The Downing Urn in the Enid A. Haupt Garden

The Downing UrnThe Downing Urn in the Smithsonian's Enid A. Haupt Garden was originally erected on the National Mall in 1856 in memory of landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing.

"The taste of an individual, as well as that of a nation, will be in direct proportion to the profound sensibility with which he perceives the beautiful in natural scenery. Open wide, therefore, the doors of your libraries and picture galleries all ye true republicans! Build halls where knowledge shall be freely diffused among men, and not shut up within the narrow walls of narrower institutions. Plant spacious parks in your cities, and unclose their gates as wide as the gates of morning to the whole people." - Inscription on the Urn, from Downing's Rural Essays

About Andrew Jackson Downing

Andrew Jackson DowningAndrew Jackson Downing was born in Newburgh, New York on October 31, 1815. He was considered a bright, even precocious, child. His father had been a wheelwright and later started a nursery around 1810. Samuel Downing’s death in 1823 left A. J.’s elder brother Charles in charge of the family business. He was joined by A. J. in 1831, who had abandoned formal education at the age of sixteen. As early as 1832, A. J. and Charles began to publish articles and notes in various horticultural journals of the day.

In 1841 at the age of 26, A. J. published a solo work: A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America; with a View to the Improvement of Country Residences. This text was the first true attempt to develop an American aesthetic of landscape gardening. As with many first approximations, much remains unclear about Downing’s intentions and underlying theory; it cannot be denied, however, that the work was well received during his lifetime both here and in Europe and remained an influential work for many years.

While many would be content to rest on their laurels, Downing continued to produce a prodigious amount of work. His Treatise went through multiple editions. He edited the Horticulturist, a journal of “Rural Art and Rural Taste,” and wrote a book featuring plans of cottages and villas. Downing attended the first American Congress of Fruit Growers (the precursor to the American Pomological Society) in October 1848 at which time he was designated chair of its Fruit Committee.

Throughout his writings, Downing was finding a new way for himself. While undeniably influenced by European, especially English, writers, he recognized that America should not and could not slavishly emulate European gardening styles. First, Americans should make use of American material, hence his on-going interest in any and all native American species. Second, America, at least nominally, was not aristocratic and should celebrate it republicanism, hence his designs for middle class and a few lower class cottages and gardens. He also understood that his country was young and still rapidly expanding and that horticulture could serve as a way to attach the white settlers to their new home. Finally, he recognized two important developments in horticulture: the rise of scientific inquiries and the development of a class of professional landscape designers/gardeners who were artisans, not artists. These developments often left Downing struggling to maintain a consistent perspective, both in his writings and his commissions. For example, these two quotes both refer to Downing, but present two different sets of expectations:

Like his books better than himself. He is a Yankee not thoroughbred. Landscape gardening with him is a profession & not a liberal taste, and he talks with a professional air. I dislike ‘bread-studies’ & artizanship, & the smell of the shop destroys my pleasure in any subject however interesting in itself.– From the diary of Sidney George Fisher, a Philadelphia gentleman.
To readers like us, educated between the plow-handles, it would be pleasant to have the various extracts in French, Spanish, Latin and Italian, rendered into English, the only language which, having once learned, we have not become somewhat rusty in.– Part of a review of Downing’s A Treatise, second edition, in the Cultivator.

Downing's Plans for the Mall

Downing Drawing

The culmination of all that Downing had been working towards was encapsulated in his plans for the Mall in Washington, D.C. In L’Enfant’s original plan, the L-shaped area extending from the residence of the President to the Capitol was to be a grand avenue.

Downing DrawingHowever, since L'Enfant's plan, little landscaping had been done and a large Norman castle (the Smithsonian Institution) had been constructed between the two classically inspired end points. The first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Henry, among others, had noticed the odd vista this juxtaposition presented and thought a new approach to the plantings might help lessen the incongruity.

Downing DrawingDowning, recognized as a leader in the field, was invited by President Millard Fillmore to “give a general plan of the improvement to be made.” Downing accepted and after touring the site in 1850, spent three months drafting his solution, which he presented to the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution on February 27, 1851.

Downing Drawing

The Marble Arch

A large marble arch at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue would have served as the principal entrance to the Mall, while a large set of gates at the Capitol end would serve as a counter point.

