Historic Architecture

Cataloguing the Work of Colonial Era Architects…

The Architecture of Gratitude:

How Peter Harrison found so many commissions John F Millar

In 1744, while captain of the 120-ton snow-rigged Boston merchant ship Nancy, Peter Harrison was arrested at sea on his way from Italy to Boston by French privateer captain Pierre Morpain of the topsail-schooner Le Succes (France had recently declared war). Morpain delivered Harrison and the other prisoners to the enormous fortress-city of Louisbourg on the northeast corner of Ile Royale (what today is Cape Breton, Nova Scotia).

Typically, Morpain’s prisoners were locked up in the dungeon there, which was not a good outcome: most of the prisoners died from the squalor. However, Harrison, who had visited Louisbourg two years earlier in peacetime (1742, the same year, incidentally, in which Handel’s Messiah was first performed in Dublin), was recognized by Colonel Etienne Verrier, Louisbourg’s only architect, who also served as second in command of the garrison. On the previous voyage in 1742, Harrison had solved a difficult architectural problem for Verrier involving how best to finish the Porte Saint-Frederic or Watergate without ordering expensive (but forbidden) finish stone from France, and Verrier, who had already rewarded Harrison with letters of introduction to officials in Quebec, Trois Rivieres, and Montreal that resulted in many architectural commissions there, further rewarded him by placing him under house arrest in the Verrier house instead of the dungeon. All Harrison had to do was promise not to leave the house without permission, as Verrier did not want his guest investigating the fortifications and then passing along the information to the British.

Verrier felt sorry for his guest, who would be alone in the house for many hours every day, so he invited him to use his drafting table and the drawing paper in the drawer underneath. Harrison found that the paper in the drawer also contained Verrier’s complete drawings of the fortifications, as well as maps and charts of the coastline and harbors near Louisbourg – Verrier had completely forgotten that he had left those drawings in the drawer. Harrison used his time to make copies of all these drawings, which he hid in the lining of his coat. Nobody suspected a thing, because everybody was wearing paper stuffed into their coats in order to stay warm. Naturally, if Harrison had been caught, he would have to have been shot as a spy. However, a few months later, since he was not caught he was released on a prisoner exchange, so he delivered the drawings to his friend Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire, who in turn introduced Harrison and his drawings to Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts.

Shirley used those drawings to persuade his reluctant legislature to permit him to use armed New England farmers and fishermen to attack Louisbourg (no real soldiers remained in New England at that time). He launched his attack on 30 April 1745. The expedition almost came undone when the large French frigate La Renommee suddenly appeared out of the mists. The French warship was easily powerful enough to capture the entire fleet of transports, but Captain Daniel Fones of the little Rhode Island Navy 14-gun brig Tartar courageously attacked the French ship and miraculously escaped serious damage. This led the French ship far from the American fleet, which was able to reach Louisbourg undetected. Tartar was reunited with her consorts at that same moment.
The Siege of Louisbourg
Siege of Louisbourg (Click for Larger) Wikipedia
Most people have admittedly never heard of Louisbourg, but it was once the third largest seaport in North America. Louisbourg, incidentally, has been partially but beautifully restored and reconstructed by Parks Canada, and is well worth a visit. Its capture by Shirley’s expedition, even if otherwise unknown to the world, was one of the major turning points of western history.
The French had been running up an enormous annual government deficit since about 1690, and a century later the bankers in Amsterdam famously cut off the French government credit, which was the direct cause of the French Revolution. In the 1740s, nobody knew that a Revolution was coming, but the French cabinet was sufficiently worried that they held a meeting on how to solve the deficit. Raising taxes was ruled out, as was cutting spending. What else was left? Marshal Maurice de Saxe, head of the French military, pointed out that Britain was reaping fortunes from her colonies, whereas France micro-managed her own colonies to the point where they produced only insignificant financial return. France, he said, should make it a top priority to grab Britain’s colonies all over the world, and then France would enjoy that income and be able to solve the deficit. Therefore, the French secretly financed Bonny Prince Charlie to invade Britain with 100,000 hired troops, and then told the British that Charles Stuart was planning to invade. The British reacted by calling all their soldiers home from the colonies around the world to defend Britain. That was exactly what the French wanted: they then invaded and conquered most of British India, and the next objective would be British America.

