Classical Building, American Style

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.

Calling himself an "architectural composer," he led the fight against the "desperate uniformity of style" of buildings in New York City.

In his country cottages, Davis attempted to overcome what he considered the monotony of rural buildings. In the introductory essay to the exhibit's catalog, (published by Rizzoli books), Jane Davies, the consultant curator of the exhibit, writes: "In contrast to the calm serenity of classical ideals, the followers of the Picturesque movement admired the wilder state of nature - its qualities of irregularity, movement, variety, rough texture, and bold contrasts.... [Picturesque theory] brought a release f rom the rigidity and limitations of the traditional box shape, which was opened in all directions, both upward and outward."

Mrs. Davis continues, "Towers, turrets, pinnacles, finials, high gables, and chimney pots broke the skylines of the Gothic villas, while projections, ample bay windows, and sweeping verandas reached out into the surrounding landscape."

Davis's only book, "Rural Residences" (1838), launched his ideas into the mainstream of American architecture, and he became widely copied.

DAVIS is credited with several innovations. His "Davisean" windows (see Study for the Astor Library, at left) were years ahead of their time.

"Multistoried, recessed in one plane with a panel at floor level and usually with mullions running its height, it gave unity and verticality to a facade," Davies writes. "It anticipated the modern vertical strip window."

For his rural residences, Davis invented another mode called the American bracketed style. Carved brackets supported roof overhangs and the posts of his porches and verandas.

An original trustee of the American Institute of Architects, Davis carried his expansive idealism into robust designs. The imaginative title he chose for himself at 24, "architectural composer," seems entirely justified by the widely felt influence of his practice.

* "Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892), American Architect," continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Jan. 24.

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