North Carolina Architects and Builders - A Biographical Dictionary

Coming Soon

NC Architects and Builders is a growing system. We will post this entry as soon as it is ready.

Day, Thomas (1801-ca. 1861)

Birthplace: Virginia, USA
Residences:
  • Milton, North Carolina
Trades:
  • Cabinetmaker
NC Work Locations:
  • Leasburg, Caswell County
  • Caswell
  • Milton, Caswell County
  • Caswell
  • Yanceyville, Caswell County
  • Caswell
  • Chapel Hill, Orange County
  • Orange
  • Roxboro, Person County
  • Person
Building Types:
  • Educational;
  • Religious;
  • Residential
Styles & Forms:
  • Gothic Revival;
  • Greek Revival;
  • Italianate

Old East [Chapel Hill]

View larger image and credits

Old East [Chapel Hill]

Biography

Thomas Day (1801-1861), an antebellum cabinetmaker and free man of color, was an artisan of extraordinary ability and character who produced a body of distinctive work unique in North Carolina. Although he was primarily a furniture maker, whose workshop was among the most prolific in the state, he is also credited with distinctive architectural woodwork for a North Carolina and Virginia clientele, including stairs, mantels, and door and window frames with forms akin to those in his furniture.

Compared to the substantial quantity of furniture documented as Day's work, scarcely any examples of architectural woodwork have been documented to his shop. Others have been attributed to him on stylistic grounds or from local or family tradition or both. This architectural woodwork includes staircases with highly sculptural and stylized newels, robustly executed door and window frames, and highly three-dimensional mantelpieces, sometimes flanked by arched niches. Several houses contain full ensembles of interior woodwork in the Day style. He worked with a variety of local and regional builders who erected the structures—typically Greek Revival in style, occasionally enriched with Italianate motifs—in which his work was installed. Over the years he crossed paths with and likely interacted with John Berry of Hillsborough and Dabney Cosby of Virginia and Raleigh, both of whom were active in Caswell County.

The building list here includes the known documented examples in North Carolina—the Long House and the Debating Halls at Old East and Old West at the University of North Carolina—plus a few examples with strong stylistic and traditional attributions.

According to Patricia Marshall and others, Thomas Day was born free in Virginia to John and Mourning Stewart Day, both free people of color. Mourning Stewart Day was the daughter of a free black doctor and property owner; John Day Sr.'s background is less certain, but evidently he too was freeborn. Thomas's elder brother, John Day Jr., was born in 1797. Marshall states that both sons gained a basic education as well as learning the cabinetmaking trade from their father. In the mid-1810s the family moved to Warren County, North Carolina, possibly to avoid increasing pressures on free people of color in Virginia, and John Day Sr. continued at the cabinetmaking trade and presumably trained his sons.

In the 1820s John Day, Jr., and Thomas Day moved to the trading town of Milton beside the Dan River in Caswell County, several miles west of Warren County. John Jr. moved directly to Milton, whereas Thomas moved first to Hillsborough, then to Milton in about 1823. John left Milton in 1825 to pursue a calling as a missionary, but Thomas stayed and established himself as an artisan and townsman. He advertised in the Milton Gazette of March 1, 1827, that he "returns his thanks for the patronage he has received, and wishes to inform his friends and the public" that he had a good supply of mahogany, walnut, and stained furniture, including "the most fashionable and common bed steads." Thus far, little is known of his early 19th century furniture.

As shown by Ruth Little-Stokes and others, antebellum Caswell County, like Warren County, had a plantation economy and a substantial number of prosperous citizens interested in handsome furniture and buildings. Day soon attracted a large and distinguished clientele that extended across several counties. Despite the worsening problems and prejudices that faced free people of color in North Carolina as elsewhere in the South, especially after 1830, Thomas Day succeeded in establishing a respected position in the community he had chosen. Although many free people of color were illiterate and impoverished, a few such as Day were educated, possessed valued skills, and attained a degree of prosperity and community stature. Day bought land in Milton and in the countryside, participated in Milton's Presbyterian congregation, and made sure that his children had opportunities for education. Unusual at the time for a free man of color, he was often addressed as "Mr. Day" by his white contemporaries. Thomas and Aquilla sent their daughter Mary Ann and her brothers Devereux and Thomas Jr. to Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts.

