Harrison’s excellent career

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Early photograph of Redwood Library and Athenaeum, by Peter Harrison. (Downeast Dilettante)

Had the pleasure, last night at the Boston Athenaeum, of learning more than I ever expected to know about the architect Peter Harrison. He is considered by many to be America’s first professional architect, and is known in Rhode Island for designing the Touro Synagogue, the Redwood Library, the Brick Market and a new steeple for Trinity Church in Newport. I had not realized that Peter Harrison had also designed the original Rhode Island State House (1762), the one on Benefit Street whose tower was added by Thomas Tefft in 1851-52 and whose eastern extension was added in 1867-68 by James Bucklin, both highly celebrated Rhode Island architects.

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Peter Harrison (Wikipedia)

All of this came flooding out at a lecture in the Boston Athenaeum sponsored jointly with the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. A profusely detailed description of Harrison’s robust career by last night’s speaker, John Fitzhugh Millar, appears on the website “Small State, Big History.”

By the time Millar, an architectural historian from Williamsburg, Va., was less than halfway through his lecture, my hand had almost cramped up from the copious notes I had taken of Harrison’s remarkable career, which seemed to have been inspired by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or, slightly more contemporaneously, the Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography (1558-63). In Millar’s telling, the events of Harrison’s life seemed to one-up each other for nearly an hour, detail after amazing detail sparking a sustained astonishment and incredulity in his spellbound audience, and a dire wish to continue listening – which was suddenly interrupted, and, it turned out, extinguished by a fire alarm in the building next door. Our evacuation onto lovely Beacon Street was blissful as such things go, but … oh, well.

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John Fitzhugh Millar (SSBH)

Architectural historians have long attributed some 20 buildings to Harrison. But Millar has found in excess of 500 more buildings on every continent but Antarctica that he thinks can be plausibly attributed to Harrison. They include the Old State House (now headquarters of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission), the original of which, as listed in the preservation office’s citywide survey of 1986, is unattributed. Millar attributes to Harrison the design of Providence’s First Baptist Church (1775), which most historians attribute to Joseph Brown, brother of John and Moses Brown, for whom Brown University is named.

In 1733, Harrison, born in Yorkshire, England and aged 17, was challenged to design the largest private house in Europe, which was built and remains standing. A paucity of commissions led Harrison, along with his brother, to hire on as a commercial ship’s captain. He traveled extensively, designing whenever he laid over in a port. He often used a Palladian style. In 1738, so Millar attests, Harrison designed a palazzo in Venice, a synagogue in Suriname, a church in Guyana, a synagogue and another church in Barbados, the famous Drayton Hall in South Carolina, a plantation house in Maryland, the first Palladian cabinet (desk), the Belmont mansion in Philadelphia, and the Old North Church steeple in Boston.

That’s all in one year, 1738, when he was a ship’s captain. And it is not all he did in 1738, only what my poor hand could get down in notes. As Millar puts it, Harrison built more buildings in 1738 than most architects build in their entire careers. In 1740 he set up residence in Newport. Most of Harrison’s architectural work had not been attributed to him until recent years after Millar undertook his research. Harrison is said to have developed the first wooden rustication, or wood carved to look like stone. Millar also describes Harrison as the leading furniture designer of colonial America.

But wait, there’s more! Hogarth, the famous British artist, asked Harrison to draw a joke Palladian building that he could place in one of his drawings. Harrison did so, sketching a house whose flaw was that the window sills on the second story were too high, meaning no one could lean out the window. Quite subtle! Hogarth used it in one of his drawings, but how many Hogarth aficionados have got the yoke since 1738 is anyone’s guess. (See final image.)

More spectacularly, in 1744, Harrison was in fortified Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, then controlled by the French amid a war with Britain. After being captured at sea, he was held prisoner in Louisbourg in the house of Etienne Verrier, his friend and designer of its fort. He allowed Harrison to use his architect’s desk – inside of which the latter found plans for the fort, which he copied himself and conveyed to American colonists, who eventually took the fort. This unexpected triumph is said to have foiled France’s plan to capture Britain’s foreign colonies, then invade England. The espionage that led to the French defeat at Louisbourg gained applause for Harrison as the savior of England, and he then received even more architectural commissions from throughout Britain’s colonial empire.

