Cosby, John W. (1815-1867)
John Waitt Cosby; John Wayt Cosby
Staunton, Virginia, USA
- Greenville, North Carolina
- Raleigh, North Carolina
Styles & Forms:
Collegiate Gothic; Gothic Revival; Greek Revival; Italianate
John Wayt Cosby (March 13, 1815-July 13, 1867), a son of the prominent brick builder Dabney Cosby, was one of several antebellum builders who developed design skills and established an identity as an architect. Working in a range of revival styles popular in the 1840s and 1850s and maintaining a close relationship with his father, he was the architect for several substantial buildings including some erected by the older man.
John W. Cosby was born in Staunton, Virginia, one of thirteen children of Dabney Cosby (1779-1862) and his wife Frances. The elder Cosby, also a native of Virginia, had a long and distinguished career in Virginia and North Carolina. Two of his sons, Dabney, Jr. and John W. joined their father in the construction business. When Dabney, Sr. was about sixty years of age, he and other members of his family moved to Raleigh, where the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad and later the North Carolina Rail Road encouraged construction. Like many builders, Dabney sometimes erected buildings of traditional form that he had likely planned with his clients, and he also executed brickwork for buildings designed by architects including Alexander Jackson Davis. It is not known how John W. developed his design skills or when he assumed the identity of an architect. It is likely that he learned construction from his father and took inspiration from the period’s many architectural guides and pattern books as well as from observation of new buildings. By the early 1840s, the Cosby family team could provide a full set of services, with John planning buildings that suited his father’s construction methods as well as pleasing clients eager for popular “modern styles including the Greek Revival, Italianate, and Gothic Revival.”
The first known building for which John W. Cosby was identified as the architect was the Chatham County Courthouse in Pittsboro which was built by Dabney Cosby. The Raleigh Register described it on November 22, 1844, as an “elegant building,” built “from a Plan by Mr. John Wayt Cosby, Architect.” The exterior was “made to resemble a finely marked granite” and had “a classical and imposing appearance” enhanced by the front portico, “a prophylon in the Grecian Doric style.”
In addition to being the first known reference to John Wayt Cosby as an architect, this is the earliest mention of Dabney Cosby’s use of roughcasting in imitation of granite. In addition to the trades of brickmaking and bricklaying, Cosby’s shop specialized in this technique of plastering or stuccoing the outside of a brick structure and then scoring the surface to resemble stone blocks—such as the “finely marked granite” at the Chatham County Courthouse. This method, dating back to the Renaissance and promoted by Andrew Jackson Downing in Cottage Residences (1842), allowed a mason to construct a building of relatively inexpensive brickwork and then cover the walls in a handsome finish. In antebellum North Carolina, it was employed in several substantial and fashionable structures where both stylishness and economy were desired. Dabney Cosby stated in a letter of May, 1846, to University of North Carolina president David Swain concerning Cosby’s enslaved workman Albert, “his Plaistering and Roughcasting here has preference to any done in This part of the State.”
In 1847, when Dabney Sr. and his sons Dabney Jr. and John W. took the contract for a large public edifice, the North Carolina School (Asylum) for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in Raleigh, the Raleigh Register of June 25, 1847, opined, “The building, judging from the Plan, will be a magnificent one, and, when completed, will greatly ornament and beautify our City.” John designed the Gothic Revival exterior, while the interior was planned by the school’s superintendent. An article in the Newbernian and North Carolina Advocate of June 25, 1850, noted that the buildings were “in the style of English Collegiate style of architecture, and were designed by John W. Cosby, Esq., of Raleigh.”
Another major Cosby project in Raleigh was the Yarborough House Hotel, a large and elaborate hotel located on Raleigh’s main business street, Fayetteville Street. Dabney Cosby formed a partnership with other investors in 1849 to erect the hotel. As it neared completion, the Raleigh North Carolina Star of September 11, 1850, noted that it was designed by “that accomplished and skilful [sic] architect, John W. Cosby, Esq., of Raleigh and is in the Italian style of Architecture.” It was to be built of brick and “rough cast in imitation of free stone,” with bracketed cornices and “light and airy” balconies.