Shirley could see that the British were hamstrung by the Jacobite Rebellion (until after Charlie’s defeat at the Battle of Culloden Moor on 16 April 1746) and would be unable to keep the French out of North America. He understood that Americans would have to act on their own, so that is why he wanted to attack Louisbourg. The plan worked. When the French heard about the fall of Louisbourg, they delayed their invasion of America. When the French fleet finally set sail in late April 1747, the Jacobite Rebellion had been over for a year, so the British were slowly able to return their focus to facing the French. Admiral George Anson defeated the French fleet off the coast of Spain on 3 May, and a second invasion fleet was defeated by Admiral Sir Edward Hawke on 25 October, so the French, by this time short of money, asked for peace. The British refused to make peace unless most of India were returned, and the French agreed if Louisbourg were restored to them. Thus, India remained in the British Empire for exactly 200 more years, and Americans speak English today rather than French, much of that being the amazing result of Harrison’s courage and initiative as a prisoner of war in Louisbourg.

Of course, the French had not given up on their plan to solve their deficit by grabbing Britain’s colonies around the world, but merely postponed it. Therefore, five years after the 1748 peace treaty was signed, war broke out once again between the French and the British in America and India; Americans call it the French & Indians War. Europeans call it the Seven Years War, even though out on the frontiers in America and India it actually lasted eleven years. In the interim years, George Anson had been made head of the British Navy. Anson ordered the build-up of the navy to the point where it could defeat any three navies in the world at the same time, so that when the French started a new war the British quickly swept most French warships off the seas. Since the war was still continuing on land, the British decided to use their naval superiority to drive the French out of India, and out of Africa. They captured every French island in the Caribbean, although they had to return some of them at the peace conference. The British captured Canada, and eastern Louisiana – everything from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Appalachians to the Mississippi – and France was left with only western Louisiana, including New Orleans and Saint Louis. France was bankrupt, and there would have been a French Revolution as early as 1762, but the king of Spain intervened: he offered to buy western Louisiana for enough money to keep the French out of bankruptcy for more than 25 years.

Shirley’s term as Governor of Massachusetts ended in 1756 as a result of unfounded petty accusations by local people, and he was then transferred to Governor of the Bahamas. Yet, in spite of that, because of his success against the French, he was looked up to by all other colonial governors and public officials, who considered him as being the closest Britain ever had to a viceroy in the New World. He owed much of his success against the French to Harrison’s courage and initiative, so he resolved to become Harrison’s patron. He first ordered Harrison to design him the most impressive governor’s mansion in America – as befits the man who beat the French. Harrison’s plan called for Shirley Place in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a large house made of cut stone, as one would expect in Europe, but Shirley rejected stone because Massachusetts had neither stone quarries nor trained masons. Harrison redrew the plans so that the house was built of wood carved to look like stone. This major invention by Harrison is known as “wooden rustication,” or, as George Washington called it, “rusticated boards.” The mansion was a great success, and spurred many other people from Canada to Florida to request wooden rustication for their houses.

Next, Shirley made sure that Massachusetts government and church officials knew to request Harrison to design buildings for them. This resulted in the rebuilding of the burned Massachusetts Statehouse, a new Courthouse in Boston, Hollis Hall and Harvard Hall at Harvard College, a new King’s Chapel in Boston, a new Brattle Congregational Church in Boston, and the steeple of the Meeting House in Newburyport. When Shirley moved to the Bahamas, he had Harrison design his domed governor’s mansion there, plus three Statehouse designs (small, medium, and large; all three were actually built for various purposes), the Market, and Saint Matthew’s Church. Shirley’s son Thomas became Governor of Dominica, so he had Harrison draw a governor’s Mansion and three Statehouse designs (small, medium and large, all of which were built later in Antigua for a different purpose). Shirley also recommended Harrison to his kinsman, Admiral Washington Shirley (also known as the Earl Ferrers), who had him design the rebuilding of Staunton Harold Hall in Leicestershire, and Saint Helen’s House, Derby for a close friend, and the Assembly Rooms at Derby.

