Peter Harrison: America's First Architect

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From the collection of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, Rhode Island “Peter Harrison”, attributed to Louis Sands Peter Harrison (1716-1775) America’s First Architect Ronald J. Onorato Supported by VAN BEUREN CHARITABLE FOUNDATION AIA / RHODE ISLAND ARCHITECTURAL FORUM A Charitable Organization Supporting Educational Programs within the Architectural Community
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Transcript of Peter Harrison: America's First Architect

  • From the collection of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, Rhode Island Peter Harrison, attributed to Louis Sands

    Peter Harrison (1716-1775)

    Americas First Architect Ronald J. Onorato


    AIA / RHODE ISLAND ARCHITECTURAL FORUM A Charitable Organization Supporting Educational Programs within the Architectural Community

  • PETERHARRISONBIOGRAPHY Peter Harrison, often regarded as the First American Architect had a significant impact on American mid-18th century

    buildings and as the first importer of Palladianism across the Atlantic, on subsequent generations of architects to the present

    day. As a young man, both in his native England and here in his adopted American city of Newport, Rhode Island, he

    learned and excelled at numerous traditional skills and crafts including many which would support his interest in

    architectural design including drafting, wood carving, surveying and cartography. He was to become a well-read gentleman,

    with interests ranging over literature, geography, history and the newly discovered archaeology of Herculaneum. In his 30s

    and 40s he added to these skills what was also a crucial ability: an aptitude for management both in terms of organizing

    crews of workmen (to build and outfit his ships, to run his farm, to construct buildings) and in running the financial aspect of

    his successful other business as an importer of European goods.

    His knowledge of architecture, based both on historical buildings and the most fashionable contemporary English designs,

    was unsurpassed for an American colonist in the mid-18th century. Harrison gained this specialized, worldly knowledge in

    various ways: through early social connections in his birthplace of York, he personally crossed paths with major English

    architects and designers; through extensive travel, he had seen significant examples of both historical and contemporary

    buildings in England, France and Italy, and finally, through his impressive library, which included much primary source

    material in the form of pattern books, the lingua franca of 18th century European design. Many of the 600 plus volumes in

    his collection he purchased and brought back with him from London to Newport, a wealthy town second only to Boston as

    the most thriving seaports on the north east Atlantic Coast.

    Harrison was the epitome of a gentleman architect who in designing buildings was informed by both his own visual

    experiences of architecture and the book-learned knowledge of his century. While he did receive compensation for some of

    his drawings and design work, he often provided architectural services to civil authorities and institutions pro bono because

    he was the only man who possessed the appropriate knowledge and design experience. In this, as in all his unique design

    work, he was an exemplar of the Enlightenment intellectual whose practice was based on an engagement with current

    intellectual ideas and historical forms.

    A number of private residences in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are firmly attributed to Harrison, including Shirley Place

    for Governor William Shirley of Boston with monumental pilasters framing its august front elevation, raised atop an elevated

    basement course and the Vernon House in Newport with its very correct Georgian proportions and pattern book classicism.

    His real forte however, was in the design of civic structures and in this he again stood out from all his other contemporaries.

    Function begins to inform the exterior imagery of American architecture during his era as the blockish colonial wood frame

    architecture begins to give way to other solutions based on how the building will be used. This is evident in his earliest civic

    design, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum where he creates for the first time in America the image of a classical temple

    for the intellectual atmosphere of Newport. Drawing on his own experiences of Palladian churches and farmhouses in the

    Veneto as well as contemporary London pattern book plates such as Edward Hoppers Andrea Palladios Architecture (1736)

    Harrison gives the Redwood group an idealized temple dedicated to the life of the mind. Site, function and image all

  • PETERHARRISONBIOGRAPHY coalesce in his design. This center of intellectual discourse is poised at the top of a hill overlooking the more profane

    precincts of the bustling seaport; its classical details (including metopes, triglyphs and guttae) and cut wood siding, emulate

    timeless masonry symbolizing erudition. With a pedimented entry portico raised above a monumental Doric colonnade, this

    temple evokes a kind of special space, an American acropolis (although the sandstone based with its directional staircase is

    more Roman than Greek). This is all created a generation before Jefferson further develops these antique revival themes and


    By the time Thomas Jefferson visits Newport on two occasions in 1784 and 1790, Harrison has been dead for nearly a

    decade. It is hard to imagine that Jefferson, with his abiding interest in architecture did not take the time to visit the

    unparalleled collection of civic buildings including the Redwood Library, the Synagogue and the Brick Market which were

    designed by Harrison years earlier all were only a few city streets from his lodgings. Harrisons contributions to American

    architecture are very much centered on the third quarter of the 18th century, prior to the Revolution, while the younger

    Jeffersons full blown development of similar ideas and forms bridges into the 19th century. His second campaign of work on

    Monticello is begun in 1793 after both visits and it is tempting to think that the body of Harrisons Newport work had a

    direct influence on the architecturally minded Virginian.