John W. Cosby, like his father, took some commissions in Virginia over the years. In 1846, the Raleigh Weekly Standard of May 6 reported that John W. Cosby had designed the Presbyterian Church in Smithfield, Virginia; at that time he was living in Raleigh. A Masonic Temple of 1854 in Danville, Virginia, was praised in newspaper articles as a magnificent structure and a credit to architect Cosby, who was then living in Virginia.
John W. Cosby also designed two North Carolina courthouses in the late 1850s, neither of which was completed from his designs. Early in 1858, the Caswell County commissioners chose a courthouse plan provided by John W. Cosby, who probably anticipated that his father, Dabney, might take the contract. There is no indication of what Cosby’s design may have been. For several years historians credited the courthouse to Cosby, but research by William B. Bushong in the late 20th century research revealed that by the summer of 1858, architect William Percival, a persuasive promoter and master of the picturesque styles of the day, had somehow gained the commission and was advertising for builders to bid on its construction. Working drawings and full specifications could be seen at Percival’s office in Raleigh or at the old courthouse in Yanceyville (Greensboro Patriot, September 3, 1858).
Another courthouse project for the Cosby team began in 1858, but problems soon developed that terminated the work. On September 1, the Raleigh Weekly Standard carried a report that the contract for building a new Pitt County Courthouse in Greenville had been let to Dabney Cosby for $12,000, and that Cosby planned to begin at once on a building that would be “an ornament to the town of Greenville.” John W. Cosby, a “well known architect,” would have the “superintendence of the work.” The commissioners had in hand a towered, Gothic Revival design by one Mr. Holt, probably Thomas J. Holt, and specifications requiring the edifice to be constructed of oil-stock high quality brick. Upon examining the plans, however, Dabney Cosby concluded that such a building could not be built for the $12,000 cost limit the county had set. In conversations with some but not all of the commissioners, he proposed a series of changes to reduce the cost, eliminating the Gothic features, changing to ordinary brick covered with rough casting, and creating a simpler, classical form similar to the courthouse in Wake County. Work was well advanced before some of the commissioners realized the extent of the change. As requested, John W. Cosby supplied a drawing depicting the altered design. The project was halted, feelings ran high, and eventually the partially completed structure was taken down and another builder employed. Dabney and John W. Cosby and his family, who had apparently moved to Greenville for the project, soon returned to Raleigh.
In 1860 John W. Cosby began running notices in North Carolina newspapers advertising his services as an architect, which he continued into 1862. Whether he attracted any projects during the war and immediate postwar years is unknown. He did gain the commission for the Edgecombe County Jail in Tarboro, which was praised in the Tarboro Southerner of March 14, 1867, as an “excellent model for all similar edifices to be built in the State.” The newspaper especially lauded John W. Cosby, its designer, whom the article identified as “the only Architect in North Carolina,” who “should receive a liberal encouragement from our citizens.” The jail was evidently Cosby’s last project, and he died not long after the article was published.
Like his father, John W. Cosby married and established a family. He married Louisa Smith in Raleigh in 1846, and the couple lived next door to his father. In 1850 he was listed as an architect aged 35 and born in Virginia, with Louisa aged 25 and an infant son John, both born in North Carolina. Although Dabney Cosby was listed with $3,500 in real estate, the census showed John C. without real estate.
In 1860 the census found the Cosby family residing in Greenville, North Carolina. John W. Cosby, an architect aged 45, headed a household that included his wife and four young children, Cosby was listed as owning personal property valued at $1,100. The census also recorded Dabney Cosby, Sr., aged 82, also in Greenville, and the owner of $1,200 in real estate and $6500 in personal property, and next door to him, his son H. Z. Cosby (Howard Zachariah), a physician aged 40. The census also noted several slaves in Greenville who belonged to D. Cosby and H. Z. Cosby. John C. and Dabney Sr. may have moved to Greenville because of the Pitt County Courthouse project. Dabney and John soon returned to Raleigh.
