Born in New York City, Davis studied at the American Academy of Fine Arts, the New York Drawing Association, and the Antique School of the National Academy of Design. Though initially trained as a typesetter, Davis’s passion for architectural illustration and design led him to the architectural firm of Ithiel Town, where he became a partner in 1829. The firm specialized in using the Greek Revival style for state capitols, residences, and other institutions countrywide. After separating from Town, Davis became the leading architect of country houses in the 1840s and 1850s.
An advocate of the Picturesque style, Davis sought to harmonize his country house designs with the surrounding landscape. Beginning in 1839, he collaborated with landscape gardener A.J. Downing on publications such as The Architecture of Country Houses and The Horticulturist, where they popularized the Picturesque style in landscape and architecture. Of his many built designs, Lyndhurst and Kenwood, both along the Hudson River, are excellent examples of his design philosophy. Later, Davis helped create Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey, one of earliest planned suburbs in the country.