    Harrison designed several churches, mostly for the Anglican faith, in Boston, Cambridge and Charlestown, South Carolina,

    but his most remarkable religious structure was for Jewish congregation in Newport. For that community, which had thrived

    within the religious toleration of the Rhode Island colony, Harrison built what is now the earliest synagogue in North

    America. Here, the reticence of the masonry exterior, punctuated by the pedimented and arched entry porch supported on

    ionic columns only cloaks a stunning interior, replete with metalwork, paneling, turned balustrades and Dutch-influenced

    furnishings. He again asserts his own design method in combining what may have been his own visual knowledge of a

    synagogue in Amsterdam with numerous elements drawn from pattern books, to create a unified space containing symbolic

    elements. The main space is divided vertically by twelve sets of superimposed columns representing the tribes of Israel and

    horizontally by a commodious balcony for women. Centered on the raised platform of the bimeh and with the Holy Ark

    facing eastward, his building creatively mixes contemporary 18th century classicism with ancient, non-English roots. The

    entire building reflects Harrisons subtle design sensibilities as it is an architectural metaphor for the experience of Jewish

    life in eighteenth century Newport: lives richly led within their community of their faith but presented with modest rectitude

    to the broader, albeit tolerant, citizenry. With the possible exception of the Redwood Library, Touro Synagogue remains his

    most singular, memorable achievement and the example of his work least affected by later alterations.

    As the noted American historian Carl Bridenbaugh concluded over 50 years ago, Peter Harrisons career is a colonial

    version of the American success story. The Quaker-born, well-travelled ships captain with a passionate interest in classical

    architecture employed his broad intellect, his considerable enterprise and his social skills to become Americas first

    important architect. Ronald J. Onorato, 2011

  • PETERHARRISONCHRONOLOGY 1716: Born June 14, in York, England to a Quaker family c.1735: The young Harrison probably meets Lord Burlington, who instigated the 18th century revival in Palladian

    architecture and his assistant William Kent (a fellow Yorkshire man) who had recently studied in Rome and Northern Italy and was soon to become a key architect and landscape designer in 18th century England (both were at work on the Assembly Rooms in York); Harrison may also have apprenticed with York architects, William Etty and his son John Etty. At this time Harrison also gains knowledge of wood carving and drafting.

    1739: Goes to sea (following his older brother Joseph) On his first sea voyage, he arrives in Newport, Rhode Island,

    meets John Bannister, a very eminent merchant and prominent Newporter. Later that same year, Harrison becomes a ships captain at age 23 and eventually a ships owner in transatlantic trade including whaling.

    1739-40s: Extensive transatlantic travel between Newport and London, also to the Carolinas and to the Netherlands;

    gains management experience organizing crew of craftsman outfitting newly built Newport ship and knowledge of navigation and surveying.

    1744: Captured by French privateer, imprisoned at Louisburg, Nova Scotia Earliest known drawings; Draws plans of

    fortress at Louisburg and maps of the coast line in secret (now Collection of Public Record Office, London). 1745: When released, Harrison passes copies of drawings to William Shirley, Massachusetts Governor who later

    captured Louisburg for the English and subsequently becomes Harrisons architectural patron. Due to his experience in drafting, surveying, and knowledge of harbors and fortifications Harrison was commissioned by the Rhode Island colony, to procure a draught or plan, of Fort George and the Harbor of Newport. Gains reputation as a military engineer as he is paid 75 pounds for his drawings and later superintends the new construction and alterations at Fort George, Newport.

    1746: settles in Newport, Rhode Island, marries Elizabeth Pelham whose family ties to Governor Shirley, John Bannister

    and others secures Harrisons social position and patronage. In addition to these marriage ties, his Quaker background also gave him access to the powerful merchant class of Newports Society of Friends.

    1746: Harrison receives his earliest known building commission to design Governors house, Shirley Place, Roxbury;

    for this Harrison creates what George Washington later called rusticated boards, i.e. to make wood siding appear to be stone through carving and sanded paint. This technique subsequently used by Harrison and other architects throughout New England.

    1747: Sails to London again for long European stay. 1748: Travels to France and the Veneto, Italy; returns to Newport, late 1748. Harrison has with him a box of recently

    published English pattern books by Kent, Hopper, Gibbs, Halfpenny, Salmon and others, adding to other architecture volumes already in his collection. This is the finest and largest architectural library in 18th century English America.

