North Carolina Architects and Builders - A Biographical Dictionary

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Briggs, John J. (1770-1856)

Variant Name(s):
  • John Joiner Briggs;
  • John Joyner Briggs
Birthplace: Halifax County, North Carolina, USA
Residences:
  • Raleigh, North Carolina
Trades:
  • Carpenter/Joiner
NC Work Locations:
  • Durham County
  • Durham
  • Granville County
  • Granville
  • Oxford, Granville County
  • Granville
  • Johnston County
  • Johnston
  • Clayton, Johnston County
  • Johnston
  • Orange County
  • Orange
  • Orange County
  • Orange
  • Hillsborough, Orange County
  • Orange
  • Raleigh, Wake County
  • Wake
Building Types:
  • Public;
  • Residential
Styles & Forms:
  • Federal;
  • Greek Revival

North Carolina State Capitol [Raleigh]

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North Carolina State Capitol [Raleigh]

Biography

John J. Briggs (1770-1856), a highly skilled and widely respected Raleigh house carpenter, began work in the capital city during its early days and continued for more than a half-century. Along with accomplishing the fine carpentry work on a number of town and plantation houses, he served as "boss" carpenter at the North Carolina State Capitol. His son Thomas H. Briggs, Sr. and his grandson John D. Briggs also became builders, and Thomas established a hardware store in Raleigh that continues in operation by John J. Briggs's descendants.

According to Briggs family accounts, John Joiner (or Joyner) Briggs was the son of Joel and Elizabeth Joiner Briggs, of a family who had come from England to Massachusetts, and then to Virginia. Joel and Elizabeth moved to Scotland Neck in Halifax County and they had two sons and two daughters. Evidently both parents died about 1770 and left the children in the care of an uncle, Matthew Joiner, who is credited with training John as a carpenter. At age 20, the family history continues, John Joiner Briggs left Scotland Neck. (Family tradition says that he aimed to move to the new state's capital, and Fayetteville was under consideration at the time, so he moved there.) He settled for a time in Fayetteville and established himself as a carpenter.

After a fire destroyed his shop, Briggs moved to Raleigh, which had been designated as the capital. When he arrived, it is said, "there were only five houses in the city, and Fayetteville Street was still in cedar growth." He married Elizabeth Utley in 1795 and the couple started a family. According to Briggs's own account (see below), he was one of the men who worked to clear the streets from the forest. Briggs again established a carpentry business, and again was burned out. The Raleigh Register reported on September 20, 1810, that a fire had consumed the home of John Briggs, carpenter, on Morgan Street, but the family escaped harm and Briggs soon rebuilt his house.

John J. Briggs pursued his trade with success and gained a reputation for honest dealings. He employed several apprentices and workmen, including slaves, and he advertised in the December 6, 1810, Raleigh Star encouraging "gentlemen" to put their "boys"—evidently meaning their slaves—under his care as apprentices to the carpenter's trade. By 1812 he owned two slaves and a town lot. He was a founding member and a longtime leader of Raleigh's First Baptist Church.

Briggs probably built or helped to build numerous structures in the small, growing capital. City historian Moses Amis considered him a "leading builder," but little of his work in the city has been documented. He evidently took a role in 1809 in remodeling the residence of the state treasurer, John Haywood, the house now known as Haywood Hall. Other workmen on the project included William Jones, Henry Gorman (see Gorman Family), and Elhannon Nutt.

Briggs's skills as a finish carpenter were such that he gained employment on major houses at a distance from Raleigh. He was hired by the wealthy Orange County planter Duncan Cameron to work on his new residence, Fairntosh. The large plantation house, located in the section of Orange County that is now Durham County, was built by the Fort Family of builders in two phases. In the initial, front section (1810-1811), Raleigh joiner Elhannon Nutt fashioned the elaborate mantels, and John J. Briggs constructed the stair and possibly the handsome wainscoting, which features a double range of raised panels. A few years later, when the Forts built a large rear addition (1818-1821), Briggs accomplished the finish work including both the stair and the mantels.

