and the relentless spirit of emigration, which form part of our national character.” He strove to create “an aesthetic fully integrated into the economic and social life of the American countryside,” yet “consistent with the traditions of rural virtue.” Downing’s legacy was that of interplay between preserving a sense of historical value and building artistic, yet utilitarian structures from which to enjoy the present surroundings.

            An earlier iteration of the Blithewood estate, a Gothic Revival structure remodeled on behalf the Donaldson family, before being rebuilt as a Classical Revivalist structure on Bard College’s campus in Red Hook, was a prime example of Downing’s romanticized approach to architecture.  Alexander Jackson Davis, heavily influenced by Downing, created a “decorative veranda” and a viewing room for viewing the Hudson River and the Catskills, with “a special 3-by-4 foot oval plate-glass window.” This kept in line with Downing’s recommendations that “bay windows and verandahs” would allow the resident of an estate to “harmonize with the settings of wild nature on the river.” Davis also framed the plate-glass window “with rich moldings as if the view were like a painting.” This seems to be a very direct reference to the Hudson River School’s artists’ paintings of the river, and signifies the estate’s attempt to embody the sublimity of the Hudson River amidst the picturesqueness of the landscaping.

            Blithewood was one of Downing’s favorite estates in the region, writing that he particularly enjoyed how “the smiling, gently varied lawn is studded with groups and masses of fine forests and ornamental trees, beneath which are walks leading in easy curves to rustic seats, and summer houses placed in secluded spots.” From his writings, it is clear why he greatly appreciated Blithewood: For him, the design fully embodied the unity of man-made design and nature, with its curved paths and “gently varied lawn” evoking the subtleties of a picturesque landscape, and a lush garden of “fine forests and ornamental trees” evoking the sublimity of nature.

            Less than two miles away, Montgomery Place, also in Red Hook, stood as another example of romanticized, Downing-influenced landscape and architecture. Cora Livingston Barton was primarily responsible for transforming the estate into an emblem of romanticized architecture. She created the “Morning Walk” as a winding path from the estate “to the river and a rustic pavilion,” winding “along the Hudson’s rocky shore to the music of gently dashing tide waves”; a “leaf-carved path along the stream” to a greenhouse and gardens; and a mass of “old forest, mountain laurels, and evergreens” known as The Wilderness.

            A few miles south, in the town of Rhinebeck, the Wilderstein estate serves as one of Rhinebeck’s achievements to romanticized architecture. Calvert Vaux, a colleague of Downing, designed the grounds of the forty-one acre Wilderstein estate in 1891 along the Hudson River. In an attempt to retain the natural picturesqueness of the landscape, Vaux maintained as much of the topography and vegetation as possible, maintaining “prominent existing trees” when creating the winding curves leading to the estate, which “were purposely designed and placed to follow the undulating contours of the land.” Much like Davis and Barton, Vaux also included structures purely for people to contemplate the landscape, such as gazebos and seats along the river. Furthermore, in the vein of other Hudson River estates, Vaux chose to keep the estate completely bordered by woods, so that “all views [would] be concentrated on the Hudson and beyond.”

            The Delamater House in Rhinebeck exemplifies the Gothic style of the architecture featured in Rhinebeck. Designed by Andrew Jackson Davis, the house features Gothic elements such as “peaked gables, decorative vergeboards, bay windows, chimney pots, finials [distinctive ornaments at the top of the house], towers, and verandahs.”