Like Donum Montford of New Bern and a few other free people of color, Thomas Day owned not only real estate but slaves, with two in 1830 and fourteen by 1850. Unusual for the time and place, the free man of color employed white as well as black workers in his shop from at least as early as 1827. In 1838, a white Moravian cabinetmaker, Jacob Siewers, came to work for Day along with his brother John Siewers as an apprentice, and other white Moravian apprentices soon followed. This pattern continued throughout his career.

The quality of Day's work, his ownership of property, and the respectability of his character and demeanor recommended him to the regional white elite. Although he faced increasing racial restrictions along with other free people of color, he occupied an unusual position in his community. In at least one important case, local white leaders assisted him in skirting restrictions on free people of color. In 1830, when Day married Aquilla Wilson in Virginia and sought to bring her to live with him in Milton, such a move was against the law in North Carolina where the legislature had passed a law in 1826 forbidding free people of color from moving into the state. Such was Day's local standing that sixty-one white citizens of Milton and Caswell, including leading business and political figures, signed a petition to North Carolina General Assembly requesting passage of a law to permit Aquilla Day, "a free woman of colour of good family and character," to enter the state. The petition described Thomas Day as a "first rate workman, a remarkably sober, steady and industrious man, a highminded, good and valuable citizen, possessing a handsome property in this town." Caswell County political leader Romulus Saunders, then state attorney general, added a statement supporting Day's character and expressing his confidence that as the owner of slaves as well as real estate, Day could be relied upon for "disclosure" in the event of any "disturbance among the Blacks. . . . His case may in my opinion, with safety be made an exception to the general rule which policy as this time seems to demand."

Day's business grew during the 1840s, and in 1848 he purchased the former Union Tavern on Main Street as his dwelling and workshop and soon constructed an addition for his cabinetmaking operation. The handsome brick building and its prominent position on Main Street clearly represented Day's position in the community.

An especially important project for Day was his work in 1847-1849 on the debating halls and libraries in the newly expanded Old East and Old West buildings at the University of North Carolina. An extensive correspondence documents the project, including letters between Day and university president David Swain and the members of the student debating societies, "Di" and "Phi." Notably, the university leaders and students treated Day with respect, addressing him as "Mr. Day," an honorific that whites did not always accord to men of color. Early on, Swain encouraged Day to move to Chapel Hill to facilitate the work, but Day declined to do so. His explanation revealed key aspects of his operation: "The plank has to be of superior quality & dried in a stem kill [sic] which I have here. You Advise me to come thare to do the work. But I think I can prepare the whole shelving & Boxing here with the assistance of my Powr saws and bring it in wagons which I have, & put it up much sooner, better, & cheaper, to myself than to come & provide the lumber in that neighborhood. I can select better timber here and prepare it much better" (Thomas Day to David L. Swain, Dec. 6, 1847, David L. Swain Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill, North Carolina).

Day's workshop combined a variety of technologies, including labor-intensive handicraft and by the 1840s or 1850s steam-powered machinery for sawing, planing, and other woodworking. He also had equipment for steaming and bending wood into the robust forms he sought. At its peak about 1850, Day's work force included himself and his son Devereux; five other free cabinetmakers—four white and one "mulatto"; and a white apprentice. The industrial census in that year reported that he employed 12 hands in his workshop, which likely included four or five enslaved workers; the census stated that the work was powered by "hand." The shop contained 70,000 board feet of lumber and a quantity of mahogany. His work force and especially his machinery enabled him to produce large quantities of work in relatively short periods of time; he promised to complete an order of 47 pieces of furniture for Governor David Reid within two months in 1855. Thomas Day announced in the Raleigh Weekly Standard of October 21, 1857 that he would have "at the State Fair at Raleigh, for sale, a large and splendid assortment of Cabinet Furniture, to which the attention of ladies and gentlemen is respectfully invited." As Patricia Marshall has observed, Day's machinery was especially useful in producing architectural woodwork, including items that repeated the same motifs such as door or window frames, as well as the individualized stair treatments and mantels.