When Hillsborough merchant William Kirkland built his large brick house, Ayr Mount (1814-1816), he employed some of the artisans who had worked on Fairntosh, including John J. Briggs. The stair and wainscoting at Ayr Mount show a strong similarity to Fairntosh. Another of Briggs's employers, Thomas Littlejohn of Oxford, wrote in 1817 to Duncan Cameron discussing Briggs's prices in terms that illuminate the client-artisan relationship:

"I fear I shall not be able to settle with Mr. Briggs for running my staircase without getting from you or Mr. Kirkland the sums you paid for having your work done—my bargain with him was to pay the same price you and Mr. K. paid for the same kind of work—my passage is 12 feet wide—12 feet pitch, and the staircase (executed exactly like yours as Mr. Briggs informs me) has 23 steps. . . . will you have the goodness to state to me the price you gave for running the stair case, making wainscot, & the price of plain wainscot from the foot of the stair to your parlour door, mentioning also the number of yards or feet in this last item. . . . I fear I shall be unable to settle with Mr. Brigs [sic] without it—I understand that your bargain was made with Mr. Fort, and the work executed by Mr. Brigs; but I understood Mr. Kirkland's bill was settled upon the same terms your work was done, and Mr. Briggs agreed with me to do my work upon the same terms." (Thomas B. Littlejohn to Duncan Cameron, Aug. 7, 1817, Cameron Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, courtesy of Jean Bradley Anderson.)

In addition, local tradition links John J. Briggs with yet another fine plantation house, the Johnston County residence known as White Oak. Stylistic evidence supports this tradition, most notably the wainscot with double rows of raised paneling which resembles the woodwork at Fairntosh and Ayr Mount.

During the 1830s, John J. Briggs took a key role in construction of the State Capitol in Raleigh. The architects, including William Nichols, William Nichols, Jr., Town and Davis, and David Paton, as well as the stonecutters and stonemasons came from far and wide. A number of the carpenters, though, were local men, who confronted characteristics of design and workmanship they had never seen before. Briggs worked on the project from the beginning of construction—day books show that he began in March 1833—until its completion in 1840. His initial pay rate was $1.25 per day, but that rose to $1.75 by the late 1830s. He served as "boss" carpenter during several periods.

For Briggs, his work on this challenging and important job was a source of great pride, and he strove to meet the new challenges. In contrast to the buildings Briggs had previously encountered, the State Capitol incorporated sophisticated interpretations of the still-new Greek Revival style, as planned by New York and Edinburgh architects. That Briggs, as a traditionally trained carpenter in his 60s, took on such work suggests a flexible attitude and a confidence in his ability to adapt to new challenges. Indicative of his abilities and approach, during a conflict in 1839, he stated that he had "fully understood the Drawings of the Senate Chamber as furnished by Mr. Patton, and [found] no difficulty in its execution." He had prepared from Paton's drawings the ribs and purlins for the dome in the Senate chamber and the "whole of the circles connected with the four arches" in that chamber.

He regretted that he might not see the work completed, if the conflict was not resolved, for he believed the building would be "the finest in the United States." That statement was made in July, 1839, when most of the other carpenters had staged a strike for better wages. Although Briggs had not gone on strike, he believed that the commissioners wanted another boss carpenter and had "lost confidence" in him. He pointed out to the commissioners that he too had been discontented with his wages and—indicating the value that architect Paton placed on Briggs's work—"was only prevented by Mr. Paton from presenting my memorial with the rest of the workmen."

A few weeks later, as strikes and problems over wages continued, John J. Briggs wrote again, this time appealing to the commissioners' chairman, Beverly Daniels, not to dismiss his young son, Thomas, from his part-time position on the work force. The boy, he said, had not participated in the strike with other carpenters, and he made a final plea to Daniels:

"Sin I Ever have asteemed you as a friend and much of a gentleman I hope you will have some regard for my fealings and let my Child participat with others in the Benefit arising from a City hose streets my one fingers helpt to open whare we all waulk daley and I have Eve bore my part in tha saport of the same and now must my sun Be turned of for what Because others give or pass insults it is hard that the inasent should sufer with the gilty and sir I don't Believe if you new it you would sufer it to be so."

The following spring, when the commissioners were pressing for fast work to complete the project, Briggs again encountered problems. The commissioners, claiming that he did not drive the workmen hard enough, threatened to dismiss him as boss carpenter, but the other carpenters rallied behind him, and he retained his position. He continued on the payroll into the fall of 1840, finishing up various components of the carpentry work.

Little is known of John J. Briggs's work after completion of the State Capitol. When it was completed in 1840, he was 70 years old and may well have retired. In 1850, though, at age 80 years, he was still identified as a carpenter in the U.S. census, living with his wife and next door to his son, Thomas H. Briggs, Sr., who was likewise a carpenter. He died in 1856, at age of 96, and had seen his children moving forward in their careers. The Briggs family still owns a collection of tools believed to be those of John J. Briggs, and they have given the family papers to the State Archives in Raleigh. According to an article in the News and Observer of August 15, 1915, John J. Briggs "had the confidence of the people to such an extent that there used to be a saying prevalent in Raleigh, 'as honest as John Briggs.'"

