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Blandwood: Alexander Jackson Davis

History        Alexander Jackson Davis        Architecture        Archaeology


Photograph of AJ Davis

Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1893) was a prominent architect from New York, whose influence spread throughout the East Coast of the United States with his innovative Gothic Revival and Italianate buildings. Inspired by the "picturesque cottages and villas" of the Old World, and the untamed nature of the Hudson River Valley of his native New York, Davis sought to design houses that harmonized with the surrounding landscape. His "country houses" inspired the trend toward freer, more irregular shapes in American houses.

Davis actually started his professional career as an artist; he studied at the American Academy of Fine Arts, the New-York Drawing Association, and the Antique School of the National Academy of Design. He became friends with many important artists, including John Trumbull, Samuel F. B. Morse, and Rembrandt Peale, who advised him to concentrate on his architectural abilities.

He grew to become a well-published architectural illustrator, and this talent had an important effect on his architectural career. Design, not structure or theory, was his chief interest and strength. He was a fine watercolorist, and throughout his career, composing almost all of his own renderings and drawings.

Engraving of NC State CapitolIn 1826, Davis went to work for Ithiel Town and Martin E. Thompson, and by 1829, Town and Davis were partners. Town and Davis designed a series of influential buildings in the Greek Revival style, with a particular focus on governmental buildings and state capitols. Davis was one of three architects who established the American Institute of Architects, in May, 1837, though he soon resigned, because he believed the organization had ventured from its original intent.

In 1833, Town and Davis were hired to rework the plans for the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh. They are credited with giving the Capitol its appearance and plan as it appears today.

Davis and Town dissolved their partnership in 1835, Davis worked without an architectural partner for the remainder of his career. However, in 1839, Davis joined with influential landscape and architectural theorist Alexander Jackson Downing for an important collaboration: the archetype book, A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening published in 1841. Subsequent publishings of this book showcased the partnership between the two men, both of whom shared a love of the Hudson River School of Art and for natural and picturesque landscapes. Downing's second edition of this book, published in 1844, not only served to show Americans the types of landscapes they should cultivate, but also styles of homes designed by Davis, that suited these landscapes. Davis’ design for Blandwood was used in this edition as the prototype Italian Villa home.

During the 1840s and 1850s, Davis was America's leading architect of country houses in a variety of picturesque styles, the most popular among them being Gothic Revival and Italianate. Over one hundred of his designs for villas and cottages were built. Among of his most important commissions, sited like many others along the banks of the Hudson River, were his Gothic villas such as "Knoll" (1838–42) for William and Philip R. Paulding in Tarrytown, New York, which was later expanded by Davis for George Merritt and renamed "Lyndhurst" (1864–67); and "Kenwood" (1842–45, 1848–49) for Joel Rathbone, south of Albany, New York.

Davis watercolor of Blandwood

Between 1839 and 1860, Davis received almost as many commissions for projects in North Carolina as he did in New York. These Carolina commissions included remodeling the Old East and Old West buildings and Smith Hall (now Playmakers Theatre) at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill; the Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill; and the original campus of Davidson College. During this time, Davis met Governor Morehead, who was so impressed with Davis' reputation and designs that he brought Davis to see his six room farmhouse in Greensboro. After a three day visit and a payment of $100, Davis completed designs for a new addition to Blandwood. While Blandwood was not the first building Davis designed in the Italian Villa style, it is the first one completed in the new style.

With the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, building in America came to a halt. Davis fell on hard times. After the war, architectural tastes changed; the Second Empire and High Victorian Gothic styles gained popularity, but Davis refused to work in either style. Commissioned for only a few buildings during his later years, Davis spent much of the last twenty-five years of his life drawing large projects that were never built, copying or revising earlier work, and preserving his own history. After his death much of his work was collected and distributed to four New York institutions: the Avery Library at Columbia University, the New York Public Library, the New-York Historical Society, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Recently a collection of Davis material has been assembled at the Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum library.