    Before his return, he begins providing plans for The Redwood Library, the earliest temple fronted Palladian

    design in the American colonies. These early plans were revised in February 1749 enhancing the external elevation and function. His design was based on contemporary English pattern book images as well as buildings by Lord Burlington and Palladio of which he probably had direct experience. (i.e. Burlingtons Garden Temple at Chiswick and Palladios Church of San Giorgio, Venice).

    1749: Based on immediate public success of the Redwood design, Harrison receives commission for a major building in

    masonry, Kings Chapel, Boston. Again uses pattern books as source material for the six drawings he submits (an unusually large number for this era).

  • PETERHARRISONCHRONOLOGY 1751: Harrisons reputation spreads, design of St. Michaels Church, Charlestown, South Carolina, attributed to him. It,

    like Kings Chapel has a classical entrance portico, rare for the colonies. 1750s: Involved with birth of his children, other business such as ship owning, whaling and managing family land in

    Newport, including work on its main house, barn and other outbuildings with noted colonial craftsmen such as the stonecutter and mason, John Stevens II. Harrisons extensive library of between 600 and 700 volumes includes many agricultural and engineering manuals to complement his architectural books. During these same years, Harrison gathers a collection of over 2 dozen paintings including some from Italy and Spain whose Roman Catholic subjects would have been unusual in New England.

    1755: Designed new Beavertail Lighthouse at mouth of Narragansett Bay, one of the earliest in America of stone and

    brick. Continues to advise on its operation and maintenance into the 1760s. Harrison also redesigns fortifications for renovation of Fort George in Newport during French and Indian War and was among first in America to use the expertise of German and French military engineers, John Muller, Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban and Guilllaume Le Blond in his designs. Harrison also continues to use his drafting and cartography skills to provide the town with maps and plans for Newport and its harbor.

    1759-60: Plans for Touro Synagogue, Masonic Hall and Brick Market in Newport and Christ Church, Cambridge, Mass. All combine his knowledge of pattern book designs with local materials and craftsmanship, sensitivity to site and unique functions.

    1761-64: Early Patron of theatrical productions; associated politically with Martin Howard and other early Tories during

    Stamp Act era. 1766: Becomes Customs Collector in New Haven, Conn., moves there with his family in October to avoid early

    revolutionary atmosphere in Newport.

    1768: Elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, an elite colonial organization for promoting useful knowledge; one of only 4 Rhode Island members along with his friend Ezra Stiles and Stephen Hopkins, the Rhode Island Governor and signer of the Declaration of Independence

    1768-70 Design for Governor John Wentworths large Country House, Wolfeborough, New Hampshire. 1773-74 Correspondence with President of Dartmouth College to discuss building of a new College Edifice in Hanover,

    New Hampshire. 1775: In ill health for the past decade, dies of a stroke, April 30, 1775; buried at Trinity Church, New Haven. One

    contemporary tribute published in Connecticut states in part:

    In his death learning appears veild: and the Fine Art of Architecture has now in America no standard.

    R.J. Onorato 2011

  • REDWOODLIBRARY,17481750LOCATION: Newport,RhodeIsland

    PROGRAM: PrivateLibrary

    AWARDS: 1960,NationalHistoricLandmark 1966,NationalRegisterofHistoricPlacesDESCRIPTION: The Redwood,with its finely balanced lines, classical pediment and columned grand

    faade,wasthefirstpublicPalladianbuildingconstructedintheAmericanColonies.Thepredecessor of the formal buildings that would grace Americas capital city, PeterHarrison designed the Redwood as a neoclassical temple in homage to the greatcivilizationsofthepast,andasatestamenttoafaithinthefuture.



  • KINGSCHAPEL,17491754LOCATION: Boston,Massachusetts

    PROGRAM: Church

    AWARDS: 1960,NationalHistoricLandmark 1974,NationalRegisterofHistoricPlacesDESCRIPTION: TheoriginalKing'sChapelwasawoodenchurchbuiltin1688atthecornerofTremont

    andSchoolStreets,wherethechurchstandstoday.Itwassituatedonthepublicburyingground because no resident would sell land for a nonPuritan church. In 1749,construction began on the current stone structure, which was designed by PeterHarrisonandcompletedin1754.Thestonechurchwasbuiltaroundthewoodenchurch.When the stone church was complete, the wooden church was disassembled andremovedthroughthewindowsofthenewchurch.



  • TOUROSYNAGOGUE,17591763LOCATION: Newport,RhodeIsland

    PROGRAM: OrthodoxJewishTemple

    AWARDS: 1946,NationalHistoricSite 1966,NationalRegisterofHistoricPlaces 2001,NationalTrustforHistoricPreservationDESCRIPTION: Touro Synagogue is perhaps Peter Harrisons most successful building. Although it

    presents a most sever faade to the street, the interior treatment, including carvedwoodenfurnishingsandgalleries,isrich,sophisticatedworkcharacteristicofEnglishandContinentaldesignofthemid18thcentury.



