May 01: What Makes an Architect an Architect, by A. J. Davis

2016/05/01 § 2 Comments

During this month in 1831 Alexander Jackson Davis launched his professional career in architecture.

Less-well known than other antebellum architects in America, Davis (1803-92) was one of the most famous among his contemporaries.  Partners in one of the first architectural firm in the US (Town and Davis dated from the 1820s), he worked on major public buildings, including the Patent Office in Washington, the Custom House in New York and North Carolina’s State House (all 1830s).  He published successful books starting with Rural Residences (1836), which helped to popularize Picturesque styles for homes across America, and helped to found the American Institute of Architects.  His practice was wide-reaching; Davis was truly an American architect on a broad national stage.

But to his understanding, none of these achievements truly distinguished him as a professional.  What did?  A book.  In particular, a book about ancient Greek architecture, which opened to Davis (and so many of his generation) not only the elegance of Attic architecture, but the enduring principles that assured beauty for those who followed its guidelines while allowing latitude for creative innovation along the way.  Davis recorded the significance himself: he became an architect on the day in May, 1831, when he first reviewed a copy of The Antiquities of Athens by Stuart and Revett in the Boston Athenaeum.

Image: Note the wheat and corn motifs in the “Americanized” Orders on Smith Hall, Chapel Hill (from this source)


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