Author: Catherine W. Bishir. Contributors: Elizabeth Reid Murray and Jean Bradley Anderson.

Published 2009

Building List

North Carolina State Capitol (Raleigh, Wake County)

Wake Raleigh

1833

Contributors:
Dates: 1833-1840
Location: Raleigh, Wake County
Street Address: Union Square, Raleigh, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Public
Images Published In:
  • Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
  • Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
  • Edward T. Davis and John L. Sanders, A Romantic Architect in Antebellum North Carolina: The Works of Alexander Jackson Davis (2000).
Note:

Although sometimes credited solely to Town and Davis, the design of the capitol was the result of a sequence of work by William Nichols, Sr. and Jr., Town and Davis, and David Paton, with advice from William Strickland. For a fuller explanation of the chronology and contributions of architects involved in the State Capitol, see Bishir, North Carolina Architecture and other sources cited herein.

North Carolina State Capitol

Fairntosh (Orange County)

Orange

1810

Contributors:
Dates: 1810-1822
Location: Orange County
Street Address: 5000 Old Oxford Highway, SR 1004, Treyburn vicinity, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
  • Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
  • Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).

Fairntosh

Haywood Hall (Raleigh, Wake County)

Wake Raleigh

1809

Contributors:
Dates: Ca. 1809 [remodeled]
Location: Raleigh, Wake County
Street Address: New Bern Place, Raleigh, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
  • Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).
  • Elizabeth C. Waugh, North Carolina's Capital, Raleigh (1967).

Haywood Hall

Thomas Littlejohn House (Oxford, Granville County)

Granville Oxford

1817

Contributors:
Dates: Ca. 1817
Location: Oxford, Granville County
Street Address: Oxford, NC
Status: Unknown
Type:
  • Residential
Note:

The house mentioned by Thomas Littlejohn in his 1817 letter to Duncan Cameron might be the frame residence now known as the Booth-Bond-Kingsbury House near Oxford; tradition says it was built for Thomas Booth who bought it from Littlejohn. It shares some details with Ayr Mount. Possessing a similar stair to that at Fairntosh is the Taylor-McClanahan-Smith House at 203 College St. in Oxford.

White Oak (Clayton, Johnston County)

Johnston Clayton

1790

Variant Name(s):
  • Sanders-Hairr House
Contributors:
Dates: Ca. 1790s
Location: Clayton, Johnston County
Street Address: SR 1525 near NC 42, Clayton vicinity, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
  • Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
Note:

The date of White Oak is uncertain: though assumed to date from the late 18th century, probably the 1790s, stylistically it could have been erected in the early 19th century. Especially intriguing is an account reported in the Raleigh Times of September 12, 1964, about the Hairr family's renovation of the house: "Jessie Austin, who owns part of the original tract of land thought to be 6,000 acres, says that. . . Parker Rand of Garner says that the house was built by the great, great grandfather of Jimmy Briggs of Briggs Hardware Company in Raleigh." Although no further documentation is known, the specificity of the attribution (John J. Briggs was indeed the great-great grandfather of James Briggs of Raleigh) coupled with the stylistic similarities to other work by Briggs make the account credible.

White Oak

Ayr Mount (Hillsborough, Orange County)

Orange Hillsborough

1814

Contributors:
Dates: 1814-1816
Location: Hillsborough, Orange County
Street Address: St. Mary's Rd., Hillsborough vicinity, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Jean Bradley Anderson, The Kirklands of Ayr Mount (1991).
  • Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
  • Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
  • Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).
  • Mills B. Lane, Architecture of the Old South: North Carolina (1985).

Ayr Mount

John J. Briggs's Work Locations

Bibliography

  • Jean Bradley Anderson, Piedmont Plantation: The Bennehan-Cameron Family and Lands in North Carolina (1985).
  • Jean Bradley Anderson, The Kirklands of Ayr Mount (1991).
  • James E. Briggs, "100 Year Anniversary, T. H. Briggs and Sons" (1965).
  • Cameron Family Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
  • Grady Lee Ernest Carroll, Sr., They Lived In Raleigh: Some Leading Personalities from 1792 to 1892 (1977).
  • Beverly Daniel Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • Linda Mackie Griggs, Haywood Hall: A Report Presented to the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of North Carolina and the Haywood Hall Committee of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of North Carolina (1984).
  • David Paton Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • Treasurer's and Comptroller's Papers: Capitol Buildings, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
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