Newburgh, N.Y. — New Yorkers know him as the codesigner of Central Park. American architectural students have all readm about him, at least. Yet the greater part of the work of British-born "American" architect Calvert Vaux is to be found in the Hudson Valley, where he designed scores of villas, homes, and cottages in the 19th century.
This Hudson River city is the capital of Calvert Vaux country. It is, in fact, an architectural textbook written in brick and cast iron. Vaux is one of its favorite sons, along with A. J. Downing, America's first landscape architect of major renown.
The two collaborated on many projects, thus laying the foundation of a coordinated approach to building and landscaping.
Calvert Vaux published only one book despite the prolific architectural work. "Villas and Cottages," written in 1857, was inscribed to the widow and memory of Andrew Jackson Downing, who perished on the steamboat Henry Clay when it exploded during a race with its rival, the Armenia, on the Hudson River.
In his book, Vaux makes it clear that he is transmitting Downing's approach to architecture and its relationship to landscape and natural setting.
For many years Calvert Vaux labored not only with architectural renderings, but with the carpenter, mason, and tinsmith to bring about a synthesis that produced architecture of a truly American flavor. Buildings would be suitable for the rigors of the American climate with its wide range in temperature between summer and winter.
In "Villas and Cottages," he noted tha most architects working in the United States in the years before the Civil War were not American born. They have, he says, "to learn and unlearn much before the spirit instilled into their designs can be truly and genuinely American."
Setting about to blend nature and architecture, Vaux chose Newburgh as a perfect environment for his craft.
Situated on a bluff above the river, with captivating views of the mountains in the Hudson highlands, it offered splendid settings for architects catering to the rich and nouveau riche.
Vaux, Downing, and F. C. Withers all practiced their art in Newburgh. Vaux built more there than the others, and many fine examples of his work remain. A nascent historic preservation movement has provided a last- minute reprieve for his "villas and cottages." Interest in these large homes of superior quality is running high.
A cottage in the architectural vocabulary of his Hudson River school of architects could mean 15 or 20 rooms, plus verandas and porticos!
The picturesque style promoted by Vaux included great attention to skyline. "The skyline of a building should undoubtedly be determined in a great measure by the scenery in which it is located, and it may be either subdued or picturesque, according to the circumstances of each case," he wrote.
Typical Vaux features include cookie- cutter verge boards, wooden Gothic arches for hallways, and recessed porches inside and out.
Vaux was in the forefront of experiments in central heating, ventilation, and plumbing. His designs instructed builders from chimney to septic system. Landscape renderings were also supplied to his clients.
Vaux recommended slate for roofing. He worked out pleasing patterns in the subtle greens and purples, and the source of the material was often Vermont.
Calvert Vaux furthered American domestic architecture and was a defender of good taste in a time of land speculation, shortcuts in construction, and pressure to produce quickly and in quantity. His legacy remains to instruct new generations.