North Carolina Architects and Builders - A Biographical Dictionary

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Upjohn, Richard (1802-1878)

Birthplace: England
  • New York City, New York
  • Architect
NC Work Locations:
  • Raleigh, Wake County
  • Wake
  • Plymouth, Washington County
  • Washington
Building Types:
  • Religious
Styles & Forms:
  • Gothic Revival

Christ Episcopal Church [Raleigh]

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Christ Episcopal Church [Raleigh]


Richard Upjohn (1802-1878) was an English-born artisan and architect who established an architectural practice in New York City and became a national leader in the picturesque mode in American architecture. He is best known for his Gothic Revival church architecture, which had a widespread and long-lasting influence. Among the Episcopal churches he designed in North Carolina, Christ Episcopal Church, Raleigh, is one of the nation's most intact and representative examples of his Early English style.

Richard Upjohn was born in England, and trained and worked as a cabinetmaker. In 1828 or 1829 (accounts vary), he moved with his young family to the United States. They lived for a time in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Typical of the period, after beginning as an artisan, he developed his skills in drawing and design to become an architect. In the 1830s he moved to Boston where he worked with architect Alexander Parris. In 1839 he moved to New York, where he made his reputation as an architect with Trinity Episcopal Church (1841-1846), a landmark of the Gothic Revival in American church architecture.

Although most of Upjohn's projects were located in the northeastern states—including Gothic Revival churches, Italianate villas, and other buildings—he also attracted commissions in the South and Midwest, of which Christ Church in Raleigh may be the earliest (see Phoebe B. Stanton's list of works in "Richard Upjohn," Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects). Especially numerous were churches for Episcopal congregations, whose ministers kept up with architectural developments in the national church community. Upjohn's popularity grew after he published his book, Upjohn's Rural Architecture: Designs, Working drawings and Specifications for a Wooden Church, and Other Rural Structures (1852), which he aimed at small congregations and local carpenters and builders. As he intended, its designs were replicated and adapted across much of the country, and for many years.

Upjohn's church architecture was influenced by the Ecclesiological movement, an English-inspired approach to church building that promoted "authentic" medieval forms to inspire worship in keeping with the values of the middle ages. Although Upjohn was not a member of the New York Ecclesiological Society, his work incorporated many of its principles concerning church form, plan, and orientation—including emphasis on the chancel and the altar; the use of natural and "honest" materials; and a general adherence to the spirit of medieval English churches. During his work on Trinity Church in New York, he made a careful study of English Gothic architecture, including the works of architect A. W. N. Pugin (see Byron A. Pugin) and others, which deepened his approach to church planning.

Upjohn was a leader in the American architectural profession. He was a co-founder in 1857 of the American Institute of Architects, and served as its first president from 1857 to 1876, when he was succeeded by Thomas U. Walter in that office. Upjohn's son, Richard M. Upjohn (1828-1903), joined his father's firm in 1853 and continued in the profession. Richard Upjohn's grandson, Hobart Upjohn (1876-1949), became an architect as well and did extensive work in North Carolina, much of it in his grandfather's Gothic Revival church tradition. There are collections of Richard Upjohn's papers at the Avery Library at Columbia University and the New York Public Library.

Richard Upjohn found a welcoming clientele among North Carolina Episcopalians, who already favored the Gothic Revival style. Several of their churches from the 1810s through the 1830s displayed the conservative format of the early Gothic Revival in America, with traditional, rectangular forms graced with pointed arched openings and more or less elaborate Gothic Revival detailing (see William Nichols, John Berry, William Drummond, Thomas U. Walter). North Carolina's bishop, Levi Silliman Ives, who took office in 1831, was a devotee and promoter of High Church practices and especially Gothic Revival church architecture. He and other clergy in the state were attuned to architectural developments nationally, including Upjohn's emergence as a church architect.

Christ Church in Raleigh came about through the determined efforts of Bishop Ives and Christ Church's rector, the Reverend Richard Sharp Mason. In 1842, Mason wrote to Upjohn—while Trinity Church in New York was under construction—and explained that his parish desired a larger church, preferably to be built of local stone, and "Gothick in design, if the cost be comparatively with some order not to great." Mason described local materials and conditions in detail. Upjohn responded promptly, but the vestry found his fees too high, and correspondence stopped. In January 1846, Bishop Ives resuscitated the project. Writing on behalf of the church vestry, the bishop asked Upjohn "whether a neat Gothic Church edifice could be built for 12,000 dollars, and what you would ask to furnish for them the necessary drawings."

