Springside – Vassar-Downing Partnership (1850-1852)
In the first half of the 1800s, the site known today as Springside was part of the Allen family farm at the edge of the Poughkeepsie city boundary. In May 1850, its unusually picturesque natural features attracted a committee tasked with selecting a site for a rural cemetery. A recent innovation in landscape design, the rural cemetery was the pre-cursor to public parks and provided scenic, pastoral grounds on city outskirts, open to all and commonly used for picnicking and strolling as well as burials. Committee chairman Matthew Vassar, the prosperous brewer-turned-philanthropist who founded Vassar College a decade later, purchased the property to hold it until investors could be found.
In the autumn of 1850, Vassar began developing the property in a nature suitable for either a cemetery or a “ferme ornee” or ornamental farm — part landscaped pleasure grounds, part working farm — leaving his options open. He immediately engaged Andrew Jackson Downing, the country’s foremost authority on horticulture, fruit trees, and landscape theory and design for the betterment of home and democracy, to draw plans for buildings and grounds. When a different cemetery site across South Road (today’s Route 9) looking over the Hudson River was chosen, Vassar continued developing the site as his rural estate.
From 1851 until his untimely drowning in 1852, Downing collaborated with Vassar and was assisted by architect Calvert Vaux newly employed at Downing’s offices to complete the substantial part of the estate. Downing brought Vaux to America, where he later went on to partner with Frederick Law Olmsted and created Central Park among many other landscape architecture projects. In Benson J. Lossing’s 1867 biography Vassar College and its Founder, he says “from the designs of Mr. Downing, a porter’s lodge [gatehouse], a cottage, barn, carriage-house, ice-house, and dairy room, granary, an aviary for wild and domestic fowls, an apiary, a spacious conservatory and neat gardener’s cottage, and a log cabin on the more prosaic portions of the domain, where meadows and fields of grain may be seen, were erected.”
It is not certain how many of the buildings were completed before Downing’s death. Only the cottage and stables were finished in 1851, and the Porter’s Lodge (Gatehouse) by the fall of 1852. The carriage road layout was also completed, a path system added, ornamental trees and hundreds of evergreens planted, and more than 1000 forest trees transplanted. An intricately designed water system fed by springs had also been created. Streams flowed above and below ground and emerged in ponds and fountains, all gravity-driven.
What is certain is that Downing and Vassar combined nature and art in happy harmony at Springside. Curving pathways directed the eye to scenic views, often perfectly framing natural or manmade objects. Features such as rugged rock outcroppings flanked by tall rough evergreens embodied the “picturesque,” while those like the swan in the Jet Vale fountain provided the “beautiful” elements. As Vassar Professor Russell Comstock noted shortly before Downing’s death, “… a more charming spot we never have visited. There is combined within these precincts every variety of park-like and pictorial landscape that is to be found in any part of our country – meadows, woodlands, water-sources, jets and fountains, elevated summits gently sloping into valleys…”
Springside also combined utility and art. Even the structures, all in Gothic Revival style with asymmetrical elevations, board-and-batten siding, gables, steeply sloped roofs, and ornamental chimneys, were designed to complement the landscape while excelling in utility as well. Springside was as much a working farm, with a kitchen garden, stables, orchards, and pasture, as it was a pleasure ground.
Springside: Matthew Vassar’s Summer Retreat (1852 – his death in 1868)
After Downing’s death on the Henry Clay steamship disaster on the Hudson, Vassar continued to improve Springside. In all he spent over $100,000 turning a simple $8,000 farm into a celebrated estate. Under his guidance and with the help of his estate manager Caleb N. Bement, appointed in 1857, Springside became a model farm and highly-esteemed pleasure garden. A number of new features were added, including a summer house, a conservatory or greenhouse, a pagoda, various paths, and statuary. The grand brick and stone villa designed by Downing and Vaux to be the master residence was never built, as Vassar and his wife were content with the 10-room Gardener’s Cottage.
Vassar used Springside as his summer retreat for many years and lived there full-time from 1864 until his death in 1868. Proud of his creation, he regularly opened the grounds to the public and aptly named each of its scenic features – Deer Park, Rock Roost, Knitting Knoll, Stone Henge, Willow Spring, Jet Vale, Walnut Row, and Evergreen Park among them – to give visitors a flavor of the variety of scenery in store.
