The Walking Tour is also available on-site at Springside either through smart phone or a paper brochure available at the kiosk.

The Downing-Vassar Partnership

Matthew Vassar’s Springside is a 20-acre historic designed landscape and historic site designed by Andrew Jackson Downing. A stroll along its carefully-planned carriage trails reveals rocky knolls, sunlit meadows, shaded glens, and bubbling springs elegantly incorporated into Downing’s design. Matthew Vassar, wealthy local brewer and founder of Vassar College purchased Springside as a possible site for Poughkeepsie’s new rural cemetery. When Poughkeepsie’s citizens had other ideas and selected another site a mile away from Springside along the Hudson River, Vassar proceeded to make Springside his country home.

Vassar hired Downing, America’s most celebrated designer, author, editor, horticulturist, and “tastemaker” of the time from Newburgh, NY to design the estate’s buildings and grounds. From 1850 until his untimely drowning in the Henry Clay steamship disaster along the Hudson River in 1852, Downing worked with Vassar to create a model “ferme ornee” (ornamental farm) – part pleasure ground, part working farm. Proud of his new country estate, Vassar freely allowed the public to stroll the grounds and fondly named each of its landscape features.

Understanding Downing’s Design

As best-selling author of the multi-printed A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, editor of the authoritative magazine The Horticulturist, and practicing landscape designer, Downing had enormous influence on 19th century design. Yet Springside is the only Downing design to survive largely intact. In 1969, in recognition of its significance, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
—– Photo Caption: A.J. Downing, example of the Beautiful in landscape gardening (design) from A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 4th ed., 1850), reprinted 1991 Dumbarton Oaks.
Downing’s most sophisticated designs included both concepts to create a complex and exciting composition. Springside is an outstanding example of Downing’s skillful expression of both Beautiful and the Picturesque in harmony. He crafted a series of spaces or outdoor “rooms” that are approached from a constantly changing perspective of curving trails and carriage roads.
—– Photo Caption: A.J. Downing, example of the Picturesque in landscape gardening (design) from A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 4th ed., 1850), reprinted 1991, Dumbarton Oaks.

Springside After Vassar

After Vassar’s death, the owners of Mountain View a neighboring estate to the east and later by the owners of Hudson Knolls to the south purchased Springside to add to their properties. Both estates now are lost to subdivision while Springside survives, perhaps in part dues to its wet and rocky terrain.

By the mid 20th century even Springside was in serious peril. In 1952, it nearly became the site for a new high school; and for the next 30 years, development pressure continued to increase. Over time, vandalism, arson, and neglect destroyed all but one of Springside’s twelve buildings. Unchecked secondary plant growth covered the site and obscured much of Downing’s landscape composition including the carriage roads, paths, fountains, and walls. Finally, in 1984, preservationists and developers reached an out-of-court settlement to preserve the Springside’s historic “pleasure grounds” with condominium development reserved to the adjoining agricultural land.

Today, with no endowment and Federal or State funding, volunteers face continuing challenges in restoring the site. The storms increasing and toppling 100-ft historic trees, insect infestations, invasive plants taking over, vandalism, dumping, and urban stormwater run-off on to the site, there is much to do. Yet much progress has been made. Visitors once again can experience Downing’s winding carriage trails and narrow paths curving around a series of carefully composed scenes – some sunny and serene, others brooding and romantic.

Note

Springside’s carriage trail system is compact, but includes loops, double-backs, and side trails. Please refer to the Springside Map.

1. | Porter’s Lodge and Gates

This charming composition of Gothic Cottage and curving wall offered an enticing promise of the beauty waiting within Springside. Although today’s visitors enter through the enlarged service entrance to the north, 19th century visitors arrived through the elaborate iron gates in front of you. The Porter’s Lodge or gatehouse, restored to its 1851 color scheme in 2000 and now due for a repair and repainting, gives many visitors their first impression of the City of Poughkeepsie as they exit Route 9. Please note, this is a private residence.
—– Photo Caption: Porter’s Lodge on Academy Street, Poughkeepsie, NY (photo: Holly Wahlberg)

2. | Duck Pond

What is now a widened and paved roadway and parking area was once a duck pond, an important scenic element of the gatehouse composition. Benson Lossing’s Vassar College and Its Founder (1867) shows an engraving of the pond had sloped stone banks, a “duck hut” for waterfowl and a footbridge for access.
—– Photo Caption: Entrance to Springside, from Lossing, Vassar College and Its Founder, 1867 (photo: Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College)


3. | Maple Hill

As in 1867, maples and oaks predominate here within a native plant community that continues to regenerate this forested knoll.

