From Hints to Persons about Building in the Country 1847

During the 1840s both Davis and Downing had become successful in their own ways. Davis would emerge as one of the most sought-after residential architects in the country, and he was transforming the face of American practice with his original designs. Downing was intensifying the pace of writing, and in 1846 he sold his nursery to take over the editorship of the journal The Horticulturist. The next year he teamed up with the architect George Wightwick to co-publish two small books (Wightwick's contribution was Hints to Young Architects), in which Downing once again reiterated his three principles of good design. The following excerpt from his third principle - the expression of style - best reveals what he meant by style and reiterates his aversion to the high or formal styles of the past in favor of the less pretentious vernacular manners of England, Switzerland, and Italy.

Andrew Jackson Downing, from Hints to Persons about Building in the Country. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1847, pp. xiv-xvii.

We conceive it to be true that the same principle should govern us in the choice of a style for a dwelling-house. Although we would reject no foreign style because it is foreign, we would adopt nothing in our domestic architecture which has not some obvious beauty of purpose, or some significance for our country and climate - which has not, in short, that fitness and propriety which a refined and just taste can fully approve.

This would lead us to reject at once all styles of building belonging to barbarous and semi-civilized people, as too grotesque in effect, and too much at variance with our habits of life, to be a significant and true expression of our age and social life. It would confine our choice to what may properly be called European styles - such as Gothic, Grecian, Roman, Italian, Swiss; or to new and more suitable modifications of these styles. A country of the variety of climate and geographical breadth of ours, indeed demands a like variety of style in its domestic architecture. In the houses of the north, warmth and shelter are the first requisites, and the comfortable dwellings of England and the north of Europe may be studied to advantage. In those of the south the cool verandas and the spacious colonnades of Italian architecture will be most appropriate and significant. One of the leading rules in selecting plans for a dwelling, which we deduce from the principles of fitness and propriety, is that of abjuring all styles or modifications of styles not warranted by our social and domestic habits.

It is one of the most common errors into which persons fall, whose architectural taste is just awakening, to rush to the very verge and extreme limits of architectural style. Not content with simplicity, or a moderate degree of ornament, everything they do must have a "strong relish'' about it. If they are about to build Gothic, it must be an imitation of a castle of the middle ages at least; if Grecian, nothing short of a copy of the Parthenon will satisfy them. Now there is little meaning, to our eyes, in the mock heroic air of a puny Gothic castle built in a style which was warranted by feudal times and feudal robberies, for the habitation by a meek and quiet merchant, who has not the remotest idea of manifesting anything offensive or defensive to any of his peace-loving neighborhood. And we cannot greatly admire the effect of a huge Greek colonnade round four sides of the house, supported on columns two stories high, affording little shade or shelter, and costing half the entire sum that ought to have been expended in the dwelling itself.

It is the later modifications of European architecture which ought to be studied and adopted by our architects, and persons about building, at the present time. These are based upon modern comforts, and modern wants, and their beauty is the more beautiful that it grows out of, and is in keeping with, the spirit of utility. Hence the Tudor or Elizabethan villa, and the Rural English cottage, are the varieties of the Gothic style which may be copied with more propriety in this country. For the same reason the Roman style is preferable to the Greek, and the modern Italian, in its many variations, to the Roman itself. Significance, fitness, propriety, immediately lead us to ask for verandas, piazzas, porches, balconies, clustered chimneys, window-blinds, and all the numerous architectural features that denote refined comforts and the enjoyments of our social life. Since these do not belong, and cannot with propriety be attached to the old Gothic castle and Greek temple, let us eschew these latter, and take some more pliant and appropriate style of which they properly form a part.

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