By Charlie Blim, Urban Studies, Class of 2024.
On Academy Street, on the South side of Poughkeepsie, lays a garden called Springside. Not many people know about it, as it is very unassuming–almost uninviting from the front. The first thing that greets visitors is a small and nondescript gatehouse, much like those found at the entrances of gated communities. Continuing on the curving driveway, one reaches the first landmark of the historic area, a small house called the Gardener’s Cottage, which served as the summer home for brewer, philanthropist, and founder of Vassar College, Matthew Vassar, from 1850 to his death in 1868. In fact, all of Springside was once Vassar’s estate, though much of what was once there has been lost to time and development.
To fulfill his visions of a summer estate and ornamental farm, Vassar commissioned Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscape architect and “the most potent American ‘tastemaker’ of the first half of the 19th century.” Downing, a pioneer of the Romantic style in American landscapes, created a magnificent estate for Vassar. His designs included a porter’s lodge, barn, cottage, carriage house, aviary, conservatory, gardener’s cottage, ice-house, dairy room, granary, and a log cabin. At the time of Downing’s death, the cottage, stables, gatehouse, and iron gates had been completed; Vassar continued to build his estate according to Downing’s plans while adding improvements of his own as well.
Visitors to the estate were in awe of its beauty. Calvert Vaux, architect, and former business partner of Downing, visited Springside in 1857. He wrote about his visit: “Although the property lies some distance from the river, agreeable peeps of the gleaming Hudson and its beautiful white sails are gained here and there. Still, it is the bold horizon lines, and the broad, free stretches of richly wooded intermediate distance contrasting, and yet in harmony, with the home landscape, that gives the peculiar charm to the place. It can, indeed with difficulty be separated from its surroundings, and a mutual understanding advantageous to both seems to have sprung up between Springside and the scenery in its vicinity.”
Springside was and still is a magical place, though much of what Vaux described has been lost. Poughkeepsie has built up around Springside, and development has crept into its borders. There are no longer views of the Hudson, or “broad, free stretches of richly wooded intermediate distance,” the Springside of today feels very separated from its surroundings, in no small part due to the gray and beige condominiums and townhouses that surround it.
In the years following Matthew Vassar’s death, the estate changed hands through the interrelated families of the Ackers, Nelsons, and Fitzpatricks. By the 1960s, the estate had fallen into neglect. The gardens were overgrown, many of the structures had been lost to fire and vandalism, and all that remained were the gatehouse, Gardener’s Cottage, and a smattering of outbuildings.
After nearly one hundred years of abandonment, 1968 was a momentous year for Springside. Urban renewal advocates in Poughkeepsie’s government started advocating–clandestinely–to turn the ancillary 20 acres of Springside into a K-4 “education park” while retaining the formal landscape as an educational nature conservancy. In the same year, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), documented Springside’s remaining structures, and verified them as Downing’s original works: this was a major move. Downing designed very few buildings in his career, most were done by his partner, architect Calvert Vaux.
This discovery promptly resulted in National Historic Landmark status for the structures in Springside. On August 4th, 1969, The Department of Interior announced new Historic Landmark status for the structures of Springside, along with 11 other sites. In the news release, they assert that “the estate is also unique in possessing the only two buildings (a cottage and a barn) definitely known to have been designed by Downing himself.” Around the same time, the Acker family was planning to sell the estate and was petitioning Poughkeepsie to rezone it for commercial and residential parcels. This request was denied by Poughkeepsie’s planning board, citing Springside’s importance as “one of the most significant historic landmarks existing in Dutchess County.”
Come 1983, Springside had a new owner, Robert S. Ackerman, who was fighting hard to develop the land and had submitted a plan to build 191 condominium units on the property. A band of citizens, non-profit organizations, and academics known as the Springside Associates fought back. They ended up suing Ackerman to halt the development and reached a settlement in which Ackerman would donate 20 acres of the property to the non-profit organization, Springside Landscape Restoration would steward the historic landscape into the future, while Ackerman retained the rest of the estate to develop the proposed condominiums.
In early Fall of 2023, I went to Springside for the first time. I was struck by its beauty and the delicate, interwoven microcosms–like the cells of an organism. Every path split into a ‘Y,’ presenting a two-way option forwards. It was like a labyrinth, and I was overwhelmed with a sense of infinity. This infinity lasted only momentarily, for as soon as I looked in any direction other than in, my gaze was met by looming condominiums. Long gone was the environment Vaux had described. Springside bears the scars of time and urban renewal, and little can be done to change that now. Infinity is ephemeral. Ironically, it does not seem to be able to last. At least not in Springside’s case. Development has deferred its infinity. But, if you look into the garden, into the past, you can still see glimmers of it.
From Main Street: Head South on Academy Street until you see signs for Springside.
To Learn More
Davies, Jane B. Jane B. Davies to Thomas J. McCormick, April 17, 1968. Letter Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, 4 August 1969, 12 Historic Landmark Sites Approved by Interior Dept.
Flad, Harvey. “Saving Springside: Preserving Andrew Jackson Downing’s Last Landscape.” The Hudson River Valley Review, vol. 34, no. 1, Autumn 2017
Harrington, Patrick. Patrick Harrington to John C. Poppeliers, March 22, 1968. Letter.
McCormick, Thomas J. Thomas J. McCormick to Denys Peter Meyers, October 7, 1968. Letter
National Register of Historic Places. “Springside” (The Matthew Vassar House). National Park Service, listed Aug. 11, 1982.
Vaux, Calvert. Villas and Cottages, 1857, 2nd rev. ed., 1864, pp. 299-300