Upjohn's terms must have been satisfactory, for in October 1846 he sent plans and specifications to the rector, Mason, who from then on labored persistently to accomplish the project. Mason's correspondence with Upjohn traces his often-frustrated efforts to complete the church as designed. It took more than a year after the design arrived for the church to contract with builders. Despairing of finding suitable stonemasons, Mason worried that he might have to give up on stone and build in brick. Yet he remained hopeful, writing to Upjohn on one occasion, "I heartily rejoice we have got this far, and I hope the erection of our church will be the means of introducing a new style of church architecture to the South." In 1848, the church contracted with stonemasons James Puttick and Robert Findlater (previously employed on the North Carolina State Capitol), and carpenter Justin Martindale to erect the stone walls and timber roof. The interior came a few years later. Although Upjohn's design included a bell tower linked to the nave by an arcaded cloister, the tower was not built until 1859-1861, when funds were given for the purpose. The main body of the church was completed in 1852. When the diocesan convention met there in 1853, Richard Sharp Mason reported to the gathering that their church, completed after much difficulty, was "much admired for its architectural beauty. The design was furnished by Mr. Richard Upjohn."

Upjohn's design for Christ Church epitomized his Gothic Revival style and embodied most of the tenets of the Ecclesiological movement. The body of the church follows a cruciform plan, with the strongly defined recessed chancel oriented eastward in traditional medieval fashion. The thick walls were of rough-cut granite blocks, with the simple pointed arched openings outlined only by smooth stone surrounds. Perhaps acknowledging practicality for a parish with a tight budget, Upjohn planned the dramatic tower with its stone spire as a separate side structure that could be erected later—as it was. Although Upjohn's original plan called for a central aisle, the worship preferences of the congregation resulted in paired aisles, flanked by pine pews. The whole is surmounted by a dramatic open truss ceiling. Among the documents Upjohn provided to help the artisans unaccustomed to the Gothic Revival style was a model of the roof truss system which they could examine in three dimensions to understand how to build it. As built, the interior of the church featured a construction technique (often used at the time in urban masonry buildings) in which a wooden framework attached to the stone walls carries the pine wainscoting and the lathe and plaster above.

Inspired by Christ Church, other Episcopal clergy in North Carolina also turned to Upjohn for designs for much more modest churches. In 1849, the Reverend John H. Parker, rector of St. Luke's in Salisbury was seeking to build a church for a young congregation in the nearby town of Lexington, and he approached Upjohn for designs. After some delays, the plans arrived and the priest sent them over to Lexington for the parish leaders to review early in 1850. In an illuminating comment, Parker wrote to Upjohn on January 8, 1850, "of course I will return the plans to you after the Church is finished, as it is your rule." There was no further correspondence after January 30, 1850, however, and it appears that the church in Lexington was not built.

On May 1, 1856, the Reverend Aldert Smedes, chaplain and principal at St. Mary's, an Episcopal school for women in Raleigh, opened correspondence with Upjohn. He stated that he had been attracted to a design for a wooden chapel on page 12 of Upjohn's Rural Architecture as a model for a chapel for the school. Smedes soon sent a series of requests for adjustments to the design, and on May 15, 1856, probably at Upjohn's suggestion, he wrote, "I accept your offer to design for me a better plan than the one in rural architecture." Smedes made further adjustments to Upjohn's plans before the highly picturesque, board-and-batten St. Mary's Chapel was nearly completed on October 7, 1857, when Smedes reported that the outside was ready to be painted and asked for suggestions on the colors. He promised, "The plan shall be preserved, and returned to you, when we shall have finished."

Toward the end of the decade, two priests in far eastern North Carolina sought plans from Upjohn. In 1859, Francis W. Hilliard of Grace Church, Plymouth, wrote to Upjohn inquiring about the possible cost of building a church designed by Upjohn. He envisioned a brick church with a tower, probably at one corner. He supplied information about the cost of timber and brick, including "good northern bricks delivered in Plymouth" for $6.00 to $8.00 per thousand. The correspondence ends there, but the Gothic Revival brick church was indeed built in Plymouth. Though the main body of the Grace Episcopal Church was rebuilt after being damaged during the Civil War, the tower planned by Upjohn still stands.

The last known North Carolina request for Upjohn's help came from Joseph W. Murphy, priest at St. David's Church in the remote rural community of Scuppernong in Tyrrell County. Murphy had written first to churchman John Henry Hopkins, Jr. on August 2, 1859, for help in finding an architect to design a wooden church to seat about 150 people and cost under $1,500. Murphy probably wrote to Hopkins, Episcopal bishop of Vermont, because of his familiarity with Hopkins's influential publication of 1836, An Essay on Gothic Architecture, with Various Plans and Drawings for Churches Designed Chiefly for the Use of the Clergy. As Murphy explained to Hopkins, he had sought in vain for suitable plans from various architects. He hoped for a church of wood, "upright-plank, plain & neat and Church like." He emphasized, "I want a Church, not a meeting house or a barn & therefore I want to engage an architect."

Through Hopkins, Murphy's plea found its way to the office of Richard Upjohn and Company, and by mid-August, the priest was corresponding with the firm concerning their offer to supply plans for $50.00. On October 4, Murphy wrote, "The plan which you sent me suits so well that I am very anxious to have the Church built properly." He hoped to employ the same northern contractor (unidentified) whom Upjohn had recommended for Grace Church in Plymouth. He observed that the local "Carpenters know little about such plans & I am afraid to trust them to do it if I can do better." He noted that the church was to be built not in Scuppernong but in the nearby county seat of Columbia. In December, however, Murphy wrote to Upjohn in despair. Although he was "much pleased" with the plans, "it is found to be utterly impracticable to build here, with the money we have." Discouraged by local builders and others, he wrote, "It is with great reluctance I give up the plans." He concluded, "Instead of building a handsome Churchlike edifice as I hoped, we must be satisfied with something very plain."

