Alexander Jackson Davis bigraphy, stories - American architect

Alexander Jackson Davis : biography

July 24, 1803 - January 14, 1892

Alexander Jackson Davis, or A. J. Davis (July 24, 1803 – January 14, 1892), was one of the most successful and influential American architects of his generation, in particular his association with the Gothic Revival style.

Davis was born in New York City to Cornelius Davis, a bookseller and editor of theological works, and Julia Jackson. He spent his early years in New Jersey and attended elementary school in upstate New York. In 1818 Davis went to Alexandria, Virginia, to learn the printing trade from a half-brother. Living mostly in New York City from 1823 onward, he studied at the American Academy of Fine Arts, the New-York Drawing Association, and from the Antique casts of the National Academy of Design. Dropping out of school, he became a respectable lithographer and from 1826 worked as a draftsman for Josiah R. Brady, a New York architect who was an early exponent of the Gothic revival style: Brady's Gothic 1824 St Luke's Episcopal Church is the oldest surviving structure in Rochester, New York.


Davis is interred in Bloomfield Cemetery in Bloomfield, New Jersey., Find A Grave. Accessed August 22, 2007.

Innovative and influential, Davis was a leader in bringing American architecture into the modern period, freeing it from past limitations and opening it to new forms and styles. He introduced styles new to America and invented the American Bracketed style. His designs broke open the boxlike American house form, with projections extending in every direction, bay and oriel windows reaching out, and verandas linking the house with the surrounding landscape. His interior planning was often unusual, moving toward open floor plans and space flow. Tempered by classical rationalism, Davis worked in the Romantic spirit of his day, with a deep love of nature that harmonized architecture and landscape, but his designs looked into the future. Contemporary interest in Davis was spurred by a retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in 1992.


Davis made a first independent career as an architectural illustrator in the 1820s, but his friends, especially painter John Trumbull, convinced him to turn his hand to designing buildings. Picturesque siting, massing and contrasts remained essential to his work, even when he was building in a Classical style. In 1826, Davis went to work in the office of Ithiel Town and Martin E. Thompson, the most prestigious architectural firm of the Greek Revival; in the office Davis had access to the best architectural library in the country, in a congenial atmosphere where he gained a thorough grounding.

From 1829, in partnership with Town, Davis formed the first recognizably modern architectural office and designed many late classical buildings, including some of public prominence. In Washington, Davis designed the Executive Department offices and with Robert Mills the first Patent Office building (1834–36). He also designed the Custom House of New York City (1833 – 42, illustration, above right). Bridgeport City Hall, constructed in 1853-54, is a later government building Davis designed in the classical style.

A series of consultations over state capitols followed, none apparently built entirely as Davis planned: the Indiana State House, Indianapolis (1831 – 35) elicited calls for his advice and designs in building other state capitols in the 1830s: North Carolina's (1833 – 40, with local architect David Paton), the Illinois State Capitol, often attributed entirely to the Springfield, Illinois architect John Rague, who was at work on the Iowa State Capitol at the same time, and in 1839 the committee responsible for commissioning a design for the Ohio Statehouse asked his advice. The resulting capitol in Columbus, Ohio, often attributed to the Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole consulting with Davis and Ithiel Town, has a stark Greek Doric order colonnade across a recessed entrance, flanked by recessed window bays that continue the rhythm of the central portico, all under a unique drum capped by a low saucer dome. With Town's partner James Dakin, he designed the noble colossal Corinthian order of the Greek Revival "Colonnade Row" on New York's Lafayette Street, the very first apartments designed for the prosperous American middle class (1833, half still standing). He continued in partnership with Town until shortly before Town's death in 1844.

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