Beloved by the public, as well, Springside was the subject of romantic poetry, musical works, and other forms of rhapsodic praise. In his 1867 biography Vassar College and Its Founder, Benson J. Lossing, Dutchess County, NY native, Vassar College original trustee, and well-known writer, illustrator, and American historian of the time, devoted twenty pages including illustrations to describe Springside’s landscape, including a written self-guided walking tour of the site, which is still useful for today’s visitor.
Springside – After Vassar (1868 to 1960s)
Matthew Vassar had no direct heirs and he left no specific instructions about Springside. After his death, John O. Whitehouse, wealthy shoe manufacturer, one time Democrat in Congress, and owner of The Daily News (1872-1880), purchased Springside. The Whitehouse family used Springside as an annex to Mountain View, their estate just east on Hooker Avenue. Visitors to Springside can find their name carved in the rocks of Stone Henge, likely one of the family’s favorite picnic spots.
Springside again was bought by a neighbor, when Howells went bankrupt in 1901. This time shipping magnate William Nelson who owned Hudson Knolls (previously known as Ringview) an estate directly south purchased the property. The original Hudson Knolls mansion burned in 1908. His widow rebuilt it in 1911. Eventually, it was abandoned and burned to the ground in the 1970s.
Springside remained in the Nelson/Fitzpatrick family until the 1970s. Three Nelson children – Gerald Nelson, Geraldine Nelson Acker, and Gertrude Nelson Fitzpatrick – inherited the estate and kept parts of it in the family until the 1970s. The Nelson family lived in the Hudson Knolls mansion until the 1940s, while the Fitzpatrick’s resided at Springside. The Ackers built a new home called “Spring Gable” in 1929 on the site Downing selected for Vassar’s grand residence.
During this period of family management, they sold much of Springside’s eastern farmlands for eventual housing development, made various drainage improvements, including the creation of a new pond. A combination of benign neglect, oversight, and chance enabled the heart of Springside to survive essentially unchanged for one hundred years after Vassar’s death.
Springside’s Rescue and Restoration (1960s to present)
By the mid-twentieth century, Springside was in serious peril. In 1952, it almost became the site for a new high school. In early 1968, re-zoning requests for commercial and apartment development galvanized local preservationists. Their efforts were rewarded when Springside, with its main buildings still intact, was given National Historic Landmark status in August 1969 as the only existing work that with certainty could be attributed to Downing. Later that same year, a fire razed the carriage house and stables. Over time, fire, vandalism, and neglect destroyed all but one of the original twelve buildings. Unchecked secondary plant growth obscured much of Downing’s original composition.
In 1982, despite the landmark designation, a developer received approval of new plans for building 191 condominiums on both the Nelson and Springside parcels. Local residents and preservation groups challenged the plan and after a protracted court battle, won an out-of-court settlement in 1984. The settlement allowed the developer to build condominiums on the Nelson family farmlands. It also required the creation of new nonprofit organization, Springside Landscape Restoration (SLR), to take hold of the deed and organized for the purpose of public education, site restoration, and public access to the 19.83-acre Springside historic site containing the original pleasure grounds. Unfortunately, the settlement allowed drainage changes and access to the condominiums through the historic site, which led to the destruction of Summit Avenue at the South entrance and the eastern portion of Deer Park.
Officially established in 1986, Springside Landscape Restoration took title of the site in 1990. SLR continues to preserve and restore the site and educate the public about its importance. Only the Gatehouse remains from the original buildings. Many of the pathways and manmade naturalistic features had been overgrown, but through gradual clearing they have become more recognizable. Meanwhile, trees planted a century and a half ago have matured, proving the endurance of Downing’s vision.
Today volunteers battle storm damage, tree loss, invasive plant species, vandalism, dumping, urban run-off, erosion, and flooding in an effort to preserve this green oasis in the heart of Poughkeepsie. Though much remains to be done, remarkable progress has been made over the last twenty years. Visitors can once again envision Downing’s skillfully designed landscape from the changing perspective of winding trails and carriage roads, and experience their beauty.