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32 2 Mastering His Profession By the beginning of the new decade, the economy had still not improved. Indeed, the economic depression had grown more serious over the summer of 1839. There continued to be new construction to meet the needs of the growing population, but as late as 1843 a local newspaper cautioned those in the building trades against coming to Boston in search of work: “We would not hold out . . . an encouragement for mechanics to come to the city—there is a sufficient number who have wintered with us, who have found it hard to get along, and to these belong the work there may be to be done.” Bryant expressed a discouraging tone in a letter to Richard Upjohn, who had quit Boston for a more lucrative practice in New York. Dated April 21, 1841, Bryant’s letter reports on the lack of major building in the city and inquires if he, Upjohn, might need “some assistance in drawing or writing.” Bryant closes, “I have managed to get a very good living so far, since I commenced for myself, but as you are well aware, it has been all plain work, & I wish for some opportunity, to be employed upon some large work, although I might receive less emolument for my services.” Upjohn’s reply has not survived, but records exist of one exceptionally unusual project that is evidence of Bryant’s efforts to find interesting work outside New England.1 In the early 1840s the architect was hired to prepare designs for a plantation house in Northampton County, North Carolina. Henry K. Burgwyn, member of an old North Carolina family, had married Anna Greenough of Jamaica Plain, then a suburb of Boston, in 1838. It was probably through his wife’s family that Burgwyn met Bryant and hired the young architect to prepare designs for his house, Thornbury Plantation. What survives to document this project are detailed handwritten specifications for the con- Mastering His Profession 33 struction of the house. Thornbury Plantation no longer survives, and it is not known if Bryant’s plans were used, or even if the construction date associated with the house (ca. 1843–45) is accurate. From the description in the specifications, the house was intended to be a brick Palladian villa, similar to a plan published by Asher Benjamin in his American Builder’s Companion, first printed in 1806.2 The specifications do not suggest an inexpensive house. The main block of the two-story structure, measuring fifty-two by ninety-four feet, was to be brick with sandstone trim and a hipped roof of leaded charcoal tin with a cupola. In addition to the flanking single-story wings, the specifications called for piazzas, bay windows, and woodwork consisting of “cornice, brackets, fascias, arches, bases and capitals.” In addition to providing evidence of Bryant’s involvement in the design of an elegant plantation house, the specifications are important in establishing how early in his career the architect was preparing such detailed construction documents. That this attention to detail was not an aberration is supported by the surviving specifications for the residential work that occupied much of the architect ’s time in the early 1840s. Although, back in Boston, development was slowed by economic conditions , the filling of South Cove for the new South End neighborhood was completed, as was construction of the new United States Hotel opposite the Boston and Worcester Railroad Depot. With emigrants still pouring into the city—the population increased from 78,603 in 1835 to 114,366 in 1845—there was need for housing on the newly filled land. The houses built in this area, today bounded by Essex Street, Washington Street, Interstate 93, and the Massachusetts Turnpike, were modest brick dwellings occupied by tradesmen and clerks. The names of the architects of these relatively unpretentious structures generally do not survive. Indeed, the common belief is that architects were not involved in this type of construction , although one source contradicts that assumption and documents construction activity in this period by providing names of architects and tradesmen: the building contracts in the Suffolk County Registry of Deeds.3 Massachusetts, like many states, passed legislation to protect the rights of men in the building trades, called “mechanics,” who often worked for speculative developers. It was not uncommon in the early nineteenth century for people to invest in speculative houses and commercial blocks and become financially overextended. This could result in tradesmen, particularly masons and carpenters, not receiving compensation for...


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