Andrew Jackson Downing casts a long shadow in American architecture and design. Although Downing died in 1851 at the young age of 36, his aesthetic and design principals remained current through the end of the 19th century. Downing was particularly influential in the design of farmhouses and rural cottages where his emphasis on architecture as a part of the landscape was easily expressed. One building style that Downing favored was the Gothic Revival which figured prominently in his plan books.
Andrew Jackson Downing was a landscape architect and horticulturalist who wrote several plan books in which he presented his ideals for architectural design. He was a Romantic and a proponent of the picturesque, which was an aesthetic movement that emphasized the link between a beautiful home and its natural surroundings. Downing believed a beautiful home that was married to its natural surroundings would create an environment which would foster morality, honesty and prosperity. He favored Gothic and Italianate designs over earlier Classical styles. Classical styles, such as the Federal or Greek Revival, stood in contrast to nature as artistic expressions of order, symmetry and Man’s reason. In contrast, the Gothic Revival, which Downing called the Pointed Style, stemmed from a Romantic fascination with the Middle Ages and an emphasis on beauty, nature and emotion.
One of his Gothic Revival designs, which he called an Ornamental Farm House, proved to be very influential and we can find many examples of it today (to see an example of one of Downing’s high style homes in the Gothic Revival style, click here). Downing wrote that this design had two objects: “First, to offer to the large class of intelligent farmers a plan of house of moderate size, somewhat adapted in internal accommodations to their peculiar wants; and second, to give to the exterior, at little additional cost, some architectural beauty. (Downing, Cottage Residences p. 79)”
In short, the design was marriage of utility and beauty. He argued that “by bestowing some degree of ornament on farm-houses, we shall hope to increase the interest and attachment which the farmer and his family have for their home, and thereby to improve his social and domestic state. (Downing, Cottage Residences p. 79)”
This design has a side gable with a steeply pitched, forward-facing gable on the front elevation. The front and side gables feature naturalistic vergeboards with decorative finals and pendants. Downing preferred rough cut stone laid in irregular courses and suggested that, in areas where only wood was available, builders might opt for a design with a lighter character.
One building that is clearly influenced by Downing’s cottage design is this ca. 1870 home in Fayette, IA. Like Downing’s farm house, this building is built with simple massing in a side gable configuration. There is a steeply pitched, front-facing gable above a single sash window topped by a triangular transom. The window and transom combine to mimic a pointed, Gothic window. Although not stone, the house was built with brick laid in common bond with large, limestone lintels and sills.
Like Downing’s farm house, the gables on the Fayette home also feature decorative vergeboards. The vergeboards have a naturalistic, organic appearance which resemble sagging vines. Similar vergeboards can be seen on the high style LeDuc Mansion in Hastings, MN. The Fayette home also has the remains of a pendant at the gable’s crest.
We can speculate whether the home originally had a decorative finial or, has Downing called it, a hip-knob which projected above the roof line. Like several turned pendants which are missing the vergeboard, wooden decorative pieces are susceptible to rain water and decay and were often removed.
Another good example of the Gothic Revival cottage is this ca. 1875 home in Northfield, MN. This home has a side gable configuration with a steep gable on the front elevation like the example in Fayette. Despite Downing’s preference for masonry, many of these cottages were framed with wood. The detailing on this home is particularly attractive. Although there are no pointed arches or windows, the segmented arch windows are quite elegant. The pointed casing surrounding the window beneath the front gable has an organic quality which echoes the Downing’s pointed style. This example also has a wide front porch with square porch posts and brackets which are typical for the Gothic Revival.