Paton, David (1801-1882)


Edinburgh, Scotland


  • Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Raleigh, North Carolina
  • Brooklyn, New York


  • Architect

NC Work Locations:

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Greek Revival

David Paton (1801-1882), an architect from Edinburgh, Scotland, served as superintending architect and architect of the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, and had an important role in refining and shaping the final design of the building. During his tenure at the capitol (1834-1840), he incorporated sophisticated design and construction elements that reflected his experience in Edinburgh and his work with the English architect Sir John Soane, and created some of the most dramatic features of the capitol. (Note: The following biographical sketch is drawn, with minor updates and editing, from the text prepared by the author in the 1980s and published in 1994 in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Vol. 5; it is used here with the permission of the University of North Carolina Press.)

Born in Edinburgh, David Paton was the third of twelve children of John Paton (1772-1842) and Elenor Roper Paton. He attended the University of Edinburgh (1820-1824) and was trained as a builder and architect by his father, an extensive builder in Edinburgh. He gained much experience in planning businesses and residential structures from his father and other builders in the New Town of Edinburgh, where construction was in stone and the Neoclassical style dominated design. In this “Athens of the North,” Paton observed the evolution and maturation of the international Greek Revival style in one of its finest manifestations.

In search of further professional preparation, Paton worked from November 1829 to May 1830 as an assistant in the London office of John Soane (later Sir John Soane), then the leading English architect. Paton was the last of 77 men to serve as pupil, apprentice, or assistant to Soane. In Soane’s office he gained experience with a highly sophisticated application of Neoclassical design motifs and principles.

After leaving Soane’s office, Paton returned to Scotland. “The entire stagnation of building” in Edinburgh, he later wrote, soon sent him to America “with a view to the more active prosecution of his profession there.” On July 30, 1833, Paton reached New York and began the search for employment among the architects of the city, including the leading firm of Town and Davis, whose principals were Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis. One of the firm’s major projects was the North Carolina State Capitol. Although Davis completed many of the drawings, it was Town, the elder partner, who was directly involved with the commissioners to build the capitol. He had the only contact with them and with Paton during the project.

The North Carolina State House had burned on June 21, 1831. Late in 1832, the General Assembly had decided to rebuild on the old site at the center of Raleigh, using stone as the principal building material. The initial plan of the State Capitol (as the present building has consistently been called) was provided by William Nichols. Nichols had as state architect greatly enlarged the North Carolina State House in 1820-1824; by 1832 he was living in Alabama and contributed to the State Capitol through his son and agent, William Nichols, Jr. The commissioners to build the capitol received a proposed plan from Town and Davis for a temple-form edifice, but they chose the plan proposed by Nichols, which was an enlarged and improved version of the State House design. The commissioners then dispensed with the Nichols’ services.

Because the edifice was to be built chiefly of stone (a hard, local schist of high quality) to be cut and laid with precision, the project required expert stonecutters and stonemasons, and expert supervision of the work, all of which proved to be a challenge. Work began on the cruciform plan building under the supervision of William Drummond. The cornerstone was laid in a building already several feet tall on July 4, 1833. Soon after this, Town and Davis reentered the project and proposed various changes to the Nichols design to give the building their own version of the Greek Revival style. In 1834, disagreements led to the resignations of the building superintendents, and the commissioners asked Town to find a replacement. He selected David Paton, whose professional experience, especially in stone construction, ideally fitted him for the task. On behalf of the commissioners, on September 10, 1834, Town contracted with Paton to come to Raleigh and for $3 per day take over the superintendence of the stonecutting and masonry work of the capitol, and the superintendence of the remainder of the project as well if the commissioners wished it.

When Paton reached Raleigh and began work on September 16, 1834, the exterior walls of the capitol were 40 feet high and the general plan was considered well settled. He was immediately made clerk of the works with the entire superintendence of the project as the building commissioners’ employee. (Under a direct arrangement with Town and Davis, and acting as their employee, he undertook concurrently to do much of the architectural detail work as well.) He kept the extensive labor accounts for all employees, who numbered more than 330 by 1837. By reorganizing the work force he achieved economies in supervision.