Shirley also was in touch with public officials in all British colonies in order to make them understand what they owed to Harrison. Important buildings were commissioned from him: in Nova Scotia he designed Saint Paul’s Church, Halifax (actually a kit built in Boston; the same procedure was followed for Saint John’s Church, Saint John’s and Christ Church, Harbour Grace, both in Newfoundland); in New Hampshire, there were a mansion for Governor Wentworth, Union Church at Claremont, a lighthouse near Portsmouth, Dartmouth College, and Burlington College. In Rhode Island, a Statehouse project for Providence, a fort project for Newport, the Brick Market in Newport, “The College at Rhode Island” (now Brown University in Providence), and two versions of Beavertail Lighthouse. In Connecticut, a Statehouse project and a Customhouse/Market, both in New Haven. In New York, the governor’s mansion on Governor’s Island, the Provost Prison, a project for King’s College (now Columbia University), a lighthouse project for Montauk Point, several churches (including Saint George’s Chapel, Saint Paul’s Chapel, Saint John’s Chapel, a “gothick” project for rebuilding Trinity Church, the Wall Street Presbyterian Church, the Brick Presbyterian Church, the North Dutch Reformed Church, and the Moravian Church), and some forts on the frontier. In New Jersey, Christ Church in New Brunswick, two projects for Queen’s College (now Rutgers University), and Sandy Hook Lighthouse. In Pennsylvania, Governor John Penn’s Mansion, parts of “The College of Philadelphia” (now University of Pennsylvania), the Pennsylvania Hospital, some churches (including the steeples of Christ Church and the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Saint James’ Church and Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster), and some frontier forts. In Delaware, a school. In Maryland, Governor Robert Eden’s Mansion, Frederick County Courthouse, and a project for Maryland College. In Virginia, the rebuilding of the Statehouse, one Market at Williamsburg and another at Fredericksburg, one Courthouse at Norfolk and another in Gloucester County, Trinity Church in Portsmouth, and a project for a lighthouse at Cape Henry, as well as “Pleasant Hill” country house for the colony’s powerful treasurer John Robinson. In North Carolina, a Market/Courthouse at Campbellton (now called Fayetteville). In South Carolina, the Statehouse, some churches, a project for the College of Charleston, and a project for the Exchange. In Georgia, the Exchange. In Jamaica, two governor’s mansions at Kingston and Spanishtown, two Statehouses at Kingston and Spanishtown, the Spanishtown Courthouse, and the Sephardic Jewish Synagogue in Kingston. In the British Virgin Islands, the governor’s mansion at Roadtown, Tortola. In Saint Kitts, the governor’s mansion at Basseterre. In Nevis, the governor’s mansion at Charlestown. In Antigua, the Statehouse at Saint John’s. In Montserrat, the governor’s mansion at Plymouth. In Barbados, there were already some important Harrison buildings from before the war. In Tobago, the governor’s mansion at Scarborough.

Shirley developed a political philosophy regarding the neighboring French and Spanish colonies. British colonies, he reasoned, were self-governing through an elected legislature, but French and Spanish colonies were governed solely by a governor appointed from the home country. Therefore, if British colonies could be seen to have impressive palaces for their Statehouses, they would be at less risk from attack by French and Spanish colonists, who would be jealous of their political rights. Accordingly, he got Harrison to design impressive Statehouses for Newfoundland and Nova Scotia (which somehow failed to be constructed for many decades), and when the British later conquered New France Harrison was asked to design two Statehouses (one for Montreal and one for Quebec). When New Orleans became Spanish but the British retained rights to sail on the Mississippi, Harrison was asked to draw two designs for the official British Market building there; the smaller was built on the western end of the waterfront, and later (with alterations) became the US Customs House, whereas the larger was built as the City Hall or “Cabildo” when a 1788 great fire destroyed the center of town. When the British acquired Florida from Spain, they divided it into two colonies and had Harrison design a Statehouse and a governor’s mansion for each. When the British captured Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Vincent, and Grenada in the Caribbean and Senegal in West Africa, they immediately had Harrison design a Statehouse for each (and a Customhouse for Martinique), even though Guadeloupe and Martinique had to be returned to France at the peace conference before the buildings were complete.

