A Tale of Two Forgotten Alexander Jackson Davis Mansions
Architect Alexander Jackson Davis was born on July 24, 1803. Davis, one of the most successful and influential American architects of his generation, is perhaps best known for his association with the Gothic Revival style of architecture and rural settings. Though many surviving examples by Davis exist in upstate New York and at other locales along the East Coast, some very prominent examples of Davis’ fine work once stood on lower Fifth Avenue.
In 1849, Davis designed two matching Italianate mansions on West 12th Street, Nos. 12 & No. 14. A description of these buildings can be found on Daytonian in Manhattan:
” …abutting the churchyard of First Presbyterian Church, which had been completed three years earlier. The handsome brick residences reflected the refined neighborhood. Each two bays wide, they featured arched entrances four steps above the sidewalk and a cast iron, second floor balcony that ran the width both structures. Brownstone lintels and a simple cornice added to the understated elegance of Davis’ design.”
These mansions survived into the mid-20th century, changing hands a couple of times throughout their lifespan. Most famously, No. 12 was the home of Thurlow Weed, an influential statesman. After the death of Thurlow, ownership of No. 12 fell to his daughter Harriet, and after her passing both buildings were taken over by the First Presbyterian Church, becoming their parsonage. However, in 1958, the church, in need of a modern church house, made the decision to tear down Nos. 12 & 14. A necessary decision for the church proved to be an unpopular one with the community, as reported by The Times:
“Though church folk dislike the idea of having the old mansions torn down, and architects in town frown on the notion, too, they know they must go. The space is sorely needed for the children. So, one by one, the master works of great architects vanish from the city.”
Davis, who worked along with the architect Ithiel Town, had a hand in other architectural works within the Village, including a portion of the now-demolished Brevoort Mansion on 5th Avenue, and the designs for Colonnade Row. However, with the loss of Nos. 12 & 14, the city lost a truly wonderful example of Davis’s designs. As lamented by The Times, “All that will remain of his dreaming on paper when the Twelfth Street mansions go down in rubble…will be a few villas up in Hudson River Valley.”
These days, a modern church house stands on the lot of the former Nos. 12 & 14. Constructed in 1960 and designed by Edgar Tafel, the church house was designed to mimic the adjoining 1846 Gothic Revival Church.