  • CHRISTCHURCH,17591761LOCATION: Cambridge,Massachusetts

    PROGRAM: Church

    AWARDS: 1960,NationalHistoricLandmark 1966,NationalRegisterofHistoricPlacesDESCRIPTION: FoundedbymembersoftheKingsChapelwholivedinCambridge,toprovideChurchof

    England services to studentsatHarvardCollege,ChristChurchwasdesignedbyPeterHarrison, inwood but finished in a sanded paint treatment to give appearance of atraditionalEnglishstonechurch.



  • VERNONHOUSE,1760LOCATION: Newport,RhodeIsland

    PROGRAM: Privateresidence

    AWARDS: 1968,NationalRegisterofHistoricPlaces

    DESCRIPTION: Theallover rusticationof itswoodenexterior,originallypainted lightpinkwithsandthrownontothewetsurfacetosimulategranite,isthemostconspicuousaspectofthisremarkablehousebeyond thisovert indication that itmaybeHarrisonswork,eventhough no document proves it, the nature of the design, the sophistication of itssources,andthediscriminationofitsexecutionallsuggestthefact.WilliamH.Jordy



  • BRICKMARKET,17601772LOCATION: Newport,RhodeIsland

    PROGRAM: Market,Openarcadebelowanddrystoresabove

    AWARDS: 1960,NationalHistoricLandmark 1966,NationalRegisterofHistoricPlacesDESCRIPTION: PeterHarrisondesignedthisbuildingasaplainerversionofSomersetHouseinLondon,

    designed by Inigo Jones and John Webb and published by Colen Campbell in hisVitruvius BritannicusWilliamH. Jordy. Currently housing theMuseum ofNewportHistory,itservedasthecityhallfrom1853to1900.





  • ArchitecturalbooksinHarrisonlibrary


  • AbbreviatedBibliographyBatchelder, Samuel Francis. "Peter Harrison," Bulletin of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities 6, no. 2 (January 1916):12-19.

    Bridenbaugh, Carl. Peter Harrison. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1949.

    Downing, Antoinette Forrester. Early Homes in Rhode Island. Richmond, VA: Garrett & Massie, Incorporated, 1937. 215-229.

    Downing, Antoinette F. and Vincent J. Scully, Jr. The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island 1640-1915. 2nd ed. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1967. 3,9,78-91,115,512 [pl 127].

    Friedman, Lee M. "The Newport Synagogue," Old Time New England 36, no. 3 (1946):49-57.

    Haley, John Williams. "Peter Harrison, a Great Colonial Architect," Old Time New England 36, no. 3 (1946):58-61.

    Hunt, William Dudley, Jr. Encyclopedia of American Architecture. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980. 241-243.

    Isham, Norman Morrison. "Report on the Old Brick Market or Old City Hall Newport, Rhode Island," Bulletin of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities 6, no. 2 serial no. 13 (January 1916):2-11.

    Jordy, William H. Buildings of Rhode Island, Society of Architectural Historians, Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Kimball, Fiske. "The Colonial Amateurs and Their Models: Peter Harrison," Architecture 53, no. 6 (June 1926):155-ff.

    Kimball, Fiske. "Harrison, Peter" in Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 8 New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932. 347.

    Mason, George Champlin. Annals of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum Newport, Rhode Island. Newport: Redwood Library, 1891. 36.

    Onorato, Ronald. "Peter Harrison", The Grove Dictionary of Art, Macmillan Publishers Ltd,London, England, 1996, pp. 197-198

    Onorato, Ronald J. AIA Guide to Newport, AIAri Architectural Forum, 2007

    Page, Marian. "Peter Harrison - Architect of the New England Colonies." [extract from Interiors 129, no. 10 (May 1970):126-133.]

    "Peter Harrison, Architect," Massachusetts Historical Society 49, (March 1916):261-268.

    Placzek, Adolf K. ed. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects. New York: The Free Press, 1982. 2:321-322.

    Richards, J.M. ed. Who's Who in Architecture from 1400 to the Present Day. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1977. 138.

    The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, vol. 23 New York: James T. White & Company, 1933, 396.

    Witney, Henry F. and Elsie Rathburn Witney. Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased). Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls, Inc., 1970. 266,267.

    Who Was Who In America: Historical Volume 1607-1896. Chicago: The A.N. Marquis Company, 1963. 237. (Harrison, Peter).

    The Historic American Buildings Survey, a remarkable tripartite endeavor by the Library of Congress, AIA, and National Park Service, features eight surveys of projects by, attributed to, or related to Peter Harrison.

    Binder1 and 2Binder1123 an 45 an 67 an 89