Shirley was appointed to be one of the important peace commissioners for the conference at the end of the war in 1748, so in 1747 he sought a diplomatic passport for Harrison ostensibly to be one of his aides, but then told him his services would not be needed at the conference. Instead, he was to use the passport to travel around France and study their architecture and decorative arts, which he did. A tea table Harrison subsequently designed in the French taste for his friend John Goddard to make in Newport sold at auction in the 1990s for $8 million, still a world record price for a table. The most notable architectural idea Harrison found in France was the unusual arrangement of columns he used at King’s Chapel, Boston, based on his seeing the Church of Sainte-Madeleine under construction at Besancon by Nicolas Nicole.

When Harrison came across the Atlantic for this expedition, he found that Shirley had already paved the way for him: when he arrived in Dublin, Irish officials, including Archbishop Arthur Price (who gave the recipe for stout to Arthur Guinness!), engaged him to design Saint John’s Cathedral at Cashel, Saint Peter’s Church at Drogheda, and Saint Thomas’ Church at Dublin, 12 boarding schools affiliated with the cathedral, one Customhouse at Newry and a project for another at Dublin, the Town Hall/Market at Drogheda, the Lying-in Hospital at Dublin, Saint Patrick’s Mental Hospital at Dublin, parts of Trinity College Dublin, and two buildings at Castle Ward. When he arrived at Liverpool, officials were waiting for him, and they got him to design Saint Thomas’ Church (with an extra-tall steeple, never completed, intended to be seen by ships far out to sea as a navigation mark) and the impressive new Town Hall/Market. When he arrived at London, German-born King George II engaged him to design part of the Aegidien Church and a classroom/library for the University of Gottingen in Hannover, Germany, and the new Bedford Tower in Dublin Castle. Prime Minister Pelham, a cousin of Harrison’s wife, appointed him to design the new entrance block for Cambridge University Library, and the Fisher Building at Balliol College at Oxford. Alderman Beckford, the most powerful man in the government of London, had him design Ironmongers’ Hall, London, and Fonthill Splendens, his country mansion in Wiltshire, while the elected High Sheriff of London Bourchier Cleeve (another man of great power and wealth), had Harrison design his fabulous country mansion in Kent, Foots Cray Hall. Presumably, the Physicians Hall at Edinburgh was designed at this time, although it was not actually constructed until 1775. In 1753, the Trustees of the newly founded British Museum had Harrison design a splendid building for them, but they never found the money to build it. In 1756, the Earl Spencer had Harrison design Spencer House overlooking Green Park in London, for John Vardy to build. Naturally, since Harrison was not able to stay in one place and supervise construction, all these buildings had to have a construction supervisor, and generally these supervisors are credited with the designs of each of the buildings.

Shirley also made sure that the British East India Company knew how much they owed to Harrison, so they hired him to design Saint James’ Church, Jamestown, Saint Helena; a belvedere at Surat, India; palaces for two officials at Bombay; Governor Clive’s Mansion at Cuddalore; Governor Clive’s Mansion and the Board of Trade Building at Madras; the Statehouse at Vizagapatam; Saint John’s Church, Governor Clive’s Mansion and Governor Hastings’ Mansion, the Council House/Statehouse, two Courthouses, Calcutta College, and the Clive Street Theatre at Calcutta; Saint Mary’s Church at Patna; and various designs for British, Dutch, French and other European Hongs at Canton, China. On still another continent, they had Harrison design the combination Statehouse and governor’s mansion at Fort Marlborough, Bengkulu on the island of Sumatra.

When Harrison was captured in 1744 by Captain Morpain, he must have considered that his future was rather bleak. Little did he imagine that his relatively brief imprisonment could be converted into such a spate of important architectural commissions that made him the first architect ever to design buildings on every known continent. How such an important architect can have flown undetected under the radar for so long is entirely amazing.


John F Millar