Town, Ithiel (1784-1844)
Ithiel Town (October 3, 1784-June 12 or 13, 1844) was a Connecticut-born architect and engineer who became one of the pre-eminent architects and engineers of the United States during the first half of the 19th century. In North Carolina, he planned three important early bridges at the time that he was developing his famous Town Lattice Truss, which he patented in 1820. Over a decade later, during his partnership with Alexander Jackson Davis as Town and Davis, he took a central role in the design of the North Carolina State Capitol.
Born in Thompson, Connecticut, the son of a farmer, Town moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1792 to live with an uncle. He taught school briefly at age 17 and then became a carpenter. In 1805 or 1806 he studied in Boston with Asher Benjamin (c. 1773-1845), the architect, builder, and author and publisher of seven influential builders’ guides. About 1812, Town moved to New Haven, Connecticut where he set himself up as a builder and architect. He erected on the New Haven Green the Federal-style brick Center Church (1812-1813) with a portico and steeple modified from an original Asher Benjamin design, which he followed immediately with the neighboring Trinity Church, a stone edifice in Gothic Revival style.
After 1818, Town’s professional interests shifted to the South, especially to North Carolina, where he erected three major bridges and developed his famous lattice truss bridge. Town applied for and on January 28, 1820, received a United States patent on his lattice truss style wooden bridge. It appears that the design originated in North Carolina, for it was here that he planned and built his earliest examples. He also built a major bridge at Cheraw, South Carolina (1822-1824). (See note at the end of the biography about the Town Lattice Truss.)
Town’s first bridge project outside New England came in 1818, when he contracted to design and build the Yadkin River Bridge (1818-1819), a covered bridge over the Yadkin River, northeast of Salisbury on the road to Salem, sometimes known as Beard’s Bridge. His client was Lewis Beard, a planter and businessman of Salisbury and Rowan County, who obtained state legislative authorization to build and own the bridge and to collect tolls for its use. Said to have cost $30,000 to erect, apparently the bridge was built under Town’s supervision, which would have required his residence in Rowan County for several months. It does not appear the Town had any ownership interest in this bridge. Although there is no known image or description of the bridge, it was a timber structure, weatherboarded, shingle-roofed, and set on stone piers (which survive) in the riverbed. It may have exhibited an early, experimental form of the lattice truss structure.
Town soon followed this with his famous Cape Fear Bridge (1819-1820) at Fayetteville. In 1818, the North Carolina General Assembly authorized James Seawell of Fayetteville and his associates within 18 months “to build and erect [and own] a bridge across the Cape Fear River” at or near “Campbelltown opposite the town of Fayetteville” and to collect tolls for its use (Laws of NC, 1818, c. LVII). On March 23, 1819, Town contracted with Seawell and company to build the bridge, which was sometimes called the Clarendon Bridge, recalling an old name for the Cape Fear River. Town lived in Fayetteville during its construction and was listed in the 1820 federal census there. Town knew William Nichols in Fayetteville, for both were living there in 1820, and a signed document records a business transaction between them in 1821. And Town saw and praised the State House in Raleigh as remodeled by Nichols in 1820-1824. Whether Town engaged in any architectural projects during his tenure in Fayetteville is not known; most of Fayetteville’s buildings were destroyed by fire in 1831.
Town also became the principal stockholder in the bridge corporation. The bridge was completed by mid-1820, and in August, 1822, Town wrote that the Cape Fear bridge “last year (the second) br[ough]t in clear of expenses about 3000$ and has increased 6 or 700$ from the last year.” Also by mid-1822, Town was in litigation with James Seawell over money claims; William Gaston, North Carolina’s premier lawyer, represented Town in the case, which apparently was resolved in Town’s favor. Town later made regular visits to Fayetteville to inspect the structure, see to its maintenance, receive an accounting from his agent of receipts and expenses, and, incidentally, to renew his local contacts. Town remained the chief stockholder in the Cape Fear bridge corporation, and at the time of his death in 1844, the bridge stock was paying him $1,600 to $1,800 a year, according to his Fayetteville agent, Edward L. Winslow.