Paton soon gained the confidence of the building commissioners, who accepted his suggestions for modifications in the plan they had agreed upon with Town. Professionally much offended, Town wrote a withering letter to Paton and withdrew his firm from the project. In March 1835 the commissioners made Paton their architect as well as superintendent. Henceforth, Paton had complete responsibility for the design and construction of the capitol.

Although the basic features and dimensions of the Nichols-Town and Davis plan were well settled by the time Paton took over, he made a number of significant changes to the execution of the plan and the details that transformed the spaces of the interior. He made the first-floor offices and corridors fireproof by spanning them with masonry groin vaults. He shifted the position of the stairs in both stories. He moved the Supreme Court and Library rooms from the second to the third floor. He redesigned the east and west wings to provide more offices and committee rooms. He added public galleries at the third floor levels in the legislative chambers. In a design evocative of Soane’s work, he added toplit, domed vestibules in the third story.

As was discovered recently through the consultation of Raymond Beck (curator of the capitol) with Scottish architect Ian Begg, Paton also introduced a construction technique long used in Scotland, in planning and building the two elegant stone staircases from the second story to the third. The helical form, called a “pen-check stair,” is unique in North Carolina and seldom seen in the United States. (Another Scotsman, stonemason William Murdoch later remembered his own role in constructing the stairs as a highlight of his long career.)

In his most dramatic change to the edifice, Paton introduced the galleried circular opening between the first and second floor levels in the rotunda, employing sophisticated engineering techniques known from Edinburgh to create the breath-taking full-height space from ground level to the skylighted dome. In Nichols’s State House, of brick and timber, this space had been open as a skylit setting for the statue of George Washington by Antonio Canova. In the early 1830s, the state still hoped that the statue could be restored. However, in Davis’s section drawings for the capitol, the floor of the second story is continuous.

Paton’s interior changes had the effect of making the building more functional while at the same time introducing greater spatial sophistication and drama. He also shifted the design to a more chaste classicism both inside and out, again reflecting influences of Soane and of Edinburgh. He reduced the number of columns originally planned for the legislative chambers. He simplified the interior treatment of the dome of the rotunda. And he eliminated some of the intended decorative details of the pediments, the blocking courses of the north and south flanks, and the top of the dome. Concerning some of the changes Paton proposed, the commissioners consulted Philadelphia architect William Strickland, considered a leading American expert in classical taste, and Strickland approved the alterations. Strickland commented that the balustrade the commissioners proposed atop the dome was “Roman” and “inadmissible,” and suggested a honeysuckle motif, which was adopted. In addition, Paton supervised the execution of the upper third of the exterior walls, the dome and its drum, and the entire interior of the capitol. He is due much credit for the quality of the work throughout, even when it was carried out to the designs of other men.

In addition to his work on the building site, Paton made annual trips to New York and sometimes to Philadelphia to consult other architects (chiefly Strickland), observe major public buildings under construction, procure fittings and equipment of the kinds not available locally, and to recruit and engage craftsmen, especially the skilled stonecutters and stonemasons, most of whom were natives of the British Isles. He maintained good relationships with the artisans under his supervision, as testified by letters from several of them. Extensive correspondence and other items in the David Paton Papers and the State Capitol records at the North Carolina State Archives document these activities.

Paton was well regarded by the commissioners and by Raleigh citizens throughout most of his nearly six years of work on the capitol. The commissioners increased his salary progressively from $3 to $5 per day, the latter effective February 1, 1837. By early 1840, however, tensions had developed between the commissioners and Paton, exacerbated if not initiated by his demands for more pay. The problems reached the point that Paton was dismissed on May 23, 1840, just as the capitol was nearing completion. Thus when the long awaited capitol was dedicated in elaborate and festive ceremonies on June 10-12, 1840, Paton and his young family were making their way to New York.

