Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Classical Building, American Style

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Classical Building, American Style

Article excerpt

FINDING a far-flung exhibit at the sprawling Metropolitan Museum of Art can be an ordeal - and provide a good amount of exercise.

But often the quarry is worth the quest, as is the case with the current exhibition of drawings by the 19th-century American architect Alexander Jackson Davis, which is tucked back into the museum's American wing.

During his life, Davis (1803-1892) created an invigorating and bold American view of classical architecture in a wide range of public and residential buildings. He never traveled abroad, so his knowledge of Greek, Roman, and ancient Egyptian construction was gained entirely through study of renderings in books.

At the beginning of his career, Davis designed many grand public structures, including libraries, hotels, and government buildings. His early partnership with Ithiel Town (lasting from 1829 to 1835) produced the capitol buildings for Indiana and North Carolina, as well as the New York Custom House and many other institutions.

But Davis is best known as a creator of elegant and artistic country homes. Pioneering designs of villas and "cottages" in the American Gothic and Picturesque styles occupied him in the 1840s, '50s, and '60s, when he was at the peak of his abilities. He also designed the extant Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., Yale University's Alumni Hall, and a town hall for Bridgeport, Conn., during this period.

When Davis was a child in the early part of the century, the United States was still a rough-hewn place.

Young Alexander, whose ancestors first settled in America in the 1600s, grew up listening to stories of the New Jersey frontier. Other than moving briefly to that state, and to the villages of Utica and Auburn in central New York for a few years, he spent most of his working life in New York City.

Davis's first employment was in the typesetting trade, which occupied his hands but left his mind free to wander.

He developed an energetic, fertile mental landscape that was fed by his fascination with amateur theater, literature, and sketching. Unique and imaginative presentations of buildings brought Davis the first recognition within his profession. …

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