Springside - A National Historic Landmark
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In this section: Springside is Born : Vassar’s Retreat : Next Century : Rescue and Restore : Explore More

Springside is Born – the 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 of the type in vogue at the time -- scenic, pastoral grounds on the outskirts of populated areas, commonly used for picnicking and other recreational activities 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. Within the first year, he engaged Andrew Jackson Downing, the country’s foremost tastemaker and landscape designer, to draw plans for buildings and grounds. When a different cemetery site was chosen, Vassar continued developing the site as his rural estate.

Henry Gritten Painting
Painting by Henry Gritten, ca. 1852, private collection
(photo: Vassar College Library)

From 1851 until his untimely drowning in 1852, Downing collaborated with Vassar and Calvert Vaux, an English architect Downing brought to America, to complete the substantial part of the estate. In Benson J. Lossing’s 1867 biography Vassar College and its Founder, he tells us that “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 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 one visitor 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.

To see pictures of early Springside, take the tours.