Although no description or image of Town’s Cape Fear River Bridge is known, it probably was a fully developed example of his lattice truss form. It was burned on March 11, 1865, by retreating Confederate soldiers, but was rebuilt soon after the war. The second bridge was a lattice truss bridge, probably built to the same design as the original Town bridge. From Fayetteville, Town proceeded to Cheraw, South Carolina where he built (1823-1824) another toll bridge, 400 feet long, across the Pee Dee River—the stream he had bridged far upstream near Salisbury, where it flowed under the name of Yadkin.
After his Fayetteville project, Town was employed to design the South Yadkin River Bridge (1824-1825) on a major tributary of the Yadkin, northwest of Salisbury. The South Yadkin River Bridge was a fully-developed and widely celebrated example of Town’s famous lattice truss bridge on stone piers, in this case publicly funded. In 1823, the General Assembly authorized the Rowan County Court to appoint commissioners to locate and contract for a bridge over the South Yadkin River on the road from Salisbury to Mocksville, and to levy and collect property tax and poll taxes to pay for it. (Laws of North Carolina, 1823, c. LV.)
The Salisbury Western Carolinian of August 8, 1824, reported that the commissioners had contracted with Samuel Lemly a prominent local carpenter and contractor, to build the South Yadkin River bridge for $2,300. It was to be about 200 feet long, 16 feet (two lanes) wide, and “to be built on the principles of Mr. Town’s patent Bridge.” It was to have weatherboarded sides and a shingle roof. It was anticipated that the bridge would be completed the following January, and “we hazard nothing in predicting that it will be equal, for beauty and durability, to any Bridge in the Southern states, not even excepting the one at Cheraw, which is generally admired. Mr. Town’s plan, wherever it is known, is admitted to be equal, if not superior, to any other in use; and Mr. Lemley’s known skill in his business, warrants the belief that the South Yadkin Bridge will be one that will do honor to the public spirit of the citizens of Rowan.” Lemly even built a model of the bridge at a scale of 1” to 1’ for public inspection.
With the bridge finished, the Western Carolinian of October 11, 1825, carried a glowing report stating that the new bridge across the South Yadkin “will bear a comparison, with any in the Southern states. There is nothing splendid or magnificent about it; the plan is indigenous to our free country—being the invention of Mr. Town of Connecticut; and for simplicity, strength and symmetry, corresponds with the character of our government.” The account noted that it had been built under the superintendence of Mr. Lemly of Salisbury and completed about the first of July. Apparently Town visited Rowan County in 1824 to plan the bridge but left its execution entirely to Lemly. They became friends during Town’s Rowan County visits, and Lemly named his son Ithiel Town Lemly (1824-1844). Town’s three North Carolina bridges—all now lost—served as models for builders of smaller bridges throughout the state (with or without Town’s authorization) for decades thereafter. Some of the last surviving covered bridges in the state, still standing in the early 20th century, exhibited the Town lattice truss. Despite his presence in the state for several years, there is no evidence that Town engaged in any architectural projects other than bridge building during those years.
After his bridges were completed, Town returned to the North and in 1825 established an office in New York City, where he became a productive and widely respected architect. Notable among his early works was the Connecticut State Capitol (1827-1831) in New Haven, a temple-form edifice modeled after the Parthenon at Athens and regarded as an advance in Greek Revival civic design. In 1829, Alexander Jackson Davis joined Town to form Town and Davis, a nationally known firm regarded as the first true architectural firm in New York City.
On 21 June 1831, the North Carolina State House in Raleigh was accidentally destroyed by fire. After 18 months of uncertainty, the General Assembly resolved to rebuild on the old site and established a five-member Building Commission to oversee the project. Several designers submitted proposals by February, 1833, including Town and Davis, who had been contemplating the commission since 1831. Early in 1833, they put before the commissioners a temple-form plan, similar to their capitols in Connecticut and Indiana. Among their advocates was William Gaston, Town’s attorney in his Fayetteville bridge litigation a decade earlier, and Robert Donaldson, a former resident of Fayetteville, son-in-law of Gaston, and a client of Town and Davis.
