Andrew Jackson Downing Urn - Atlas Obscura

Andrew Jackson Downing Urn

This large garden vase urn has nothing to do with the seventh U.S. President—it was designed by one landscape designer to honor another landscape designer's contributions to the National Mall. 

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Andrew Jackson Downing, considered to be one of the founders of American landscape architecture, is best known for having drawn up a landscaping plan for the National Mall that was partially implemented before being replaced by the McMillan Plan.

Downing was also a horticulturist whose interest in plants and gardening was sparked while working in his father’s nursery in his hometown of Newburgh, New York. He wrote extensively on the topics of botany and landscaping and became a self-taught expert in these disciplines.

Finding an audience initially through articles and journals, Downing began publishing books. His 1844 work, Landscape Gardening, Adapted to North America, was the first book of its kind published in the United States.

Downing brought his dreams to life, designing gardens and landscapes for customers in the northeastern U.S. His growing celebrity led to publisher Luther Tucker tapping him as editor of The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.

This publication made him an influencer in the landscape design space. He became one of the voices advocating for the creation of a large park in New York, spurring on the development of Central Park. He was also a strong proponent of agricultural schools, which increased in number as a result of his promulgation.

In 1850, Downing traveled to England to attend an exhibition of works by architect and landscape designer Calvert Vaux. Impressed with his landscape watercolors, Downing convinced Vaux to emigrate to the United States and go into business with him.

The two collaborated on several high-profile projects, including the White House grounds and the Smithsonian Institution. President Millard Fillmore commissioned Downing to create a plan for the National Mall, which he presented in 1851. but it was never fully realized. Only the area immediately around the Smithsonian was completed before Congress cut off the project’s funding.

Downing died in a steamship fire in 1852 at just 37 years old. He was traveling with his wife and extended family on the Henry Clay when a blaze broke out on the ship that led to the deaths of an estimated 80 passengers. 

Four years later, the monumental urn honoring his memory was dedicated on the National Mall near the Museum of Natural History. The urn was designed by his friend and business partner, Calvert Vaux, and sculpted by Robert Eberhard Launitz.

The urn was moved several times from its original location: first to the east entrance of the Smithsonian Institution Building in 1965, then to the west entrance in 1972, then to Rose Garden at the east door in 1987, and finally to the Enid A. Haupt Garden, where it has stood since 1989.

Know Before You Go

The urn can be found in the Enid A. Haupt Garden behind the Smithsonian Castle.

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