Historic Architecture

Cataloguing the Work of Colonial Era Architects…

Peter Harrison - Architect



In 1959, while I was a 14-year-old student at Charterhouse, a famous British boarding-school, I passionately started research into a then anonymous British architect, a talented and prolific contemporary of Sir Christopher Wren. This mystery architect later turned out to be Elizabeth Lady Wilbraham (1632-1705), the world’s first woman architect, and Christopher Wren’s architectural tutor. She was responsible for designing some of the most important iconic British buildings of her day, even though if the wrong people found out about her activities she could have faced a stiff fine or even imprisonment. However, she was careful to leave behind almost no primary documentation that could help to convict her.

By 1962, I was a 17-year-old freshman at Harvard College, and still spending considerable time and energy chasing this mystery architect, and my activities attracted the attention of respected American scholar Wendell Garrett, who was a visiting professor at Harvard. He asked me to turn my attention to Peter Harrison and find out what more could be found out about Harrison that had not previously been published. Nearly all of Harrison’s papers had been destroyed during the American War of Independence, which meant that it had been nearly impossible to evaluate his important and extensive contributions in the face of such a shortage of primary documentation.
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1853 picture of the Brick Market building designed by Peter Harrison
Public Domain
“No sweat,” I replied; “I’ll have that all done by my senior year.” Every time that I thought my task was complete, additional buildings, often in exotic locations, had a way of opening up further lines of enquiry, and the most recent discoveries appeared as late as December 2014.

In 2013, McFarland & Company, Inc. of Jefferson, North Carolina accepted my lengthy manuscript for publication, and the book appeared in October 2014, The Buildings of Peter Harrison: Cataloguing the Work of the First Global Architect, 1716-1775. The paperback edition (ISBN 978-0-7864-7962-7) retails for $75, and an e-book version (ISBN 978-1-4766-1574-5) sells for somewhat less. It is regrettable but perhaps inevitable that several important Harrison attributions from around the world have appeared subsequent to the publication of the McFarland book.

However, the editors at McFarland declined to publish most of the line drawings that I had spent years drawing; the McFarland book contains fewer than 100 illustrations, of which a certain percentage were required to be photographs. They suggested that I establish a web-site upon which I could display all those drawings, and coincidentally add drawings in case any further Harrison buildings were to appear. The web-site is www.historicarchitecture.guru. The contents of the web-site are also being made available for purchase as a print-on-demand book, Peter Harrison (1716-1775) Drawings.

The two books are designed to work together. The McFarland book contains the text and rationale behind the buildings, but very few actual illustrations. The second book contains all the illustrations, but very little explanatory text. Neither book, in my opinion, can usefully stand alone, so we are offering both books for sale as a package (or individually) on the web-site.
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John Millar

Get the companion book here…

A note from the author:
Two characteristics of the website may be of particular interest to visitors. First, if further Harrison information comes to light, it can be displayed here. Second, I am working on three additional architectural history books, whose illustrations can also be posted. One will cover Governor Francis Nicholson (1655-1728) and some of his contemporaries working in America; another will cover Elizabeth Lady Wilbraham (1632-1705), the world’s first woman architect and Christopher Wren’s teacher; the third will cover Hans Hendrik van Paesschen (ca. 1515-1582), whom some have called “the Northern Palladio.” Along with Harrison, these people comprise four of the most important but hitherto unrecognized figures in Western architectural history.