Credit: Paul Irish

Springside Estate, Poughkeepsie

Springside is one of the last known local landscape designs by Andrew Jackson Downing, the leader in mid-nineteenth century landscape architecture in the Hudson River Valley and the eastern United States as a whole.

A. J. Downing was born in Newburgh, New York in 1815 and left an indelible mark on the study of landscape theory influencing countless landscape designers such as Calvert Vaux, his one-time protégé and partner, and A. J. Davis who went on to design estates and parks throughout the Hudson Valley and the northeast. Tragically, Downing lost his life in a steamboat accident at only 37 years old. Due to his premature death, the number of works that he designed and built was severely limited. Adding to this, the few designs that he did complete have almost all been lost to redevelopment and changing taste.

Springside was the summer retreat of Matthew Vassar, a brewer and businessman, best known for starting Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Vassar originally bought Springside as undeveloped farmland to create a scenic cemetery which was a popular theme during that time, to create a place close to urban areas where people could visit the dead, picnic and enjoy themselves. However, after nobody bought plots Vassar decided to use his 44-acre property as a summer retreat. In 1851 Vassar commissioned Downing to design a landscape and a home on the site. What Downing developed was a picturesque landscape blending his design into a natural setting.

The first feature that brought the design together was a network of winding roads and carriage drives that connect the house and working farm and offer different views at every turn. The second striking feature was using the natural springs on site to feed underground pipes leading to ponds, fountains and ponds in which Downing used statues, little islands and fountains to accent the water. The spring which gave the property its name originated under a statue of a watchdog.

Although Vassar had a main house commissioned by Downing, it was never built. Instead, Vassar adapted the gardener’s cottage to his residence. The cottages as well as other main structures were built in the “… Gothic Revival style, with asymmetrical elevations, board-and-batten siding, pointy gables, steeply sloped roofs, and ornamental chimneys” (Borgeson, 2). Other buildings included a cow barn, carriage house, dairy room, a large conservatory, log cabin and a deer shelter. There was also a pagoda and a summerhouse resembling a gazebo- type structure.

Another feature of the landscape was the kitchen gardens and orchard located near the cottage. The last and perhaps most striking feature were small mounds and hills naturally situated in the landscape, where items of interest were placed such as a miniature version of Stonehenge. Framing Downing’s twenty acres of designed landscape remained a sizeable portion of working farmland and natural woods that added to the natural setting of Springside.

Though Downing died before Springside was entirely constructed, he had largely completed the designs for the grounds and the buildings prior. In fact, he was working on other projects just before his death. It is widely accepted that Vaux’s role was that of a draftsman for the architectural ideas of Downing, who was not trained as a draftsman, and Alexander Jacskson Davis, though involved with the project, is not credited with Springside’s architecture. As such, Springside is considered one of Downing’s legacies. Vassar continued throughout his life to modify the property and develop the farm. Most of the details of how Springside looked are derived from four paintings commissioned by Vassar in 1852.

After Vassar’s death in 1868, the property was broken up as different sections of the land were sold off. However, Springside was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1969 and was still largely intact. Unfortunately, a substantial portion of Downing’s design has been lost since then to neglect, vandalism, and fire. The only structure that remains intact is the Gate House, which is now a private residence and has been restored to its original paint color with a new wood shingle roof.

In 1982, despite being recognized as a historical landmark, a developer seeking to build condominiums bought the land. At this point a preservation movement began to save and protect the remains of the last Downing landscape design. Eventually a compromise was reached and while condominiums were built on the farmland, a majority of Downing’s design was saved for preservation and future study.

Further Reading

Major, Judith K. To Live in the New World: A. J. Downing and American Landscape Gardening. (MIT Press 1997)

Schuyler, David.Apostle of Taste: Andrew Jackson Downing 1815-1852. (Johns Hopkins University Press 1996)

Matthew Vassar’s Springside in Prophet with Honor: The Career of Andrew Jackson Downing 1815-1852. (Dumbarton Oaks Research Library 1989)

Springside Restoration website: http://springsidelandmark.org/

- Mike Russo'04