Historic Architecture

Cataloguing the Work of Colonial Era Architects…

The First Voyage of Peter Harrison to the New World, 1738

by John Fitzhugh Millar, 2010

[Peter Harrison (1716-1775) started training as an architect at age twelve under William Etty of York, England. Etty was both an architect and an accomplished builder, who was engaged, for example, by Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh at Castle Howard. The young Harrison accompanied Etty to Castle Howard and other construction sites. However, his training stopped abruptly when Etty died in 1734, and Harrison was 18 years old. England was in somewhat of a building slump, so there was little work for new architects.]

[The young Harrison was able to find commissions for seven handsome churches and three town hall/markets, most for builders named John & William Bastard, James Horne, Francis Smith in England, and Allan Dreghorn in Scotland, but the designer’s cut for churches was a mere pittance, if indeed he was paid at all – and the chance to have his work widely admired. Showing the same sort of precocity as Handel had in music, Harrison’s very first design at age 17 was drawn for a close family friend, William Watson-Wentworth, Marquess of Rockingham (later twice Prime Minister), the enormous front elevation for England’s largest private house, Wentworth-Woodhouse in Yorkshire (606 feet/180 metres long), but he is unlikely to have been paid for that academic exercise. In 1737, he also designed another large Yorkshire country house, Nostell Priory. Years later, he was to design seven other large and important English houses: Foots Cray in Kent; Fonthill Splendens in Wiltshire; Spencer House, London; the southwest wing of Wentworth Castle in Yorkshire (which Horace Walpole pronounced the most tasteful design in England) for another family friend in the Wentworth family; Saint Helen’s House, Derby; Foremarke Hall, Derbyshire; and Staunton Harold Hall in Leicestershire, as well as much of Castle Ward in Northern Ireland. In 1737, Harrison turned to his elder brother Joseph, who was a merchant ship captain, and offered to work for him. With Joseph, Harrison sailed to Venice, where he saw first-hand many of Palladio’s buildings that he had already known from books, and actually designed a Palazzo on the Grand Canal for an English merchant.]

Some people achieve fame by leaving behind them a distinctive trail of destruction, but Harrison left behind him an impressive trail of construction in America. In 1738, when he was 22 years old, Harrison sailed for the New World in the crew of a ship commanded by his brother Joseph, taking the easy route past the Canary Islands to Paramaribo, Suriname on the north coast of South America, only six degrees north of the equator. There, he boldly began a pattern he repeated in every port he visited subsequently. He let people know that he was an architect who would be in port for only a few days, and he would welcome any commissions. He designed four buildings there. The existing Governor’s Mansion (now the President’s House) was an undistinguished building which surprisingly for a tropical port had no porches, so Harrison designed a new formal front that consisted of a double-decker arcaded porch nine bays long with the central three bays gathered into a pedimented breakfront. Each bay was an open arch framed by pilasters, Doric for the lower floor and Ionic for the upper. In 1764, he recycled essentially the same design for the larger of two designs for the British Market in New Orleans. The smaller New Orleans design was used for the Market, so the larger was eventually used in 1791, long after Harrison’s death, to build the well-known Cabildo and its twin, the Presbytere.
Location of Suriname
Map - Suriname, The World Factbook

Paramaribo had two Jewish synagogues. For the Sephardic congregation Zedek ve Shalom, he drew three sets of plans for a major enlargement, which was not actually carried out until the early nineteenth century. In the event, they selected the simplest design, clad in wooden rustication (a Harrison invention) with an interior based on a standard James Gibbs church. The medium design was then released to the Lutheran Church for its new masonry building, which had a three-bay pedimented breakfront; its interior, however, was designed by a nineteenth-century architect.
Both designs had a single row of compass-headed windows. The most expensive of the three designs was passed along to the Dutch Reformed Church at Stabroeuk, a Dutch colony on the Demarara River (now Georgetown, Guyana). Construction was begun in 1811, but within months the country was turned over to British control as part of the effort to end the Napoleonic wars, and it took a few more years before the building was completed by builder Joseph Hadfield as Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk in 1818. It is built of long-lasting greenheart wood, seven bays long and two storeys tall, with compass-headed windows for the ground floor and circular windows for the gallery upstairs, reminiscent of Harrison’s 1740s Saint James’ Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At the west end is a tower and steeple, reminiscent of the steeple he added to Christ Church, Boston later in 1738, and a similar design for the replacement steeple at Trinity Church, Newport in the 1740s; Harrison based his design on Elizabeth Lady Wilbraham’s steeple on the Royal Exchangte in London, crossed with a steeple he had seen in Venice designed by Baldassare Longhena. In 1852, when the South American steeple was found to be rotten, it was replaced by a new tower and steeple in gothic style, and the whole church was gothicized to match. The original appearance is, however, known from an engraving of 1823.
His next port of call was Bridgetown, Barbados. Bridgetown had no buildings of distinction at that time, although the town of Bathsheba on the east coast had two fine buildings for Codrington College (the smaller attributed to Elizabeth Lady Wilbraham, and the larger probably designed by Governor Francis Nicholson, with construction supervised by Colonel Christian Lilly).
Map showing location of Barbados
Map - Barbados, The World Factbook
The immense wealth derived from the annual sugar crop meant that money would be available to pay for a landmark, and accordingly Harrison designed a way of greatly enlarging the existing Statehouse at Bridgetown; this building still stands, although altered and used as a police station, courthouse, and jail. The building is of stone with quoins at the angles, nine bays long and two storeys tall, with the central three bays forming a pedimented breakfront. The cupola that once stood in the middle of the hip roof was destroyed by a hurricane in 1780. This visit was probably also the moment in which Harrison designed the now altered office and warehouse building on the waterfront of Bridgetown for the Portuguese Jewish merchant family Da Costa. The nine-bay, two-storey building contained a three-bay pedimented Tuscan portico-in-antis on the upper floor, the first time this advanced device had appeared in the New World.