As discussed by Jo Leimenstoll, the architectural woodwork attributed to Thomas Day's shop encompasses a range of expressions from straightforward renditions of Greek Revival and Empire motifs to highly idiosyncratic forms. This work dates mainly from the 1840s and, especially, the 1850s. Many motifs derive from popular architectural pattern books and furniture publications, usually personalized with his own touch. Especially striking is his bold treatment of solids and voids in his designs, including highly three-dimensional mantels featuring robust pilasters or engaged columns, frequently with Ionic capitals.

Stair newels and handrails attributed to Day display a panoply of bold, stylized motifs that distinguish them from the standard treatments of the period, some with spiral forms leaping toward the entrance or creating abstract geometric shapes. The distinctive stair treatment is often the chief hallmark of Day's handiwork in a given house. In several houses, such as the Holderness House in Caswell County, there is a full ensemble of distinctively "Day" style mantels, stair treatment, and door and window frames. As Leimenstoll notes, although few documents link Day's workshop to specific houses, the cumulative effect of the distinctive woodwork centered on Milton and associated with Day's furniture clients and others known to him supports the attribution of a substantial number of architectural interiors to his shop or to men who may have copied his work.

The national financial crisis of 1857 brought problems to Thomas Day as it did to millions of others. Like many other artisans, he could not collect on bills owed to him by customers and hence could not pay his own debts. In March 1858 his property was involved in an insolvency deed. Much of his property was sold. According to Tony Wrenn, Day's friend Dabney Terry helped him to recover from the financial crash. His son, Thomas Day, Jr., acquired ownership of the family home and workshop. In 1859, Thomas Day announced in the Milton Chronicle of March 10 that he wished "his Friends and Customers to know his Cabinet Establishment is Continued. All kinds of Furniture in the latest pat[t]erns, and Burial Accommodations. All persons are invited to call and Encourage the faithful manufacture of the Best furniture made in the Southern Country." The United States census of 1860 showed that Day's shop was among the few cabinetmakers' shops to survive the Panic of 1857, and though smaller than in previous days, it employed five workers and had a six-horsepower steam engine. The output of the shop included 40 bureaus ($1,000), 144 chairs ($720), 12 sofas ($360), and unspecified "other work" valued at $1,200.

Thomas Day is believed to have died in about 1861, though the precise date has not been ascertained. (No death notice or obituary has been located for Thomas Day, Sr., possibly because of the newspapers' focus on Civil War news.) Thomas Day—presumably Day, Jr.—advertised in several newspapers in the spring and summer of 1862 (see the Charlotte Democrat of July 15, 1862) offering for sale his six-horsepower steam engine (made by Amos and Grund of Baltimore) and a Dial planing machine. Tony P. Wrenn reported a local tradition that Day was buried on his farm outside Milton, with his grave marked by a cairn. Thomas Day, Sr.'s widow Aquilla survived him for many years. In 1880 she was living with her son Thomas and his family in Asheville; Thomas Day, Jr. continued in the cabinetmaking trade for many years, including a period in Asheville, North Carolina.

Thomas Day's work and reputation lived on long after his death. In Caswell County and beyond, many pieces of his furniture were identified as his work by their owners. Several families, including especially those who maintained ownership of homes over the generations, retold stories of Day as the maker of the interior woodwork of their residences. Other stories, some verifiable, others not, accumulated about Day as a man and a craftsman. Newspaper articles and museum exhibitions in the twentieth century presented examples of his work and accounts of his life, including the exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of History connected with the book, Thomas Day, Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color. The 2013 article by Rogers and Sneed, "The Missing Chapter in the Life of Thomas Day," which discusses Day's relationship with abolitionists, provides a review of publications and exhibits on Day. Research continues on Day's work and life.

