On July 28, 1852, Downing, his wife, her mother, brother and sister were passengers on a large river boat plying between Albany and New York. Unbeknownst to the passengers, their ship, the Henry Clay, was in a race with a competing line’s boat, the Armenia. As the ships raced down the Hudson, the Henry Clay's boiler apparently overheated and caught fire. A perhaps apocryphal story has Downing staying on board to throw deck chairs to people who had jumped in the river. He and his mother-in-law were among the over fifty people killed, though his wife and her siblings did survive.
In the great movement of the middle of the last century in America for the appreciation of the beauty and charm of landscape and of country life Downing was incontestably the leader of his day and the controlling influence of his genius has been a dominant factor up to the present time.
In 1851 he was employed to lay out the grounds near the Capitol, White House and Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Downing in reality created American landscape gardening and influenced country life in every aspect. He stook for the simple, natural, and permanent as opposed to the complex, artificial and ephemeral.
Although Downing and his contemporaries promoted the use of native building materials, they were not beyond painting wood to appear like marble. In fact, as Schuyler explains, Downing contradicted his philosophy in many instances, the least of all being his infatuation with English architecture. In 1850, Downing traveled to England with the intention of finding an English architect to join his firm. It is a testament to his personal charm that he did just that, traveling home with Calvert Vaux, who later explained "his style was so calculated to win confidence that without a fear I relinquished all and accompanied him." Practical reasons for Downing's choice of an English partner include the ease of publishing previously engraved English designs, the need to introduce such styles in America, and the fact that there were very few trained architects in the United States at that time. Schuyler analyzes the designs of "Downing & Vaux, Architects," with an eye both to their innovations, and their anglicisms, noting that Downing described how each plan might be "best adapted to American conditions."
In 1845 Downing returned to a strictly horticultural work, The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America, a popular book that went through many editions and contributed to his prestige as a pomologist. The next year he became editor of a newly founded magazine, Horticulturist. Returning to architecture again, he published Additional Notes and Hints to Persons about Building in This Country (1849).
In 1842 Downing collaborated with Alexander Jackson Davis on the book Cottage Residences, which was a pattern book of houses that mixed the aspects of romantic architecture with the pastoral picturesque architecture of the English country side. These cottages were simple dwellings void of the exotic trappings that Downing feared were not good for the soul.
Downing was only twenty-five when the 'Treatise' appeared in the spring of 1841, but in the preceding ten years he had gained extensive professional experience as a horticulturist, in partnership with his brother Charles until 1837 and then as sole proprietor of his Newburgh, New York, Botanic Garden and Nursery, and he quickly assumed a position of leadership in American horticultural societies.
His admiration for John Claudius Loudon is apparent from his books and their illustrations. Downing edited The Horticulturalist and wrote a Treatise on the theory and practice of landscape gardening, adapted to North America (1841). This book has a chapter on 'Landscape or rural architecture' which must be the source from which Olmsted took the term 'landscape architecture'. It was Andrew Jackson Downing who persuaded Frederick Law Olmsted's future partner, Calvert Vaux, to move from England to America. Andrew Jackson Downing was a protagonist for public parks and had he not drowned at the age of 36 it is likely that Downing, rather than Olmsted, would have received the commission to design Central Park in New York. American comentators have admired Andrew Jackson Downing's celebrity but criticised the quality of landscape and garden designs.
Andrew Jackson Downing was a horticulturist, landscape gardener, and prolific writer who, more than any other individual, shaped middle-class taste in the United States during the two decades prior to the Civil War. His name is indelibly if sometimes nostalgically identified with that era's taste in domestic architecture and landscape design.
Andrew Jackson Downing was born in 1815 in Newburgh, NY where his father owned a nursery specializing in apples and pears. He started helping out in the nursery at a young age and then he and his brother took over running it. In 1838 he became sole owner of the nursery. He became very well known and popular, but not as a nurseryman. He developed the art of American landscape architecture.