As chairman of a committee of the Poughkeepsie village board of trustees, of which he was president, Matthew Vassar purchased the 45-acre “Allen farm” southwest of the village, with the intention of selling it to subscribers for a greatly needed new public cemetery. Meeting with “unaccountable indifference,” as The Poughkeepsie Eagle put it, he commenced improvements to the site suitable for both a cemetery and a private estate in case the cemetery venture did not succeed.
Andrew Jackson Downing of Newburgh, a prominent architect and the most important American landscape designer, began plans for the land’s development. When the cemetery committee decided on a larger piece of nearby property on the bank of the Hudson, Downing proceeded to develop plans for a country estate for Vassar to be called Springside. On July 28, 1852, Downing died, along with 80 others, when a boiler aboard the river steamer Henry Clay exploded into flames which quickly destroyed the wooden craft.
Although Vassar proceeded with several parts of Downing’s extensive plan for Springside, the main house was never built. Vassar summered in a farmer’s cottage on the property, and after the death of his wife Catherine in 1863 he lived at Springside year-round.