4. | Deer Park

This wet meadow was once home to Vassar’s herd of domesticated deer. A clear brook fringed with long grasses and wild flowers flowed through the meadow past a rustic bridge, duck pond, and solitary Norway spruce. Deer grazed behind a wire enclosure. By 1990, when SLR took title to the property, Deer Park was completely wooded. The process of returning it meadow is ongoing.


5. | Group Gap

A shaded hollow between two rocky knolls typifies the way Downing used the site’s existing rugged topography. He placed narrow trails between the knolls and through the hollows enhancing the wildness of the site particularly for those on foot. To experience this, take the foot path to the right through Group Gap and around the base of Rock Roost knoll.

6. | Rock Roost

“A rough mass of slate rock 20 or 30 feet in height, with a dip of 45 degrees, covered chiefly with oaks, and crowned by a single cedar tree.” (Lossing, 1867) The single cedar is gone, but Rock Roost remains one of Springside’s most dramatic landforms covered with oaks plus tulip poplars, and maples.
—– Photo Caption: Rock Roost Trail (photo: K. Cowperthwaite)


7. | Stone Henge

“Look up to the left…and see, on the summit of this high knoll, how weird appear these huge upright stones…like solitary sentinels guarding some mysterious spot.” (Lossing 1867) Downing wound the carriage trail tightly around this steep knoll; however, the upright stones are likely a post-Downing addition inspired by the jagged slate of the knoll. Today, the stones are overturned and some are scattered about the base. Some stones are inscribed “Whitehouse,” the name of the family that owned Springside after Vassar’s death. Stone Henge may well have been a favorite picnic spot for this family and others.


8. | Little Belt

A less rocky, rounded knoll described by Lossing in 1867 as “thickly covered with deciduous and evergreen trees, with groups of loose stones, over which vines creep and blossom.” Today, the trees are mature and vines still creep and blossom.

9. | Lower Gate

Up the hill and slightly to the left are the ruins of Matthew Vassar’s cottage. Two stone gateposts, each with topped with a greyhound, once stood here marking the start of a service lane leading to the rear of the cottage. The oil painting “View of Springside” by Henry Gritten (1852) shows the relationship along the South Ave carriage trail of the lower gate and service lane (9), Cottage (10), Knitting Knoll (11), and Cottage Avenue Gate (12).
—– Photo Caption: Henry Gritten, English 1818-1873: Springside: View of Gardner’s Cottage, 1852, oil on canvas, 25 ½ x 37 inches; The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, Promised gifts of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas M. Evans, Jr. (Tania Goss, class of 1959)

10. | Vassar’s (Gardener’s) Cottage

Still visible are the arches of an arcade which once supported the long first floor porch of Vassar’s Cottage. Downing designed the cottage to work with the topography and set it into a knoll. In 1976, the New York State Museum removed the front façade, just ahead of the impending demolition by developers who were not interested in the site’s historic resources owned the property from 1968-1984. Today, Vassar’s Cottage façade is on permanent display at the New York State Museum in Albany.
—– Photo Caption: Springside, Design for a Cottage, rear elevation. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS 219765pv, NY-5489-9)


11. | Knitting Knoll

This shaded hill, next to Vassar’s Cottage and overlooking a meadow, had rustic seats for the Vassar family knitters “whereon it is pleasant to sit and chat…while busy fingers make the worsted meshes grow into beauteous forms and tints.” (Lossing, 1867) Walk toward the stone piers ahead.

12. | Cottage Avenue Gate

“The Cottage Avenue is like the heart of the owner – wide open with welcome to all friends.” (Lossing 1867) Statues of a wild boar and a fox once capped these stone piers marking the main entrance to the family’s private quarters. Vassar, however, rarely insisted on privacy until four years before his death when he retired to Springside and established year round residency. Until this time, Springside was semi-public park and tourist destination. In 2012, the piers underwent repointing and repairs.
—– Photo Caption: Cottage Avenue Gate, from Lossing, Vassar College and Its Founder, 1867 (photo: Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College)

13. | Coach House

Downing took advantage of the existing topography and designed this farm building with an upper coach house entrance and a lower farm yard entrance at the bottom of the hill below you. The Coach House included space for four carriages, a harness room, stable, tool house, workshop, and hayloft. Sadly, arson claimed Springside’s farm complex in 1969. Today, the rear stone foundation walls remain.
—– Photo Caption: From “Design and (Ground Plan not shown) for a Barn, Stables, ” back elevation, signed A.J.D. (photo: Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College)

14. | Dairy and Ice House

Downing and Vassar created a model farm of the highest “convenience” with a dairy which had its own specially-designed shelving for cooling milk. See markers 15 and 16.
—– Photo Caption: Springside Ice House and Dairy House. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS 219773pv, NY-5489-A-1)