The Commissioners, however, were under instruction from the General Assembly to erect a capitol along the same lines as the former State House as remodeled by William Nichols in 1820-1824: a cruciform plan, with dome, in neoclassical style. The Commissioners engaged William Nichols, Jr. (and indirectly, his father, then in Alabama) to design the new capitol. It appears that Nichols’s design for the capitol was similar to his cruciform and domed Alabama Capitol (1827-1831), and to his North Carolina State House (1820-1824), with offices on the first floor, a courtroom and legislative chambers on the second, and a central rotunda. But in the summer of 1833, soon after the Commissioners accepted Nichols’s cruciform plan, they terminated his services. Soon Town reentered the picture, acting as the Commissioners’ architect and proposing changes to the Nichols plan to reflect Town and Davis’s advanced classical taste and design skills. A few architectural drawings from the Town and Davis office files plus fragmentary correspondence and newspaper articles trace the Town and Davis transformation. It was Town who had all the contact with the Commissioners, meeting with them in Raleigh three times in 1833-1834. Davis was unknown to them and did not come to Raleigh until 1844, four years after completion of the capitol in 1840.
Construction began in 1833 on the cruciform stone building. By mid-1834, however, the lack of a competent construction overseer led the Commissioners to ask Town to find them an experienced clerk of the works or construction manager. Town hired David Paton (1801-1882), an Edinburgh-born and -trained architect who had worked briefly for Sir John Soane in London. Paton began as clerk of the works in Raleigh in September 1834. Paton soon gained the confidence of the Commissioners sufficiently to persuade them to make substantial changes in the agreed-upon Town and Davis plan. Those changes probably included the elimination of a Town lattice truss system intended to carry the roofs over the north and south wings, with the effect of lowering the ceilings of the legislative chambers and raising the profile of the roofs. Made without his prior knowledge, the changes so enraged Town that he threatened to have Paton dismissed. But Town found that Paton had so ingratiated himself with the Commissioners that the older architect could only withdraw in 1835 and leave the project to Paton.
As discussed in Davis and Sanders’s A Romantic Architect in Antebellum North Carolina, Town’s principal role in the design of the capitol was as the active agent in gaining for Town and Davis the commission to revise the Nichols plan for the capitol. It seems likely that much of the creative work of the redesign was done by Davis, though Town would have reviewed and approved any plans from the firm. Town and Davis defined the exterior aspects of the capitol, with minor changes by David Paton in the course of construction, and they established the form and character of the rotunda and legislative chambers, the principal features of the interior, which were also subject to later refinements by Paton. The North Carolina State Capitol has been recognized since 1840 as a monument of the Greek Revival style. Although the basic concept was the work of William Nichols and its execution owed much to David Paton, it stands as one of the principal works of the Town and Davis firm. Its sophisticated and remarkably intact character, complemented by sympathetic conservation and renewal in recent years, makes the capitol one of the nation’s finest surviving examples of the work of Town and Davis.
Notes on the Town Lattice Truss Bridge
Evidence indicates that Ithiel Town developed his famous Town Lattice Truss while he was building bridges in North Carolina in the 1810s and 1820s. In the description of his bridge (patented in 1820), which he published in 1821, Town posed this task for himself: “By what construction or arrangement will the least quantity of materials, and cost of labor, erect a bridge of any practicable span or opening between piers or abutments, to be the strongest and most permanent, and to admit of the easiest repair?”
His solution was to build a continuous timber frame box, consisting of a set of vertical bridge walls—one on each side of the roadway (and if needed, a third wall in the center to divide lanes of traffic)—composed of continuous timber latticework. These lattice walls consisted of grids of closely set, diagonally intersecting sawn plank, 10 to 11 inches wide and 3 to 3 1/2 inches thick, pinned together at each crossing by three or four wooden “trunnels” or tree nails, and similarly pinned where the diagonals overlapped the horizontal lengthwise string pieces at the bottom and top of each wall. Horizontal beams and rafters bound the lattice walls into a rigid framework, which carried a plank floor and above, a shingled roof. Weatherboarding protected the structure from the weather. That structure was simple to build of ordinary sawn timbers locally available, and could be built and repaired by local carpenters lacking special skills. Because the lattice bearing walls were continuous, they did not require substantial bracing as did traditional bridges; all thrusts were vertical. The framework rested on stone piers, set into the bed of the stream. The structure was sufficiently rigid that spans of 120 to 160 feet between supporting piers were feasible. Town also noted that the lattice walls could be executed in cast iron and that lattice trusses could be used to span wide spaces in non-bridge structures. (One of the few early survivals of the wooden truss supports the roof of the First Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, for which Town’s firm provided reconstruction plans after a disastrous fire in 1831.)
