“I have designed the most buildings of any living American architect.”Alexander Jackson Davis was born in New York City on July 24, 1803, to Cornelius and Julia Jackson Davis. His father was not wealthy, but did support his family though his work as a bookseller and as a publisher of religious tracts. His father was frequently away from home, travelling through the northeastern states to sell his tracts and to arrange the sale of books.
While the family home was based in Newark, New Jersey during Davis’s early years, his family would move to upstate New York, where he would attend elementary school in the rapidly growing towns of Auburn and Utica. In 1818, when he was almost fifteen years old, he would move to Alexandria, Virginia, where he was apprenticed to learn the printing trade at his half-brother’s printing office. However, young Davis was bored by the repetitious work involved in the printing process, so he spent much of his time reading romantic novels and acting in the amateur theater productions in the area. Perhaps it was here that he developed the romantic ideal that became the vision of much of his future work.
When his apprenticeship was completed in 1823, the twenty-year-old Davis moved to New York City to seek his fortune and work. He studied there at the American Academy of Fine Arts, the New-York Drawing Association, and the Antique School of the National Academy of Design. During this time he met, worked with, and was befriended by men like John Trumbull, Samuel Morse, and Rembrandt Peale, who were among some of the most important artists of the day. Peale and Trumbull directed Davis’s life passion when they advised Davis to concentrate on architecture and architectural illustrations.
Davis, a talented and skilled artist, focused on learning the skills of an architectural illustrator – and would have many of his works printed by some of the prominent publishers of the era. In 1826 he had another career-advancing focus presented to him. He began working as a draftsman for the architectural firm of Martin E. Thompson, and Ithiel Town. There he met some key figures in his life, such as Josiah R. Brady, a New York architect and an early advocate of a style of architecture titled Greek Revival, and Ithiel Town – an innovative architectural design leader in the Greek Revival style of architecture, whose extensive library on architecture was rivaled by none, and was at the disposal of Davis. The firm provided a well-grounded, friendly atmosphere that provided a huge impetus for the growth of Davis in his chosen profession.
It is hard to deny the effect that Davis’ talent and passion as an architectural illustrator weighed significantly on his career as an architect. His chief interest and strength was in design, and – being a highly talented watercolorist, he did almost all of his own drafting and drawings.
In 1829 Davis joined in partnership with Town, a partnership that would last until 1835, when Davis would form his own architectural firm. The partnership designed many of the ‘Greek Revival’ buildings of the era, including the Executive Department offices and the Patent Building in the nation’s capital – as well as the Custom House in New York City. Davis also designed (or was consulted in the design) of a number of state capitols – such a the Indiana State House in Indianapolis, the Illinois State Capitol, the Ohio Statehouse, and the North Carolina State Capitol. While none of the state capitols were built exactly as Davis planned and advised, his influence can still be seen in their design.
The partnership with Town ended in 1835. Davis had developed his vision of design to a become the cutting edge of architecture design in the country. Under Town’s tutelage, Davis had developed a sound knowledge of the theory and structure behind architectural design. Because he approached architectural design first through a pictorial method rather than structural, he referred to his preferences with the phrase “I am but an architectural composer.” A master of the Greek Revival form of architecture, Davis is perhaps better known for his Gothic Revival, Italianate, and other ‘picturesque’ styles that were used in building residential villas.
Using his strength in design, he began to move the development of residential villas from its cubist appearance into buildings that reflected and resided in their physical surroundings. Davis was a pioneer in the American design of merging buildings to their surroundings. He became the leading architect of country houses in a variety of styles for the wealthy merchants and industrialists, many of whom were in New York. He also was in demand in North Carolina, working for the state government, especially in helping to design buildings for universities. He also did extensive design work for the Virginia Military Institute – which the final construction of was not completed until after his death.
The Civil War brought a halt to non-essential building in America, and Davis fell on economic hard times. To top it off, after the war was over the architectural tastes of the country changed – embracing the High Victorian Gothic and Second Empire styles. Davis refused to work in either style, and was commissioned to design only a few buildings. He continued to design large projects – but they were never built. He retired to New Jersey in the 1870s.
Marriage came late in Davis’ life. On July 14, 1853 he married Margaret Beale, and would have two children – Flora and Joseph.
Davis died on January 14, 1892 at the age of eighty-eight, and would be buried at the Bloomfield Cemetery, Bloomfield, New Jersey.
After his death much of his work was collected and would be shared between four New York institutions, including the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His contributions, which are largely unknown today, shaped American architectural design for a generation.
LOCAL LIBRARY RESOURCES:
No biographies of Alexander Jackson Davis are available at our local library.
Find A Grave
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
Virginia Military Institute
01. Portrait of Davis: Preservation Greensboro
02. The State Capitol at Raleigh, North Carolina: Preservation Greensboro
03. 1845 Sketch of Davis: Newburgh Preservation Association
04. New York Customs House, now Federal Hall: Wikipedia
05. Lyndhurst in New York: Wikipedia
06. Virginia Military Institute: Wikipedia
07. Gravesite, Find A Grave by Nikita Barlow