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Boston Athenaeum (Waymarking)

There is much more to Harrison’s exploits than I have room to record here, including his invention of the flush toilet during his relatively relaxed captivity in Louisbourg. Harrison moved from Newport to New Haven in 1761. He was a Tory, and in 1775, a mob threatened to lynch him and then burn down his house on the New Haven Green. This caused in him a fatal heart attack. The mob did not burn down the house, which would have been a felony, but they dragged all of his furniture, library, contracts and other records onto its front lawn and burned it – a mere misdemeanor.

All of Harrison’s architectural commissions, records and plans were lost, and so Millar has used historical conjecture to attribute to Harrison so many buildings not previously known to be of his design. During the fire alarm – the one in Boston last night, not the one in New Haven in 1775 – I had the opportunity to chat with Millar, and he discussed his attribution technique, deftly and plausibly countering the idea that attribution to any particular designer might be difficult because architects and builders of that era often used pattern books and based designs more on precedent than inspiration. He brushed off with admirable panache the pushback he has gotten from fellow historians for his sparsely documented attributions.

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John Millar’s Newport House B&B in Williamsburg, Va. (newporthousebb.com)

I’m not sure what to think of all Millar revealed last night, but he promised to send me the text of his latest book about Peter Harrison. Meanwhile, the Athenaeum had videotaped Millar’s lecture (at least until it was interrupted). I expect to post that video, if it was actually recorded, when it finally becomes available.

Millar is not only an architectural historian but runs a bed & breakfast in Williamsburg, Va., called Newport House – a 1988 house built by Millar, inspired by Banister House, a 1756 mansion in Newport and designed by … who else but Peter Harrison! In 1956, its 200th anniversary, it was torn down. They put up a parking lot.

Millar has also built full-size working replicas of the Revolutionary War frigate of 24 guns, the Rose – it was used in the Russell Crowe film Master and Commander – inspired by the 20-volume series of historical novels by the late Patrick O’Brian – and another vessel, the 12-gun sloop Providence, the Continental Navy’s first warship, built in October 1775.

It takes maximal moxie to multiply by some 30-fold the number of buildings attributed to a single architect. John Millar makes a plausible case for Peter Harrison, and he has the panache to pull it off. In any event, he gives a damn fine lecture; even equipment oopses and the misordering of images is carried off with humor. His large Athenaeum audience left with a case of speechus interruptus. I hope he will be speaking around here again soon.

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Outside Boston Athenaeum, on Beacon Street, after sudden end to lecture on Peter Harrison.

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“The Marriage Settlement” (1743), first of six paintings in series called Marriage A-la-mode, by William Hogarth. (National Gallery, London)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Harrison’s excellent career

  1. Pingback: Millar on Harrison in Prov | Architecture Here and There

  2. Michael Tyrrell says:

    Fabulous review, David.
    It was a wonderful talk filled with compelling facts and wondrous speculations.
    Let’s hope he returns soon!..


  3. Milton W. Grenfell says:

    I met Mr. Millar on a visit to Williamsburg several year ago, and wound up joining some others to spend a delightful evening English country dancing in his home, expertly led by Mr. Millar, might I add. Learning I was an architect, he naturally shared his architectural history ideas about Harrison with me. Duly intrigued, I had him up to Washington to speak to our ICAA chapter on the subject. Like his lecture in Boston, he left most of us puzzled and rather speechless, but also enchanted by the cavalcade of beautiful buildings he paraded before our eyes. I do hope another scholar comes along to further investigate the particulars of his thesis . Millar even attributes to Harrison, not Dr. William Thornton, the winning design of the US Capitol !


    • Milton, I find John Millar almost a Renaissance man par excellence, and I wish that he will find his attributions and his theories regarding Harrison are eventually confirmed by the rest of his brethren among architectural historians. But I don’t hold them in much esteem, I’m afriad. Some of what Millar says does sound dodgy, but that just may be that he knows a lot that the rest of us do not know. I have sent the post to him. I hope it has conveyed that its doubts come with a large dollop of respect!


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