Town’s fully developed truss design was used for the first Cape Fear River Bridge, the Pee Dee River Bridge at Cheraw, and the later South Yadkin River Bridge near Salisbury. An early form may have been used in the Yadkin River Bridge of 1818-1819. Acting through agents, Town licensed the use of his patent for the construction of bridges throughout the eastern states, charging $1 per lineal foot for that use. (Builders caught having used Town’s design without his prior permission were charged $2 a running foot for that use.) From that patent, Town reaped a substantial fortune. The Town lattice truss bridge was a major technological advance in bridge design. It was built for decades without license after Town’s death in 1844 and into the 20th century—as long as wooden structures were adequate to carry the increasingly heavy vehicles. Some in North Carolina gave way to concrete bridges only in the road-building program of the 1920s.
- Richard Sanders Allen, Covered Bridges of the Northeast (1957).
- Edward T. Davis and John L. Sanders, A Romantic Architect in Antebellum North Carolina: The Works of Alexander Jackson Davis (2000).
- Kenneth Hafertepe and James F. O’Gorman, American Architects and their Books to 1848 (2001).
- Talbot Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture in America (1944).
- Roger C. Kennedy, Architecture, Men, Women and Money in America, 1600-1860 (1985).
- Roger Hale Newton, Town & Davis, Architects (1942).
- William H. Pierson, Jr., American Buildings and their Architects: Technology and the Picturesque, the Corporate and Early Gothic Styles (1978).
- William H. Pierson, Jr., American Buildings and their Architects: The Colonial and Neoclassical Styles (1970).
- Ithiel Town, A Description of Ithiel Town’s Improvement in the Construction of Wood and Iron Bridges: Intended as a General System of Bridge-Building (1821).
- Ithiel Town Papers, New Haven Historical Society, New Haven, Connecticut.
- Roxanne Kuter Williamson, American Architects and the Mechanics of Fam (1991).
- Contributors:Ithiel Town, architectVariant Name(s):Clarendon BridgeDates:1819-1820Location:Fayetteville, Cumberland CountyStreet Address:Cape Fear River. Fayetteville, NCStatus:No longer standingType:TransportationNote:The covered bridge pictured in the photograph replaced the earlier Clarendon Bridge by Ithiel Town and then was destroyed in a fire in 1909. It probably resembles the Town bridge, which was burned in 1865.
- Contributors:William W. Birth, superindendent, masonry department (1833-1834); Thomas Bragg, Sr., supervisor (1830s); John J. Briggs, carpenter (1830s); Thomas H. Briggs, Sr., carpenter (1830s); Alexander Jackson Davis, architect (1830s); William Drummond, supervisor (1830s); Robert Findlater, stonecutter (1830s); Asa King, carpenter (1830s); William Murdoch, stonecutter (1830s); William Nichols, architect (1830s); William Nichols, Jr., architect (1830s); David Paton, architect and supervisor (1830s); Henry J. Patterson, brickmaker (1830s); William Percival, architect (1858); James Puttick, stonecutter (1830s); William Strickland, consulting architect (1830s); William Stronach, stonecutter (1830s); Town and Davis, architects (1830s); Ithiel Town, architect (1830s)Dates:1833-1840Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:Union Square, Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:PublicImages Puslished 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.
- Dates:1824-1825Location:Rowan CountyStreet Address:Rowan County, NCStatus:No longer standingType:TransportationNote:The existence of the South Yadkin River Bridge was relatively brief, as it was washed away in a freshet in 1852, after only a quarter of a century of service. The site of this bridge is uncertain; no stone piers mark its site. The South Yadkin River joins the main Yadkin River northeast of Salisbury. The crossing of the South Yadkin at or near the present US 601 bridge is most likely, but a location farther downstream near "the Point," where the South Yadkin enters the Yadkin (site of the short-lived town of Clinton), is also a possibility.
- Contributors:Ithiel Town, engineerVariant Name(s):Beards Bridges BridgeDates:1818-1819Location:Rowan CountyStreet Address:Yadkin River near U. S. 29, NCStatus:No longer standingType:TransportationNote:This was the first of Town's bridges in North Carolina. After serving for about half a century, the Yadkin River Bridge fell into disrepair and disappeared by 1881. Its stone piers were reused in 1899 to carry a steel toll bridge (now gone) on the same site. The five stone piers survive.