After Barbados, Harrison sailed to Jamaica, but he probably did not stop along the way at Martinique, where he would have seen the fine Jacobin Convent, or at Antigua, where Saint John’s Church, which was destroyed in the nineteenth century, is attributed to Governor Francis Nicholson, or at Saint Kitts, where he could have seen Governor de Poincy’s impressive ca.1650 Fountains House. Nor did he stop in Curacao, where the mansion of the Dutch governor had to wait until late in the nineteenth century before it received a proper classical façade. In Jamaica, Harrison designed two plantation “Great-houses,” neither of which still stands. One near Kingston was called Up-park. It had a central pedimented breakfront with a Venetian window upstairs over a Venetian-arch doorway downstairs. The rest of the house was clad in two storeys of French-style galeries. The other house, called Montpelier, stood near Montego Bay in the north, and it also had a Venetian arch upstairs in the pedimented breakfront over a Venetian-arch doorway downstairs. The rest of the windows upstairs were square. The house was connected by arched breezeways to a pair of three-bay, single-storey dependencies. At that time, the only other buildings in Jamaica with architectural pretensions were Colbeck Castle Great-house (attributed to Elizabeth Lady Wilbraham, and now in ruins), and a couple of brick churches now destroyed.

Harrison’s next port of call was Charleston, South Carolina, and he presumably did not stop either in Georgia (where he could have seen James Oglethorpe’s path-breaking street plan for Savannah), or in Bermuda (where the 1620 classical Italian-style Statehouse designed by Governor Nathaniel Butler still stands). Harrison designed the fabulous brick neo-Palladian mansion, Drayton Hall plantation house a few miles from Charleston. The house’s designer is known to have been absent while it was being built (in this case, sailing on his ship), because a major change was made in the room layout during construction without a corresponding change in the supporting foundations, causing a serious weakness in the structure. The main house has a pedimented double-decked portico in antis on its land front, derived from the similar portico James Gibbs had added to Stowe about 1725, although ultimately derived from Palladio. The river front has three pedimented aedicules surrounding upstairs windows that are copied from a house by John Wood I in Queen Square, Bath. Harrison is known to have visited both Stowe and Bath. According to surviving art-work, Harrison designed large alternative dependencies linked to the house by colonnaded quadrants; the clients selected the smaller, less expensive dependencies, which were destroyed after an earthquake in the nineteenth century. While in Charleston, it is possible that Harrison designed three pieces of furniture for Drayton Hall, a bureau-bookcase with egg-and-dart cornice and scrolled ogee pediment; a marble-topped tea table with shell decoration; a marble-topped pier table with Greek wave decoration. These are known only from a drawing, but apparently related to other furniture he designed elsewhere; they were perhaps actually built by the young Thomas Elfe I, who arrived in Charleston in 1746. Before Harrison’s time, the only fine buildings in South Carolina were Archdale Hall (attributed to Elizabeth Lady Wilbraham), Brick House on Edisto Island, Governor Nicholson’s waterfront mansion in Charleston, and Saint Philip’s Church, Charleston (all three attributed to Governor Francis Nicholson).

