Minimalists in History: Andrew Jackson Downing

© 2013 Christy King

“To get, and to have the reputation of possessing, is the ruling passion. To it are bent all the energies of nine-tenths of our population.”

– The American Review, 1845

If you’ve read my post about the early republicans, you may remember that republicans tried to shape the United States as a country that valued and practiced simple living. By the early 1800s, though, most Americans were pursuing upward social mobility, and materialism was rampant.

There were, however, many who still believed in the virtues of classical simplicity. Some of these people argued that certain artistic and literary styles could reinforce republican simplicity.

One such person was landscape designer, horticulturalist, architect and writer Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852).

“The true philosophy of living in America is to be found in moderate desires, a moderate establishment, and moderate expenditures.”

– Andrew Jackson Downing

Downing asserted that a properly designed home was “a powerful means of civilization” and that a good home encourages its inhabitants to be better citizens. He believed good housing and landscape should provide not only for the residents’ physical needs but also for their “moral, social, and intellectual existence.”

“[T]here is a moral influence in a country home. . . which is more powerful than any mere oral teachings of virtue and morality. . . .

That family, whose religion lies away from its threshold, will show but slender results from the best teachings, compared with another where the family hearth is made a central point of the Beautiful and the Good.”

Disliking cities, he romanticized life in the country and suburbs and felt that a home should be organically related to its environment. He wrote:

“[I]n this country, where integrity and industry are almost always rewarded by more than the means of subsistence, we have firm faith in the moral effects of the fine arts. We believe in the bettering influence of beautiful cottages and country houses – in the improvement of human nature necessarily resulting to all classes from the possession of lovely gardens and fruitful orchards. . . .

[H]e who gives to the public a more beautiful and tasteful model of a habitation than his neighbors is a benefactor to the cause of morality, good order, and the improvement of society where he lives.”

“Let the cottage be a cottage – the farm-house a farm-house – the villa a villa, and the mansion a mansion. . . . there is a peculiar beauty that belongs to each of these classes of dwellings. . . .”

– Andrew Jackson Downing

Interestingly, Downing designed different types of homes for different classes. He didn’t approve of social pretense, instead finding a beauty in each type of dwelling. He felt that if one class of dwelling “borrows the ornaments of the other, it is only debased and falsified in character and expression.”

For laborers at factory centers, he designed a plain cottage with simplicity its “predominant character.” This allowed the home to be beautiful yet inexpensive and easily built.

The farmhouse, “home of the best virtues and the soundest hearts,” was to “rely on its own honest, straight-forward simplicity.”

“[A] home in which humanity and republicanism are stronger than family pride and aristocratic feeling; a home of the virtuous citizen, rather than of the mighty owner of houses and lands.”

– Andrew Jackson Downing

The villa was for the “most leisurely and educated class of citizens.” While larger and more lavishly decorated than the cottage or farmhouse, a villa was not to be ostentatious in size or ornamentation. Large estates, he believed, merely enslaved their owners.

Downing said a villa must be “large enough to minister to all the wants, necessities, and luxuries of a republican, and not too large or too luxurious to warp the life or manners of its children.”

Further, the interior should be “simple and chaste,” as is “in better keeping with the more simple habits which prevail in country life.”

“But the man of wealth so loves to astonish the admiring world by the display of riches, and it is so rare to find those who comprehend the charm of grace and beauty in their simple dress!”

– Andrew Jackson Downing

I don’t know about you, but when I read these descriptions, I picture houses that look, well, simple. Some of them are, but it turns out Downing was heavily into the Gothic Revival style.

Gothic Revival is, however, more practical and less ostentatious than some of the other architectural styles popular at the time. For instance, during this period, some built their homes to look like miniature Greek temples.

Learning more about Andrew Jackson Downing

My library system didn’t have any books about Downing or his work, but he is mentioned in David Shi’s The Simple Life as well as in most books about the history of American Architecture.

You can find some of Downing’s books free through Google Play. Search for Rural Essays and The Architecture of Country Houses.

5 thoughts on “Minimalists in History: Andrew Jackson Downing

  1. Christy this was fantastic! One of my dreams was to work in architecture I still wander through town looking at homes and picture them as they should be, same with any rooms I enter. So many of the quotes you included should be a way of life. Simple homes that fulfill the needs of those who live there without being so large that the homes change who we are or affect the behaviors of the children really stood out for me. I live in an area where there are many overly large homes l, my children were affected by our modest home as some children wouldn’t befriend them as we didn’t live in the right house.

    • Thanks! Many of the houses near us are overly large as well. Once my son went to a party for a kid (his mom had invited the entire 2nd grade – over 100 kids plus parents) who lived in a huge house with THREE outdoor kitchens. Not just grills, but the full outdoor kitchen with range, sink, etc. Yeah. My kid thought we were really poor.

      I had thought of getting an architecture degree – never did, obviously – but I sort of designed a small “house” (8×12′) in our backyard that we built. I combined some other plans and then learned enough about framing windows & such to make my own modifications. I hope to design our future small home (more like 1000-1200 sq. ft.) and have an engineer draw up the working plans.

    • Thanks. I’d never heard of him either until I came across him in The Simple Life – where he is only briefly mentioned. I know little about architecture, but am interested in it, so felt he deserved his own post.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.