John W. Cosby died in 1867 and was buried with Masonic honors in Raleigh’s City Cemetery. Already interred there was his first son, John H. Cosby (1849-1863). Another son, Benjamin Howard Cosby (1856-1940), a jeweler, moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where he had resided for 62 years at the time of his death and was buried at Riverside Cemetery there.
- 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).
- J. Marshall Bullock, “The Enterprising Contractor, Mr. Cosby,” M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1982).
- “Cosby Family Tree,” Ancestry.com, http://person.ancestry.com/tree/82048753/person/36455400230/story.
1858Location:Yanceyville, Caswell CountyStreet Address:
Courthouse Square, Yanceyville, NCStatus:
Early in 1858, architect John W. Cosby’s design for the Caswell County Courthouse was selected, but within months the commissioners changed course and decided on William Percival as their architect. Cosby’s design has not been located, and the reasons for the commissioners’ change are not known.
1843-1845Location:Pittsboro, Chatham CountyStreet Address:
Courthouse Square, Pittsboro, NCStatus:
No longer standingType:
The Raleigh Register of November 22, 1844, carried a laudatory description of the Chatham County Courthouse, citing its “Grecian Doric style portico” and walls finished to resemble stone blocks. Records of its construction appear in the account book of Pittsboro merchant Henry A. London (Henry A. London Day Book, 1853-1845, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina). See J. Marshall Bullock, “The Enterprising Contractor, Mr. Cosby” (1982) for a summary of the entries.
1847-1850Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:
Caswell Square, W. Jones St. between McDowell St. and Dawson St., Raleigh, NCStatus:
No longer standingType:
PublicImages Published In:
Elizabeth C. Waugh, North Carolina’s Capital, Raleigh (1967).Note:
The state institution for the deaf and dumb (and blind, originally) was known by many names, and it was expanded and altered by various architects and builders over the years. It was built on Caswell Square, one of the city’s five open squares in the original city plan. The only part that remains is a section designed by Frank Pierce Milburn in 1898. The accompanying postcard image here shows the Cosby section at the right and possibly the center and the (surviving) Milburn addition on the left.
1858Location:Greenville, Pitt CountyStreet Address:
Dabney Cosby took the contract for the Pitt County Courthouse, but after disputes with the commissioners over the design and the cost, he left the project, and the building was redesigned and given to another contractor. See 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) for an account of the dispute.
1849-1851Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:
Fayetteville St., Raleigh, NCStatus:
No longer standingType:
CommercialImages Published In:
Elizabeth C. Waugh, North Carolina’s Capital, Raleigh (1967).Note:
The Yarborough House hotel was a major project and investment for Dabney Cosby. In addition to his own workmen, he hired others to work on the project, including the free black carpenter James Boon and Boon’s employees. Work began in September, 1849 and continued through December, 1850. With the building taking form, the Raleigh North Carolina Standard reported on August 28, 1850 that the hotel, 131 feet long on the street front, was “in the Italian style of Architecture,” built of brick and roughcast to imitate stone, and had been designed by that accomplished and skilful architect, John W. Cosby, Esq., of Raleigh.” When it opened to customers even before it was finished, the elder Cosby wrote with satisfaction, “The Yarborough House is filled with the best custom, all the Big fish are with us and a good many Ladies also and if as big again would have been filled up” (Dabney Cosby to Dabney Cosby, Jr., November 28, 1850, Dabney Cosby Papers, Southern Historical Collection). Cosby subsequently purchased full interests in the hotel, and later sold it. Expanded and updated over the years, it was the city’s leading hotel until it burned in 1928.