Note: See Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color, p. 248, n.32, for an explanation of the documentation and attribution of his architectural interiors in that study. This biographical entry and building list are based primarily on that book, which shows many more examples of work attributed to Day.

Author: Catherine W. Bishir. Contributors: Jo Leimenstoll and M. Ruth Little.

Published 2015

Building List

Old West (Chapel Hill, Orange County)

Orange Chapel Hill

1822

Contributors:
Dates: 1822-1823; 1844-1848 [addition]; 1924 [renovation]; 1991-1992 [extensive renovation]
Location: Chapel Hill, Orange County
Street Address: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Educational
Images Published In:
  • John V. Allcott, The Campus at Chapel Hill: Two Hundred Years of Architecture (1986).
  • 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).
  • M. Ruth Little, The Town and Gown Architecture of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1795-1975 (2006).
  • William S. Powell, The First State University: A Pictorial History of the University of North Carolina (1992).
Note:

Alexander Jackson Davis enlarged and remade the north façades of Old East and Old West with Tuscan end bays to face Franklin Street. Builder Dabney Cosby questioned his design. As documented in extensive correspondence, Thomas Day planned and produced the interior woodwork, seating, etc. for the library and debating hall in Old West. Nothing is known to survive of his work there. See J. Marshall Bullock, "The Enterprising Contractor, Mr. Cosby," for a detailed account of Cosby's involvement in the Old East and Old West projects. The photograph shows Old West on the right.

Old West

Old East (Chapel Hill, Orange County)

Orange Chapel Hill

1793

Contributors:
Dates: 1793-1795; 1822 [addition]; 1844-1848 [addition]; 1924 [internally reconstructed]; 1991-1992 [extensive renovation]
Location: Chapel Hill, Orange County
Street Address: University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Educational
Images Published In:
  • John V. Allcott, The Campus at Chapel Hill: Two Hundred Years of Architecture (1986).
  • 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).
  • M. Ruth Little, The Town and Gown Architecture of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1795-1975 (2006).
  • William S. Powell, The First State University: A Pictorial History of the University of North Carolina (1992).
Note:

Old East is the oldest building on UNC campus. It was enlarged and given the Tuscan end bay by Alexander Jackson Davis. See North Carolina Architecture and Architects and Builders in North Carolina for details and J. Marshall Bullock, "The Enterprising Contractor, Mr. Cosby," for a detailed account of Dabney Cosby's involvement in the Old East and Old West projects. As documented in extensive correspondence, Thomas Day planned and produced the interior woodwork, seating, etc. for the library and debating hall in Old East. Nothing is known to survive of his work there. The building was gutted and rebuilt within the old walls in 1924.

Old East

Long House (Milton, Caswell County)

Caswell Milton

1850

Contributors:
Dates: 1850s
Location: Milton, Caswell County
Street Address: Milton vicinity, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
  • Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (2010).
Note:

The Greek Revival house with an Italianate porch features a full and exuberant ensemble of Day's work, including a geometric stair and a distinctive mantel flanked by arched niches. A receipt for deduction of $4 for "not finish of fire piece" is a rare bit of documentation for any of Day's surviving architectural woodwork.

Bartlett Yancey House (Yanceyville, Caswell County)

Caswell Yanceyville

1820

Variant Name(s):
  • Yancey-Womack House
Contributors:
Dates: Ca. 1820; 1856
Location: Yanceyville, Caswell County
Street Address: US 158, Yanceyville vicinity, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Ruth Little-Stokes, An Inventory of Historic Architecture, Caswell County, North Carolina (1979).
  • Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (2010).
Note:

In about 1820, legislator and congressman Bartlett Yancey and his wife Ann Graves built a 1 1/2-story Federal style frame house typical of its time and place. In 1856, as indicated by a date brick, their daughter Ann and her husband Thomas Womack enlarged the house by building a two-story, Greek Revival front section while retaining her parents' house at the rear. This was a common practice at the time. The interior woodwork of the front section has been attributed stylistically to Thomas Day's shop. The parlor mantel was shown in an old photograph before it was removed (Marshall and Leimenstoll, Thomas Day, 249, n. 38).

