Downing was a designer, horticulturist, and author. His Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, and essays published in his magazine, The Horticulturist, on which he collaborated with Alexander Jackson Davis, popularized landscape gardening among America’s growing middle and upper-middle classes. Following British models, he categorized landscape design styles as “The Beautiful” (calm and serene) and “The Picturesque” (dramatic), with the style to be determined by the existing landscape context. He was an advocate for the creation of public parks in America and the health value of interaction with the natural world.
Believing that architecture, too, needed to conform to site character, he brought architect Calvert Vaux from England in 1850 to assist him in his practice, including the design of Matthew Vassar’s estate, “Springside”, in Poughkeepsie, New York. (Six years later, Vaux named his second child Downing Vaux in tribute to his mentor). Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., a friend and colleague, was one of the many visitors whom Downing entertained at his villa on the Hudson River at Newburgh, New York. Downing’s influence is strongly reflected in the Olmsted and Vaux design for Central Park. His writings did much to establish the practice of landscape gardening, and, later, of landscape architecture, in the U.S.