The President’s Park or Parade

Located behind the Executive Mansion; an open area for military reviews or festivals

Monument Park

Centered around the still incomplete Washington Monument, this area would be filled with native trees.

Evergreen Garden

A museum of every species of evergreen that would grow in Washington, D.C. to provide some color to the capital during the bleak winter months.

Smithsonian Park or Pleasure Grounds

Trees and evergreens carefully placed to highlight the Smithsonian Castle.

Fountain Park

An artificial lake and fountains would tie into the landscaping around the greenhouses of the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Downing Drawing

The Suspension Bridge

Connecting the Parade to the rest of the mall would have been a suspension bridge across the Tiber Canal.

Downing's Death

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.

The Memorial

The shock and grief at Downing’s death were immediate and he was mourned as a irreplaceable national asset. Shortly after his death, a subscription was taken by the American Pomological Society to erect a memorial to Downing.

Calvert Vaux designed an urn which was sculpted from marble by Robert E. Launitz. The placement of the urn was a matter of some debate. One group preferred a location along the Hudson River which was so obviously Downing’s love, while another proposed a location amidst the new national park which Downing had designed.

Since Downing's plans for the National Mall were never carried out he has faded from popular consciousness and few people are aware of the presence of his memorial in the Enid A. Haupt Garden, let alone its significance.

In 1972, the Smithsonian Institution undertook an extensive restoration of the Downing Urn, which was badly deteriorated after over a century in the open air. It was moved to its present location in the Haupt Garden in 1989.

Survival of Downing's Work

Gardens are ephemeral. Therefore it is not surprising, though unfortunate, that little of Downing’s work remains today. In addition to a few houses, the landscape at Springside is the only historically substantiated Downing design which has survived in some form.


Springside, located in Poughkeepsie, New York, was the residence of Matthew Vassar. He commissioned Downing to design the grounds in 1850. Planted with more than a thousand forest trees, Downing’s design was praised as a “realization of a painter’s dream.” Vassar commissioned a series of paintings of Springside shortly after Downing’s death. They provide a beautiful visual testimony of Downing’s ideas.

Central Park

A more fitting memorial to Downing, perhaps, is Central Park in New York City. While Downing never directly worked on it, the final product was heavily influenced by his ideas. When the legislators of New York had appropriated money to acquire 63 acres bordering the East River, Downing objected. “He insisted that a larger, central park was in order, and called for the acquisition of a tract of about 500 acres in the middle of the city. 'Five hundred acres,’ he asserted, is the smallest area that should be reserved for the future wants of such a city, now, while it may be obtained.’” (Cantor 1968:335). After Downing’s death, the design of Central Park was undertaken by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, friends and colleagues of Downing.

Downing Park

Another project designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, this park in Downing's birthplace of Newburgh, New York, was dedicated in 1897 in honor of Downing’s commitment to public parks. A walk through its winding landscape is perhaps the most fitting memorial to Downing.


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The Inscriptions

The following words are inscribed on the faces of the pedestal supporting the Downing Urn:

"The taste of an individual, as well as that of a nation, will be in direct proportion to the profound sensibility with which he perceives the beautiful in natural scenery. Open wide, therefore, the doors of your libraries and picture galleries all ye true republicans! Build halls where knowledge shall be freely diffused among men, and not shut up within the narrow walls of narrower institutions. Plant spacious parks in your cities, and unclose their gates as wide as the gates of morning to the whole people."- From Downing’s Rural Essays

‘Weep no more’
For Lycidus your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk through he be beneath the wat’ry floor,
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,
and yet, anon, repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams and with new spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky
So Lycidus sunk low, but mounted high
Through the dear might of Him that walked the waves

I wake, I rise,
I climb the hill from end to end
Of all the landscape underneath
I find no place that does not breathe
Some gracious memory of my friend.

‘Tis held that sorrow makes us wise,
Yet how much wisdom sleeps with thee,
Which not alone had guided me,
But served the seasons that may rise.

And doubtless unto thee is given,
A life that bears immortal fruit,
In such great offices as suit
The full grown energies of Heaven.

And love will last as pure and whole
As when he loved me here in time,
And at the spiritual prime
Re-awaken with the dawning soul.