Throughout much of his service in Raleigh and for many years after he left North Carolina, Paton futilely urged upon the state his claims for additional compensation. He contended that his services as architect were performed under his private contract with Town and Davis, over and above those called for by his initial contract with the state as construction superintendent, and were carried on for the commissioners from March 1835 onward, upon their promise of extra compensation. Despite his repeated petitions, however, he never received the additional pay.

Paton’s duties with the state during construction of the capitol allowed him no time for remunerative private professional work. In 1835, however, he provided without compensation plans for buildings of the Caldwell Institute, a Presbyterian classical school for boys, which the trustees gratefully adopted. (Paton was a Presbyterian.) A two-story brick building was erected for the Caldwell Institute in Greensboro in 1837, but it is not known whether that structure (long ago demolished) followed Paton’s plan, and no image of it is known to exist. In 1839-1840, Paton gave advice about contemplated alterations to buildings at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, including covering their exterior brick walls with a protective cement wash. In 1837, he declined the post of master builder of the United States Arsenal at Fayetteville, but was instrumental in obtaining the position for fellow Scotsman William Bell.

Paton left Raleigh in June 1840 for New York and returned to Scotland that fall (taking with him all of the more than 200 plans and drawings he had done for the State Capitol). After several years of professional work in Edinburgh (where he seems not to have opened an architectural practice in his own name) and an unsuccessful bid in 1847 for the post of City Superintendent of Works of that place, Paton returned to the United States in 1849. He settled in the city of Brooklyn, where his only known employment for the remainder of his professional career was as an instructor of architectural and mechanical drawing in technical institutes in Brooklyn and New York. Although Paton had a professional office, and the extensive building resulting from Brooklyn’s population growth between 1850 and 1870 should have created a demand for his services as an architectural designer or superintendent, no documentation or family tradition of such work has been found. Disabled by a paralytic stroke about 1875, Paton had to decline an 1878 invitation to advise on a plan for a governor’s mansion for North Carolina. (Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan, who had also worked in North Carolina before the Civil War, received the commission.) His work on the North Carolina State Capitol done by the time he was 39, David Paton never fulfilled the promise of that significant early achievement. Along with seeking for years to obtain the additional pay for his work in Raleigh, he seems also to have nourished unfounded hopes of a large inheritance in Scotland, which never materialized but may have dampened his professional energies.

Paton married first (on January 23, 1829) Mary Nichol of Scotland, who died early in 1833 and whose death probably contributed to his decision to sail to America. They had one daughter, Eleanor Murray Paton (1830-1902), who remained in Scotland and married John Wyld of Glasgow. Paton married second Diana (or Anna) Bertie Gaskin Farrow (d. 1875) of Washington, North Carolina, on August 2, 1837. They had one son and seven daughters. A daughter, Agnes Charlotte Paton (1845-1921), came to live with her mother’s family in North Carolina, married C. E. Foy of New Bern, and has descendants living in Eastern North Carolina. David Paton never became a citizen of the United States, and family tradition holds that his refusal to do so required him to decline a chair of mathematics at the United States Military Academy. Paton died in Brooklyn on March 25, 1882, and was buried in Cypress Hill Cemetery, Brooklyn, which according to family tradition he helped design.

  • Samuel A. Ashe, David Paton, Architect of the North Carolina State Capitol (1909).
  • Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
  • David Paton Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
  • John L. Sanders, “Alexander Jackson Davis and the North Carolina State Capitol,” in Edward T. Davis and John L. Sanders, A Romantic Architect in Antebellum North Carolina: The Works of Alexander Jackson Davis (2000).
  • John L. Sanders, “David Paton,” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 5 (1994).
  • John L. Sanders, “The North Carolina State Capitol of 1840,” The Magazine Antiques (Sept. 1985).
  • Mary Jane Scott, “David Paton: Scottish ‘Athenian’ in America,” The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, Journal and Annual Report, 13 (1986).
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