Samuel F.B. Morse and A.J. Davis at Locust Grove

Locust Grove. This scenic estate overlooking the Hudson River is known as the home of the inventor of one of the most pivotal pieces of technology this world has ever seen. It is known as the first National Historic Landmark in the Hudson River Valley, a region as rich in history as any other in the United States. It is not known, however, as a work of art from one of the most un-appreciated artists in American history. 

Samuel F.B. Morse was an artist first and an inventor second. He studied art at Yale and in Europe, but upon his return to North America he was not embraced by the American people the way that he had hoped. Despite being one of the most well respected portrait artists in the world Morse was not very successful at his chosen trade. Instead he turned to inventions to help make a living. With the unveiling of Morse code and the telegraph he had become one of the most celebrated inventors in history. Morse now had a name with some recognition and he had a steady source of income, so his focus once again switched to art.

Morse's art, though, would not be contemporary art as we know it in the United States. Morse leaned on his teachings in Europe and concentrated on architectural design of both homes and landscapes. Landscape architecture had been seen as an art form in England for centuries, but the culture in America never embraced it as such. Morse would bring this new art form to the United States and Locust Grove would be his model. 

Morse acquired Locust Grove when it was a tract of farmland with a small Georgian style house in the center of it. Morse wanted to transform the home and the land into something new. He contracted his long-time friend, and fellow Hudson Valley inhabitant, A.J. Davis to help him with the design of the home; the drawings that are seen here are some of the few original sketches that are available outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The original Georgian home was used as the backbone for the new home that was constructed. This new manor became an Italianate Villa not before seen in the Hudson Valley with surroundings that were both lavish and conventional.

Morse and Davis not only collaborated to reconstruct the home entirely, but the grounds as well. The home went from being a simple Georgian-style dwelling to an ornate Hudson Valley estate bringing about rare qualities that are unprecedented in this region prior to the insight of these two brilliant men. The land transformed from farm ground suited for sustaining the inhabitants of Locust Grove, into beautiful lawns with greenhouses, gardens and fountains. The transformation of the upper part of the estate was like night and day, but in an attempt to save some of the history of his home Morse preserved the farmland below the house, however, it was no longer farmed intensively and all signs that it had been a farm soon passed. Morse did away with the fences and walls surrounding the crops and any equipment that may have been visible to onlookers. Morse then cleared many of the trees to create an unimpeded view of the Hudson. This gave him a breathtaking view of the river from the manor and one that still exists today. What Morse created at Locust Grove was pure genius. He transformed an ordinary Hudson Valley farm into a work of art never before seen in this country and rarely duplicated.

Rory O'Brien

Spring 2005


Links to Locust Grove floor plans