American Gothic

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The son of the editor-publisher of a Congregationalist review in New York, Davis may have been a worry to his parents, for he gave every indication of going on the stage. While setting type for his brother, who ran a newspaper in Alexandria, Virginia, he joined a “philodramatic” society composed so he told an aunt—“of the most respectable young men” and more than once appeared behind the footlights. But he also created the sets for Bertram , a Gothic drama, and later, after returning to New York, he realized that his mission was to be an artist. Toying with that old sketching tool, a camera obscura, he suddenly began “designing streets in Venice, conjecturing the fashions of gondolas, and planning interiors for churches, palaces and prisons.” Told by Rembrandt Feale that he was meant to be an architect, hi: got his first training in the studio of John Trumbull, an artist who believed he had mastered the fundamentals of the architectural profession in his afternoons off from painting the American Revolution.

 
 
 

In 1828, when Davis was barely twenty-five, he earned the opportunity of a lifetime. Ithiel Town, a prosperous bridge builder and architect, invited him to be his partner. When Town went off on a grand tour of England and the Continent in 1829, Davis was left in charge of the office. Six years later, when Town retired, the younger man was already in the midst of the most successful career of any romantic designer. Indeed he had so many commissions that he could afford to ask Town back into the firm in 1842 and 1843. And when his good friend Downing perished in the sinking of the Hudson River steamboat Henry Clay in 1852, Davis was so well established that he could face the future without a qualm.

Davis may have suffered only one major disappointment: he was not given the chance to design a castle for Jay Gould. This was most unfortunate, since the lord of the Erie Railroad was a dedicated student of the Gothic. The perfection of Gould’s taste was evident in the map of Albany’County that he drew up and peddled as a young man; along its borders were portrayed a number of Gothic villas, and any architect should have realized that the young surveyor had the makings of a serious client.

In the end Gould paid his tribute to Davis by buying the greatest of all his castles, Lyndhurst, at Tarrytown. Originally planned in 1838 for William Paulding, the brother of Van Buren’s Secretary of the Navy, this was too ambitious a house in the opinion of diarist Philip Hone, mayor of New York in 1825-26. Unmoved by its graceful asymmetry and complex masses, Hone decided that it was “an immense edifice of white or gray marble, resembling a baronial castle, or rather a Gothic monastery with towers, turrets, and trellises; minarets, mosaics, and mouse holes; archways, armories, and air holes; peaked windows and pinnacled roofs, and many other fantastics too tedious to enumerate, the whole constituting an edifice of gigantic size, with no room in it; great cost and little comfort, which, if I mistake not, will one of these days be designated as ‘Paulding’s Folly.’ ”

Mayor Hone may be entitled to his opinion, but no lover of the Gothic Revival could possibly agree. The plan, in all of its irregularity, provided not only for comfort but for a really generous scale of living. Fortunately, Lyndhurst’s attributes can now be shared by the well-to-do and commoner alike; after several years of litigation over the will of Gould’s daughter, Anna, Duchesse de Talleyrand-Périgord, who died in 1961, the great mansion came under the aegis of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is now open to the public. [See “The Realms of Gould,” in the April, 1970, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .]

However, many other brave designs by Davis in the Gothic manner have been the victims of neglect, greed, or impudence. Perhaps it was logical (though scarcely admirable) of New York University to destroy the great marble halls of the old campus on Washington Square; perhaps it was excusable for a real-estate speculator to pull down the House of Mansions, an imposing crenellated row of houses—this time of brick surfaced with plaster—that stretched from the southeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street; perhaps it was inevitable for some other’developer to demolish Murray Hill, the lovely brick villa at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-seventh Street once owned by stockbroker W. H. Coventry Waddcll; perhaps it was just as inevitable that the inviting villa of C. B. Sedgwick in Syracuse, New York, would be demolished after being used to house an advertising agency.