Walter, Thomas U. (1804-1887)
Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1887), the nationally important Philadelphia architect best known for designing the great dome of the United States Capitol in Washington, DC, planned two Gothic Revival style Episcopal churches in antebellum North Carolina: St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington and the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill. Along with the firm of Town and Davis of New York, Walter was among the first of many nationally known, urban architects who provided designs for buildings in the state, and St. James (designed in 1837-1838) was among his earliest Gothic Revival church designs.
Born in Philadelphia, Walter began his career as an apprentice to his father as a brickmason, then studied architecture and fine arts under architect John Haviland and worked in the office of leading Philadelphia architect William Strickland before establishing his own practice in 1831. Like most architects of the time, he worked in a variety of styles including the Gothic and Egyptian revivals. His reputation was made with his Greek Revival design for Founder’s Hall at Girard College in Philadelphia (1833).
An early and longtime leader in the architectural profession, Walter was among the small group of architects who formed the American Institution of Architects in 1836, and he was also a founder of the successful national organization, the American Institute of Architects, in 1857, serving as its founding vice president and its second president (1876 to 1887), following Richard Upjohn and preceding Richard Morris Hunt in that office.
Walter’s extensive practice encompassed more than 400 projects in his long career. Most of these were in or near Philadelphia, but some were located in distant communities and typically involved only the furnishing of drawings and specifications, without site visits or superintendence. Such was the case in his commissions in North Carolina.
Walter’s St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington was one of the first major essays in the Gothic Revival style in North Carolina, as well as the first of the city’s many works commissioned from distant urban architects. When the Reverend Robert B. Drane became rector of St. James in 1836, the colonial period church needed extensive repairs. The parish, the largest and wealthiest in the state, decided to build a new and larger church.
How the parish selected Walter for the project is not known, but it seems likely that Drane, who came to St. James from the diocese of Maryland, had seen Walter’s work in Philadelphia. The choice of the Gothic Revival style was probably influenced by North Carolina’s Episcopal bishop, Levi Silliman Ives, who had taken office in 1831 and was an enthusiastic promoter of the Gothic Revival style as the ideal for the denomination’s churches. (See Christ Episcopal Church [1848-1861] by New York architect Richard Upjohn.)
St. James, like most of Walter’s Gothic Revival church designs, belongs to the first phase of the Gothic Revival in America, with a straightforward rectangular nave plan and symmetrical façade, enriched by Gothic Revival details, including a crenellated roofline, pointed arched openings, buttresses, and Gothic ornament. Its plan and general format are essentially the same as classically detailed churches in the Federal and Greek Revival modes. However, in the completeness of its details it is more thoroughly Gothic than the earlier Gothic Revival churches built for North Carolina Episcopal congregations in the 1820s, such as Christ Church in New Bern, St. Matthew’s in Hillsborough, and St. Luke’s in Salisbury (see William Nichols and John Berry).
As shown in Phoebe B. Stanton’s history of Gothic Revival church architecture in antebellum America, Walter’s design for St. James shares in the spirit of churches shown in John Henry Hopkins’s Essay on Gothic Architecture (1836) as well as churches planned by William Strickland and others. Later in the 19th century St. James (in a pattern seen in many of these churches) was expanded with a recessed chancel on the east and a transept on the south side.
For St. James, Walter prepared drawings, including details, for which he received payment of $50.00 on January 17, 1838, according to his account book. If he followed his usual practice, he would have sent a plan, front and side elevations, and a section, plus specifications. None of these drawings is known to survive. However, the parish archives include a description of a “new church” which was to be “strictly of the Gothic style of architecture,” about 80 by 50 feet, and constructed of brick finished with “rough cast imitation of granite.”
Parish records also include an itemized estimate for construction of the church, totaling $12,390, dated January 22, 1838, and signed by Andrew Steele. A year later, however, the building committee reported that after “several consultations with Mr. J. H. Norris they were induced to believe that a Church of the size and upon the plan drafted by T. U. Walters [sic] of Philadelphia (but without the side galleries) can be erected for $15,500.” John S. Norris, architect and builder, came from New York to supervise construction of the church, an early example of Wilmingtonians’ practice of employing men of northern experience to manage such projects. The artisans for the project included other men from the north, including carpenter Christopher Dall and mason John C. Wood (see Wood Brothers).