It was for just such small congregations that Richard Upjohn had published his popular book, Rural Architecture. In addition to the North Carolina churches directly planned by Upjohn, several others were constructed more or less directly from the designs published in this volume. As historian Lawrence Wodehouse has shown, parishes throughout the state took inspiration from these modest but intensely "church-like" Gothic Revival designs, typically with steep roofs, board and batten walls, and narrow pointed windows, suited to the skills and materials of local builders. His book, first published in 1852, was reissued for several years and had a long-lasting influence. Examples of churches probably adapted from Upjohn's book were built in North Carolina from the 1850s into the 1880s. Wodehouse's study of Upjohn's Rural Architecture in North Carolina cites as examples St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Halifax (1854-1855); St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Beaufort (1857); St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, Raleigh (ca. 1870, no longer standing); St. Athanasius Episcopal Church, Burlington (1879-1880); Grace Episcopal Church, Trenton (1885); and St. John's Episcopal Church, Battleboro (1891), which Bishop Theodore Lyman praised as an especially "tasteful and well-ordered" church building. Other examples include St. James, Kittrell (ca. 1872); St. Barnabus, Snow Hill (1887) and St. Philip's, Germanton (ca. 1890).

Although there is no evidence that Upjohn ever visited North Carolina, his attentive correspondence with his North Carolina clients and his designs for churches that were both inspiring to their congregations and practical for their local settings made him an important figure in antebellum North Carolina architecture. Like Alexander Jackson Davis and a few others, Upjohn helped ambitious North Carolinians construct an architecture that expressed their hopes for engagement in the modern American mainstream. And, in large part through Upjohn's influence, North Carolina Episcopal churches formed one of the strongest collections of Gothic Revival church architecture in the antebellum South.

Author: Catherine W. Bishir.

Published 2009

Building List

Grace Episcopal Church (Plymouth, Washington County)

Washington Plymouth


Dates: 1860-1861; 1892-1893 [rebuilt]
Location: Plymouth, Washington County
Street Address: 107 Madison St., Plymouth, NC
Status: Standing
  • Religious
Images Published In:
  • Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).

During the Civil War, much of Washington's architecture was damaged by bombardments. Grace Church, designed by Richard Upjohn and Company, was severely weakened. In the 1890s architect Charles E. Hartge rebuilt most of the church, but he is believed to have saved and incorporated Upjohn's tower and apse into the church.

Grace Episcopal Church

Christ Episcopal Church (Raleigh, Wake County)

Wake Raleigh


Dates: 1848-1861; 1913 [additions]; ca. 1925 [additions]
Location: Raleigh, Wake County
Street Address: N. Wilmington St. at Edenton St., Raleigh, NC
Status: Standing
  • Religious
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).
  • Davyd Foard Hood, To the Glory of God: Christ Church, 1821-1996 (1997).
  • Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).

Christ Episcopal Church is one of the preeminent surviving churches by Richard Upjohn in America. It has been maintained and expanded over the years, including additions by his grandson, Hobart Upjohn, in the early 20th century and a major renovation in the late 20th century.

Christ Episcopal Church

St. Mary's Chapel (Raleigh, Wake County)

Wake Raleigh


Dates: 1855-1857
Location: Raleigh, Wake County
Street Address: St. Mary's School Campus, Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NC
Status: Standing
  • Religious
Images Published In:
  • Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
  • Elizabeth C. Waugh, North Carolina's Capital, Raleigh (1967).

A landmark of St. Mary's School campus, the chapel planned by Upjohn gained transepts and other additions in the late 19th and early 20th century, but its general character remains intact. Whether for this building or another one yet unidentified, the Mary Eliza Battle Papers at the North Carolina State Archives contain an intriguing receipt, dated New York, July 21st, 1857, "Kemp P. Battle, Esqr. /To Richard Upjohn & Co. /To Plans for a chapel, $75.00 /Recd Payment, Richard Upjohn & Co. / If convenient, please remit by draft on New York" (courtesy of George Stevenson).

St. Mary's Chapel

Richard Upjohn's Work Locations


  • Catherine W. Bishir, Charlotte V. Brown, Carl R. Lounsbury, and Ernest H. Wood III, Architects and Builders in North Carolina: A History of the Practice of Building (1990).
  • Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
  • Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
  • Christ Church Records, Church Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • Phoebe B. Stanton, "Richard Upjohn," in Adolph K. Placzek, ed., Macmillan Encyclopedia of Architects (1982).
  • Richard Upjohn Collection, Avery Library, Columbia University, New York City, New York.
  • Richard Upjohn Collection, New York Public Library, New York City, New York.
  • Lawrence Wodehouse, "'Upjohn's Rural Architecture in North Carolina," North Carolina Architecture, 15 (1968).

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