15. | Apiary

“The curious little building on the right at the corner of the garden is the Apiary, whose vane, an enormous golden honey-bee swinging over a hive, denotes its use.” (Lossing, 1867) Although the little L-shaped bee house no longer exists, the Library of Congress photographs provide much documentation.
—– Photo Caption: Springside Apiary in the southwest corner of the Kitchen Garden with Cottage beyond (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS 219772pv, NY-5489-16)

16. | Kitchen Garden

Once enclosed on three sides by a picket fence, the remaining ten-foot high stone wall still retains the northern edge of the large rectangular garden. Cross-axial paths divided the garden into four quadrants with espaliered fruit trees lining the stone wall. A large Sycamore stands in the northeast corner. Beyond the Sycamore were Springside’s apple, peach, plum, and cherry orchards. You are standing on the oval driveway where carriages circled around past a sundial to reach the front door of Vassar’s cottage (foundation ruins behind you). Retrace your steps to Marker 14 and continue on the trail as it descends between knolls, Lack Lawn Knoll and Scraggy Knoll.
—– Photo Caption: View southwest of Kitchen Garden with Cottage to the east from painting “View of Springside” by Henry Gritten, 1852, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 37 inches, Private Collection. (Photo: Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College)

17. | Office and Aviary

Here in the farmyard, Vassar had a long wire enclosure constructed to house his extensive bird collection which included doves, wood ducks, peacocks, geese, hens, herons, cockatoos, pheasants, and pigeons. Not surprisingly, this was a noisy place. “The whole air was vocal with the love-songs of a hundred doves of the rarest varieties. (Lossing, 1867)
—– Photo Caption: Entrance to Barnyard, Office and Aviary (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS 219778pv, NY-5489-8-1)

18. | Deer Park East

Developers excavated this are in the 1970s, but later abandoned it. Now a wetland pond, it awaits restoration. Rejoin the main trail ahead, and retrace your steps while enjoying the views on your way back to Marker 5.

19. | Center Circle

In the distance to your right is an open circular meadow. Its center once held a three-tiered cascading fountain surrounded by vases of flowers. Although gaps have formed in the ring of trees once lining the circle, this remains one of the most striking open spaces in Downing’s design.

20. | Evergreen Park

Mature mixed conifers tower high above. Unfortunately, the mature hemlocks have suffered from uncontrollable infestation of the wooly adelgid insect known for its decimation of hemlocks in the northeast. Recently, SLR planted other disease and insect-resistant conifers for restoration. Bear right as the carriage way curves around Center Circle. open grassy area.

21. | Chimney Ruin/Pagoda

The stone chimney is a remnant of a 20th century structure which replaced a post-Downing Asian-inspired pagoda or gazebo. A narrow lane of neatly trimmed cedar shrubs led to the pagoda. To the north on higher ground, once stood a second gardener’s cottage once Vassar took the first for himself and family and a glass conservatory for plant collections and grapes. Retrace your steps and stay right to Marker 22.

22. | Willow Spring

A huge sycamore tree flanks the springhouse. Although a willow once matched this sycamore, it is gone and later owners replace the watchdog statue atop the springhouse with a penitent marble maiden. The concrete-lined pond and stream are 20th century additions made by later owners. In 2012, the stone springhouse received much needed repairs. Nearby is a paved drive leading to a private home, the 1929 “Spring Gable”, built on the site of the Downing-designed Vassar villa. It was designed, but never built as Vassar and his wife preferred living in the 10-room gardener’s cottage deeper in the estate.
—– Photo Caption: Willow Spring with sycamore and springhouse left from Lossing, Vassar College and Its Founder, 1867 (photo: Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College)

23. | Jet Vale

A short walk down the path to the left leads to a shallow bowl-shaped landscape depression. A striking fountain with a fluttering swan once spouted water high in the air from his beak. The fountain water was gravity fed from Willow Spring. Recent archeology in the area is attempting to determine the location of the fountain for interpretation and possible restoration. Walk across the paved drive and up the bank to Marker 24.
—– Photo Caption: 2Jet Vale Fountain with Summer House Hill in background from Lossing, Vassar College and Its Founder, 1867 (photo: Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College)

24. | Walnut Row

One very old walnut tree still presides here over a mown hillside. This gallant survivor, magnificent despite its deformities, was once part of an entire row believed to have been planted before Springside’s development in 1850. In 2004, SLR replanted the row with new walnut trees. Walk back toward the parking area along the edge of the paved road, look for Marker 25 on the hill to your right.

25. | Summer House Hill

Summer House Hill: Although celebrated for its intimate interior views, Downing designed one knoll with an open air summer house or pavilion to provide distant views over the busy Hudson River and to the western hills. Today, contemporary commercial and highway development impacts the view and requires careful screening in order to revive the scenic possibilities of this hill.

Proceed down the hill and turn to the right for the parking area just ahead.