By Frank A. Waugh.
NEWBURGH has fine parks. It is surrounded by the most ingratiating natural landscape. In the foreground flows one of the noblest and most beautiful of all the rivers of the world. Yet for none of these has this body of men come here today. This great international association meets here, drawn by the memory of one eminent name, —- the name of a man whose genius stands out like a steadfast beacon light through all the crowding events of three-quarters of a century of American history.
Andrew Jackson Downing was born in this town of New-burgh, October 30, 1815, and here he lived the whole of that short and wonderful life which until this day breathes its inspiration upon us. He was the youngest of his family, the child of his parents' age, physically weak and slender, but mentally a giant. His parents were poor, and Andrew was reared on the great American diet of plain living and hard work. He had little schooling, the principal feature of his formal training being an attendance of a few months on the Academy in the neighboring town of Montgomery. But he did have the large benefit of work in his father's nursery and of quiet association with this rich and noble landscape, — two things which left a marked impress upon his character and showed their influence conspicuously in his life's work.
* On August 24, 1914, the American Association of Park Superintendents held its annual convention at Newburgh, N.Y., in commemoration of the centenary of Mr. Downing's birth, at which time this memorial address was delivered.
When he was about sixteen years old, and his school days ended, he had the good fortune to form a warm personal friendship with Baron von Liderer, then the Austrian consul-general in America, who had a summer home here in Newburgh. This acquaintance led to others, and introduced the rapidly developing boy to the company of refined and talented men and women who were to be, aside from this ever-blessed landscape, his principal source of education.
During these years of early manhood he worked hard in the nursery, but harder still upon his studies, scientific, literary and artistic. He was already forming those high ambitions and noble dreams which made him the first of our American landscape gardeners, — for us the discoverer of a new art and the founder of a new profession. His first work — and said by competent witnesses to be his greatest — was the building of his own house and the development of his own grounds. According to all accounts this must have been most consummately done. He then began to develop the general practice of the landscape gardener in much the same form as it is now followed by leading men in the profession. His work was largely on private places in the neighborhood of New York and Newport, his most famous public project having been the grounds in Washington about the Capitol, the White House and the Smithsonian Institution. In the summer of 1850, while on a most inspiring visit to England, he found a young architect by the name of Calvert Vaux, — a name afterward famous in America — whom he brought home with him to be his partner in this professional practice.
For us to-day it is impossible to forget that he was one of the first and ablest advocates of the public park, — in institution then almost unknown and unheard of in America. He aided powerfully with tongue and pen in the strenuous fight to establish Central Park, New York, an institution which has had an incalculable influence in shaping American park plans and policies ever since.
Parallel with his development as a landscape gardener ran his equally notable development as a man of letters.
He quickly became known as the greatest American writer in the field of rural affairs and as a literary artist of genuine talent. His first and most unqualified success was his book on "Landscape Gardening," which was published in 1841, when he was twenty-six years old, a book which stands today as a classic and a masterpiece. The following year saw the publication of his "Cottage Residences." In L845, when he was thirty years old, he gave the world "The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America," another epoch-making work in a totally different field. In 1816, he became the editor of the "Horticulturist," and in this office did the most notable literary work of his whole career. In 1850, he put out his "Architecture of Country Houses." In 1852, he edited the American edition of Mrs. Loudon's "Gardening for Ladies." In the meantime his other works had sold so freely that he had been obliged to prepare several new editions, each one a great advance upon its predecessor.
Then on July 28, 1852, came his tragic and untimely death. When we think of all that he might have accomplished with a few more years of life in this period of his capable maturity we are compelled for ourselves to share the grief of those friends of 1852 who were never able sufficiently to mourn his loss.
These rough outlines of a great and many-sided life must serve our present needs. It is not for me at this late day to add anything to the memorial prepared by his own intimate friends. Nor could I presume to revise the estimate of his character given by such competent authority as his distinguished literary biographer, George William Curtis. It does seem fair, however, for us in our day to try once more the measure of his genius and to endeavor to count what portions of his work have lived to help us. This at least his sorrowing friends could not do in 1852.
Andrew Jackson Downing must be remembered to us first of all as a nurseryman. It was in this field that his life began. In this field he learned great lessons which yielded him the most substantial and obvious help in other lines of work. Moreover it was through his nursery work that he reached and profoundly influenced hundreds of men in other parts of the country. It is probably true that Downing's staunchest personal disciples were the men who formed their attachment to him at this point.