Also datable to Harrison’s first visit to Charleston in 1738 is the rebuilding of a house in Charleston for the incoming governor, who turned out to be James Glen from Scotland, although no one knew that at the time. Glen actually delayed his arrival by several years to make sure the house was truly ready. Previous Governor Nicholson’s waterfront mansion did not belong to the colony, so another mansion had to be found. The existing two-storey house was given an additional storey with square windows on the top floor. The house was also fitted with a mansard roof, as described by Charles Pinckney a few years later; this is significant, because the only other mansard roof in South Carolina at that time was on Drayton Hall. Half a century later, the Glen house was further enlarged and altered; it was fitted with taller windows on the top floor, and the roof was replaced by a regular hip. The entrance doorway was also moved.

After Charleston, Harrison stopped at Wilmington, North Carolina, where he designed a multi-purpose brick public building that no longer stands. The ground floor was an open arcaded market, and the upper floor was used as a courthouse, and a place for meetings of the town council and the colonial legislature, and for dance assemblies. The legislature also met there occasionally. Giant Doric pilasters supported a full entablature and balustrade around the roof.

Harrison next sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, where his first stop was in the James River in Virginia. There, according to a long-standing legend, a Mrs. Ludwell asked him to design a plantation mansion for her kinsman, Thomas Lee, to be built on the Potomac River, and known as Stratford Hall. In the legend of Stratford Hall is a tale that Mrs. Ludwell procured the design from a man visiting on a ship, and Harrison certainly fits that story perfectly, as does the date: dendrochronology has fixed the date of Stratford at 1738. It is likely that this iconic H-shaped brick house was never completed to the original design, which probably called for decoration of the upper floor, the piano nobile, with pilasters and an entablature in the manner of the recent neo-Palladian rebuilding of Burlington House in London. Particularly unusual are the four chimneys at each end grouped in squares and separated by arches.

While he was in the James River, Harrison undoubtedly visited Williamsburg, because he used details of the Governor’s Palace in his rebuilding of the Intendant’s Palace at Quebec a few years later; he also knew the Capitol well enough to provide designs for its rebuilding shortly after it was destroyed by fire in 1747. Both the Capitol and the Governor’s Palace had been designed by Governor Francis Nicholson, who had first laid out the unusual street plan. Harrison would also have seen the College of William & Mary, by that time greatly altered by Francis Nicholson after a fire from its original 1693 design said to have been drawn by Sir Christopher Wren (but actually one of two designs drawn at Wren’s request by his teacher, Elizabeth Lady Wilbraham). Harrison would not have had time to visit Virginia’s other fine architecture of the period designed by an anonymous man, including Christ Church in Kilmarnock, and several plantations, such as Corotoman, Rosewell, Nomini Hall, Sabine Hall, three Nelson houses, two Lightfoot houses, and Shirley.

Further up the Chesapeake Bay, Harrison came to Annapolis, Maryland, where the unusual street plan involving circles had been drawn by Governor Francis Nicholson in 1694. In Maryland, Harrison was asked to design three important brick houses. All three contained pedimented breakfronts with Venetian windows upstairs over Venetian-arched doorways downstairs. This was the first appearance of Venetian windows in a North American house. Only one of these houses was in Annapolis, the Daniel Dulaney House, and Dulaney was accorded the greatest respect as an arbiter of taste for the rest of his life as a result of his mansion, which, however, no longer stands. The other two were plantation houses, Poplar Hill (also sometimes called His Lordship’s Kindness), near Clinton, and Compton Bassett, near Upper Marlborough; both were heavily damaged in the Revolutionary War through having their lead roofs removed to make bullets, but both have been subsequently repaired with significant alterations.

Harrison sailed back down the Chesapeake Bay and then continued northward up the Delaware River to Philadelphia. There, he would have just missed meeting architect-builder James Porteus, who had died the previous year (Porteus had designed Penn’s country house Pennsbury Manor, the Slate-Roof House, Fairhill, White Lodge, and Stenton, and had founded the important Carpenters Company). Harrison would have seen two simple but formal public buildings designed by an anonymous Quaker architect, the Philadelphia Town Hall/Market, and the Friends’ Almshouse. The Statehouse (later called Independence Hall) would have been under construction to designs by Edmund Woolley and Governor Francis Nicholson, as would the impressive Christ Church, designed by Nicholson (but minus its steeple, which Harrison was to design on another voyage in 1745).

In greater Philadelphia, Harrison designed five mansions. Bush Hill was a two-storey brick house seven bays long, with the central three bays contained in a pedimented breakfront, and next to it was a nine-bay orangery with a five-bay pedimented breakfront. Walnut Grove had a very similar appearance to Bush Hill, as did Loxley Hall. Pemberton’s Plantation was a smaller house, five bays wide with its central bay forming a pedimented breakfront; it had a piano nobile over a high basement. All four of these were destroyed in the nineteenth century. The fifth house, Belmont, still stands in Fairmount Park in greatly altered form. A recently-discovered period painting by Du Simitiere of Belmont shows that the main house was configured as if it had five bays in width with the central three bays forming a pedimented breakfront, but the other two bays contained no windows or other openings. The house once had small wings on either side to anchor colonnaded quadrants connecting to a pair of dependencies (as at Drayton Hall), but they have long since disappeared.

