AJ Downing

Early in the nineteenth century, the typical American house was most likely designed and built by a local mechanic or artisan rather than by an architect. In The Reshaping of Everyday Life 1790-1840 author Jack Larkin refers to a 1828 contract between George Olds of Brookfield, Massachusetts, and carpenter Joel Upham for the construction of a house for Olds and his family. The simple one-story dwelling would be "'32 feet from north to south and 22 feet from East to West.'" The contract specifies "'a cellar under the South end,'" and a "'South room'" to be used as a kitchen, with "'fire place, oven, and ash hole,'" as well as a "'bedroom'" and a "'back room.'" Larkin points out, "In similar agreements, written and unwritten,, householders and housebuilders - more by tradition and common practice than by conscious innovation - together shaped the spaces in which American families would live." [Larkin, 105.]

By the 1840's, "conscious innovation" had found its voice. Following the lead of European critics like Scotland's John Claudius Loudon, (author, in 1833, of An Encyclopedia of Cottage, Farm, and Villa Architecture and Furniture), American architects began publishing plan-books for domestic architecture. Partly with the notion of combining Truth and Beauty to create the Ideal American Home, partly, no doubt, in an effort to gain an advantage over the local carpenters and mechanics who were their competitors, architects like Andrew Jackson Downing joined the crusade to improve the American domestic space.

With Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening ... With Remarks on Rural Architecture (1841), Cottage Residences: or, A Series of Designs for Rural Cottages and Cottage Villas (1842), and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), Downing became a national authority and gained wide influence among homeowners and builders of the time and in the decades to follow.

Taking The Architecture of Country Houses as representative of Downing's methods and ideas, an examination of the book must begin with its Preface. Here the author gives us a picture of what "home" as an ideological entity meant to him and to his age. To its improvement he gave a moral and social urgency:

"The mere sentiment of home, with its thousand associations, has like a strong anchor, saved many a man from shipwreck in the storms of life. How much the moral influence of that sentiment may be increased, by making the home all that it should be, and how much an attachment is strengthened by ever external sign of beauty that awakens love in the young, are so well understood, that they need no demonstration here. All to which the heart can attach itself in youth, and the memory linger fondly over in riper years, contributes largely to our stock of happiness, and to the elevation of the moral character. For this reason, the condition of the family home - in this country where every man may have a home, should be raised, till it shall symbolize the best character and pursuits, and the dearest affections and enjoyments of social life."

The Architecture of Country Houses

The Mission | The Plan