Andrew Jackson Downing, "On the Moral Influence of Good Houses," Horticulturist 2 (Feb. 1848): 345-47.

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A very little observation will convince any one that, in the United States, a new era in Domestic Architecture, is already commenced. A few years ago, and all our houses, with rare exceptions, were built upon the most meagre plan. A shelter from the inclemencies of the weather; space enough in which to eat, drink and sleep; perhaps some excellence of mechanical workmanship in the details; these were the characteristic features of the great mass of our dwelling-houses--and especially country houses--a few years ago.

A dwelling-house, for a civilized man, built with no higher aspirations than these, we look upon with the same feelings that inspire us when we behold the Indian, who guards himself against heat and cold by that primitive, and, as he considers it, sufficient costume--a blanket. An unmeaning pile of wood, or stone, serves as a shelter to the bodily frame of man; it does the same for the brute animals that serve him; the blanket covers the skin of the savage from the harshness of the elements, as the thick shaggy coat protects the beasts he hunts in the forest. But these are only manifestations of the grosser wants of life; and the mind of the civilized and cultivated man as naturally manifests itself in fitting, appropriate, and beautiful forms of habitation and costume, as it does in fine and lofty written thought and uttered speech.

Hence, as society advances beyond that condition, in which the primary wants of human nature are satisfied, we naturally find that literature and the arts flourish. Along with great orators and inspired poets, come fine architecture, and tasteful grounds and gardens.

Let us congratulate ourselves that the new era is fairly commenced in the United States. We by no means wish to be understood, that all our citizens have fairly passed the barrier that separates utter indifference, or puerile fancy, from good taste. There are, and will be, for a long time, a large proportion of houses built without any definite principles of construction, except those of the most downright necessity. But, on the other hand, we are glad to perceive a very considerable sprinkling over the whole country--from the Mississippi to the Kennebec--of houses built in such a manner, as to prove, at the first glance, that the ideal of their owners has risen above the platform of mere animal wants: that they perceive the intellectual superiority of a beautiful design over a meaningless and uncouth form; and that a house is to them no longer a comfortable shelter merely, but an expression of the intelligent life of man, in a state of society where the soul, the intellect, and the heart, are all awake, and all educated.

There are, perhaps, few persons who have examined fully the effects of a general diffusion of good taste, of well being, and a love of order and proportion, upon the community at large. There are, no doubt, some who look upon fine houses as fostering the pride of the few, and the envy and discontent of the many; and--in some transatlantic countries, where wealth and its avenues are closed to all but a few--not without reason. But, in this country, where integrity and industry are almost always rewarded by more than the means of subsistence, we have firm faith in the moral effects of the fine arts. We believe in the bettering influence of beautiful cottages and country houses--in the improvement of human nature necessarily resulting to all classes, from the possession of lovely gardens and fruitful orchards.

We do not know how we can present any argument of this matter, if it requires one, so good as one of that long-ago distinguished man--Dr. Dwight. He is describing, in his Travels in America, the influence of good architecture, as evinced in its effects on the manners and character of the inhabitants in a town in New-England:

"There is a kind of symmetry in the thoughts, feelings, and efforts of the human mind. Its taste, intelligence, affections, and conduct, are so intimately related, that no preconcertion can prevent them from being mutually causes and effects. The first thing powerfully operated upon, and, in its turn, proportionately operative, is the taste. The perception of beauty and deformity, of refinement and grossness, of decency and vulgarity, of propriety and indecorum, is the first thing which influences man to attempt an escape from a grovelling, brutish character; a character in which morality is chilled, or absolutely frozen. In most persons, this perception is awakened by what may be called the exterior of society, particularly by the mode of building. Uncouth, mean, ragged, dirty houses, constituting the body of any town, will regularly be accompanied by coarse, grovelling manners. The dress, the furniture, the mode of living, and the manners, will all correspond with the appearance of the buildings, and will universally be, in every such case, of a vulgar and debased nature. On the inhabitants of such a town, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to work a conviction that intelligence is either necessary or useful. Generally, they will regard both learning and science only with contempt. Of morals, except in the coarsest form, and that which has the least influence on the heart, they will scarcely have any apprehensions. The rights enforced by municipal law, they may be compelled to respect, and the corresponding duties they may be necessitated to perform; but the rights and obligations which lie beyond the reach of magistracy, in which the chief duties of morality are found, and from which the chief enjoyments of society spring, will scarcely gain even their passing notice. They may pay their debts, but they will neglect almost every thing of value in the education of their children.

"The very fact, that men see good houses built around them, will, more than almost anything else, awaken in them a sense of superiority in those by whom such houses are inhabited. The same sense in derived, in the same manner, from handsome dress, furniture, and equipage. The sense of beauty is necessarily accompanied by a perception of the superiority which it possesses over deformity; and is instinctively felt to confer this superiority on those who can call it their own, over those who cannot.

"This, I apprehend, is the manner in which coarse society is first started towards improvement; for no objects; but those, which are sensible, can make any considerable impression on coarse minds."

The first motive which leads men to build good houses is, no doubt, that of increasing largely their own comfort and happiness. But it is easy to see that, in this country, where so many are able to achieve a home for themselves, he who gives to the public a more beautiful and tasteful model of a habitation than this neighbors, is a benefactor to the cause of morality, good order, and the improvement of society were he lives. To place before men reasonable objects of ambition, and to dignify and exalt their aims, cannot but be laudable in the sight of all. And in a country where it is confessedly neither for the benefit of the community at large, nor that of the succeeding generation, to amass and transmit great fortunes, we would encourage a taste for beautiful and appropriate architecture, as a means of promoting public virtue and the general good.

We have said beautiful and appropriate architecture--not without desiring that all our readers should feel the value of this latter qualification as fully as we do. Among the many strivings after architectural beauty, which we see daily made by are countrymen, there are, of course, some failures, and only now and then examples of perfect success. But the rock on which all novices split--and especially all men who have thought little of the subject, and who are satisfied with a feeble imitation of some great example from other countries--this dangerous rock is a want of fitness, or propriety. Almost the first principle, certainly the grand principle, which an apostle of architectural progress ought to preach in America, is "keep in mind PROPRIETY." Do not build your dwelling-houses like temples, churches, or cathedrals. Let them be, characteristically, dwelling-houses. And more than this; always let their individuality of purpose be fairly avowed; let the cottage be a cottage--the farm-house a farm-house--the villa a villa, and the mansion a mansion. Do not attempt to build a dwelling upon your farm after the fashion of the town-house of your friend, the city merchant; do not attempt to give the modest little cottage the ambitious air of the ornate villa. Be assured that there is, if you will search for it, a peculiar beauty that belongs to each of these classes of dwellings that heightens and adorns it almost magically; while, if it borrows the ornaments of the other, it is only debased and falsified in character and expression. The most expensive and elaborate structure, overlaid with costly ornaments, will fail to give a ray of pleasure to the mind of real taste, if it is not appropriate to the purpose in view, or the means or position of its occupant; while the simple farm-house, rustically and tastefully adorned, and ministering beauty to hearts that answer to the spirit of the beautiful, will weave a spell in the memory not easily forgotten.

June 27, 1996