Holderness House (Yanceyville, Caswell County)

Caswell Yanceyville

1850

Contributors:
Dates: 1850s
Location: Yanceyville, Caswell County
Street Address: US 158, Yanceyville vicinity, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (2010).
Note:

The Greek Revival plantation house with flanking wings and pedimented porticoes contains a characteristic and unusually complete ensemble of Day style woodwork. It was built for planter William Holderness and his wife, Sarah; tradition gives a date of ca. 1851, but the history of Holderness's land acquisitions suggests a ca. 1855 construction date.

Milton Presbyterian Church (Milton, Caswell County)

Caswell Milton

1837

Contributors:
Dates: 1837
Location: Milton, Caswell County
Street Address: N. Broad St., Milton, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Religious
Note:

The builder of the brick church is not documented, but Thomas Day is credited by tradition and style with making the pews with their distinctive curved armrests. A template for the armrests was found in Day's workshop. He and his family were part of the congregation, and tradition reports that they occupied a pew on the first floor.

Woodside (Milton, Caswell County)

Caswell Milton

1850

Contributors:
Dates: 1850s
Location: Milton, Caswell County
Street Address: NC 57, Milton vicinity, 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).
  • Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (2010).
Note:

The frame plantation house in Greek Revival style comprises a full ensemble of interior woodwork epitomizing the style of Thomas Day, including a spiral newel and mantel with flanking niches. Both tradition and architectural features point to Day's role.

Garland-Buford House (Leasburg, Caswell County)

Caswell Leasburg

1860

Contributors:
  • Thomas Day, stylistically attributed cabinetmaker
Dates: Ca. 1860
Location: Leasburg, Caswell County
Street Address: Leasburg vicinity, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (2010).
Note:

The exuberant and eccentric ornament of the Greek Revival-Italianate frame plantation house has been attributed to Day's shop as representing its most ornate and eccentric expression of repetitive curvilinear forms. Its date of construction is not certain, and part of the second floor was left unfinished. The house was probably built for Dr. John T. Garland (1795-1874), who owned the plantation from 1835 onward.

Longwood (Milton, Caswell County)

Caswell Milton

1700

Contributors:
Dates: Late 18th century; early 19th century; 1850s
Location: Milton, Caswell County
Street Address: NC 62, Milton vicinity, NC
Status: No longer standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Ruth Little-Stokes, An Inventory of Historic Architecture, Caswell County, North Carolina (1979).
  • Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (2010).
Note:

The plantation house developed in three stages, with the Greek Revival front section containing an especially complete ensemble of interior woodwork in the style associated with Thomas Day. A landmark of Caswell County, Longwood burned in 2013.

Burleigh Plantation House (Roxboro, Person County)

Person Roxboro

1850

Contributors:
Dates: Ca. 1850
Location: Roxboro, Person County
Street Address: Roxboro vicinity, NC
Status: Standing
Type:
  • Residential
Images Published In:
  • Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
  • Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (2010).
Note:

The Greek Revival house contains characteristic Day woodwork including the mantels and the curving stair newel.

Thomas Day's Work Locations

Bibliography

  • Ruth Little-Stokes, An Inventory of Historic Architecture, Caswell County, North Carolina (1979).
  • Patricia Phillips Marshall and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color (2010).
  • Patricia Dane Rogers and Laurel Sneed, "The Missing Chapter in the Life of Thomas Day," American Furniture (2013).
  • Tony P. Wrenn, "Thomas Day," in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Vol. 2 (1986).
Text Only

Brought to you by The NCSU Libraries and The NCSU Libraries Copyright & Digital Scholarship Center.

Please contact us with any additions, corrections, or updates.

Giving to the Libraries