While he was in Philadelphia, Harrison designed an important piece of furniture. This is a splendid cabinet intended to house scientific equipment for the Library Company of Philadelphia, and it sports a split triangular pediment, and detailed carving, including egg-and-dart moldings. This can properly be described as the first piece of American furniture in the neo-Palladian style, although it seems never to have been imitated.
As Harrison continued his trading voyage up the American coast, he appears not to have stopped this time in two of the major population centers, New York City and Newport. In New York, he would have seen only three attractive buildings, all designed by Governor Francis Nicholson: the City Hall (which was also used as the Statehouse), the French Huguenot Church of the Saint-Esprit, and the Jewish Synagogue “Shearith Israel.” In Newport, where he made his first visit the following year, he would have seen Trinity Church, designed by Governor Francis Nicholson, Dr. George Berkeley’s Whitehall (North America’s first neo-Palladian building), designed by Richard Dalton (who went on to become one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Art in London), and various buildings in a rather vernacular style by Richard Munday.

Finally, Harrison arrived in Boston, where he could have seen a number of sophisticated buildings. The earliest built was the Foster Mansion, attributed to Elizabeth Lady Wilbraham. The others, all designed by Governor Francis Nicholson, included Stoughton Hall at Harvard College across the river in Cambridge, the Brattle Congregational Meeting House in Boston, the Boston Town House, the William Clarke Mansion, Christ Church “the Old North,” Trinity Church, and the Old South Congregational Meeting House. Harrison probably would not have seen Saint Michael’s Church, Marblehead by Francis Nicholson, because that would have been a day’s sail from Boston.
When Harrison arrived in Boston, he must have enquired why the lovely Christ Church had been left without a steeple atop its tower. The answer was that Nicholson had indeed designed an impressive steeple (known to us from an engraving), but the local craftsmen could not figure out how to build it within their budget. Harrison then offered to design a steeple that would look impressive, but which would be relatively simple and inexpensive to build. His design imitates the bell tower of the churches by Baldassare Longhena that he had seen the previous year in Venice, in that its principal stage has two arches side-by-side, rather than the more correct one or three arches that one would expect; Harrison may have assumed that the Venetian bell towers had been designed by Palladio. The windows of the upper stage of Harrison’s steeple are of course deeply engrained in American mythology, as that is where Paul Revere’s lanterns were hung on that epic night in April 1775 for the beginning of the War of Independence.

While he was in Boston on this visit, Harrison, who was an adept wood-worker, encountered Job Coit and his son, Job II, who were both cabinet-makers. For them, he designed a new idea in furniture: the block-front, which is still the only major “American” furniture invention, -- in this case, a secretary-desk or bureau-bookcase that is now at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Later, when he lived in Newport, Harrison refined the idea of the block-front still further for his Quaker friends the Townsends and Goddards, and for others to construct in Rhode Island and Connecticut; one of those pieces sold at auction in 1989 for over $12 million, a world record price that still stands for any kind of wooden furniture. In the mean time, the design that Harrison drew for Coit was a great success, and cabinet-makers in Nova Scotia, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and even North Carolina, as well as Europe, freely made their regional adaptations of Harrison’s idea. One secretary-desk by Benjamin Frothingham of Boston even combined the block-front with the bombe design that Harrison introduced to Massachusetts on a subsequent voyage.

About five months after it started, Harrison was finished with his first voyage to America, and he sailed his ship back to England (one additional month), just in time to design a few more churches there. In the space of time taken by this one voyage, American culture was greatly transformed and enriched in both architecture and furniture design. Probably no other architect has ever had such a profound effect on a region in such a short time. Of course, Harrison was not finished. Eight years later in 1746, after having saved British America from almost certain conquest by a threatened French invasion, he perfected the invention for which he is best known today: wooden rusticated siding, first seen on Massachusetts Governor William Shirley’s mansion, Shirley Place, in Roxbury (still standing but moved and in greatly altered form). By the end of his life in 1775, he had designed over 400 buildings, and was the first architect ever to design buildings on every known continent. Even if he had actually designed nothing else after 1738, the architectural and decorative arts products of Harrison’s first voyage in America (20 important buildings and 3 items of furniture) are sufficient to place him in the top rank of all architects and designers who have ever worked in America.


John F Millar