The cornerstone was laid on April 3, 1839, and the church was consecrated on March 29, 1840, by Bishop Ives. Both the rector and the bishop lauded the Gothic Revival style of the edifice—the rector saying at the cornerstone laying that the Gothic was “better calculated than any other to fill men with awe and reverence,” and the bishop citing it to the diocesan convention of 1841, which was meeting in the church, as “a model of Church Architecture.”
Inspired by St. James’s example and the bishop’s comments, the fledgling Episcopal congregation in Chapel Hill soon began a similar but simpler church from a design by Walter. In 1842, the Reverend William Mercer Green, professor and chaplain at the University of North Carolina, organized local Episcopalians into a congregation which became the Chapel of the Cross, and then he pushed the building project along. Green had attended the diocesan convention at St. James in 1841, and it was probably he who contacted architect Walter for plans.
Walter’s diary recorded his work on designs for “Episcopalian church at Chapel Hill NC” during the last week of September, 1842, and he completed a plan, section, front and flank elevations on October 1. On October 29 he sent a letter and specifications, and on December 2 received payment of $25.00. An elevation drawing in Walter’s papers is believed to be that of the Chapel of the Cross. The church, like St. James, was rectangular in plan, with a central entrance tower. It too was altered in the later 19th century (1891), to add a recessed chancel and other features.
In contrast to St. James, construction of the little brick church in Chapel Hill went slowly. Professor Green, who served as contractor and chief fundraiser, established a brickyard on his farm and supervised the making of the bricks for the church. The first stages went quickly, for by May, 1843, Green had raised $1,200 in donations from the diocese, and by November had completed the brick walls. But then funding and construction dropped off, despite repeated urgings to the diocese by Bishop Ives. Green lamented in 1845, “More than two years have passed away since the work was begun. . . . The rank weed is growing against its windowless walls. The pigeon is building among its rafters, and its unfinished spires seem protesting to Heaven against the apathy of the Diocese.” The church was completed in 1848 and consecrated by Bishop Ives on October 19, 1848.
Besides these two churches, Walter’s records include references to two minor projects in North Carolina, about which little is known: an “alteration” in 1833 for an unnamed church in New Bern, for one John Goodman, possibly a spire for First Baptist Church, built in 1811; and a portico for a house owned by “Mr. Anderson of Wilmington,” in 1837, which might have been the residence (NLS) of Alexander Anderson.
- Robert B. Drane, Sketch of St. James’s Parish, Wilmington, N. C., from the “Historical Notices” of the Rev. R. B. Drane, D. D., Enlarged and Brought Down to the Present Time by a Member of the Vestry (1874).
- Archibald Henderson, The Church of the Atonement and The Chapel of the Cross at Chapel Hill, North Carolina (1938).
- Ida B. Kellam and Elizabeth F. McKoy, St. James Church, Wilmington, North Carolina, Historical Records, 1737-1852, mimeographed transcript by Ida B. Kellam (1965).
- Protestant Episcopal Church, Diocese of North Carolina, Journal of the Proceedings of the…Annual Convention (1836-1850).
- Philip A. Rees, “The Chapel of the Cross, An Architectural History,” M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1979).
- Phoebe B. Stanton, The Gothic Revival and American Church Architecture: An Episode in Taste, 1840-1856 (1968).
- Thomas U. Walter Papers, The Atheneum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
- Dates:1842-1848Location:Chapel Hill, Orange CountyStreet Address:304 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).
M. Ruth Little, The Town and Gown Architecture of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1795-1975 (2006).Note:A water-colored elevation drawing signed "T. U. Walter, 1843" has been linked to the Chapel of the Cross. However, there are differences between the drawing and the church as built; it may be that Walter made the elevation from his original (missing) drawings for the church. How much the actual building deviated—perhaps for reasons of economy—from Walter's original drawings is not known.
- Dates:1839-1840; 1871; 1885Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:1 S. 3rd St., Wilmington, NCStatus:StandingType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Eastern North Carolina (1996).
Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).
Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984).