Wilson, John Appleton (1851-1927)


Baltimore, Maryland, USA


  • Architect

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Colonial Revival

John Appleton Wilson (1851-1927), a Baltimore architect, designed Lea Laboratory Building at the original Wake Forest College in Wake Forest in an unusually early example of the Colonial Revival style. Although Wilson is said to have designed other buildings in North Carolina, this is the only one identified thus far.

A member of a prosperous and strongly Baptist family in Baltimore, Wilson attended Columbian College, a Baptist institution in Washington, D. C. (1871-1873) and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1873-1874) before entering architectural practice in Baltimore in 1874. He was variously associated with architects E. Francis Baldwin, W. F. Weber, and his cousin, William T. Wilson, over the years, and he maintained his connections with the Baptist denomination. He planned numerous buildings in Baltimore including residences, commercial and industrial buildings, and churches (many but not all Baptist). Wilson was eclectic in his approach to style and by the early 1890s was employing the Georgian Revival style for some projects. Biographer Charles Duff notes that he also “worked extensively in the upper South, designing buildings in Virginia and North Carolina.” Wilson’s papers are held by the Maryland Historical Society, and although the finding guide to photographs cites only one North Carolina project, that at Wake Forest, further research may uncover information about additional work by him in the state.

Lea Laboratory was built in 1887 for Wake Forest College on the school’s original campus in Wake Forest. (The Baptist affiliated college moved to Winston-Salem in 1956, and the campus is now used by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.) How Wilson gained the commission is not known, though it is likely that his Baptist background and connections played a role. Before the Civil War, the college had erected a number of red brick buildings including the main “College Building” (see John Berry) in a Palladian format with a central pedimented pavilion. That structure (which later burned) was still standing when the college commissioned Wilson to plan the present Lea Laboratory in the 1880s. He reiterated the Palladian idea and red brick walls in a five-part composition that combines typical late 19th century ornate brickwork with freely interpreted classical details in one of the state’s earliest essays in the Colonial Revival. Subsequent architecture at the college during the 20th century (see William Henley Deitrick), continued the red brick and Colonial Revival themes.

  • 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).
  • Charles Duff, “John Appleton Wilson,” Baltimore Architectural Foundation (BAF), http://baltimorearchitecture.org/biographies/john-appleton-wilson/.
  • Robert Topkins and Ruth Little (Little-Stokes), “Lea Laboratory,” National Register of Historic Places nomination (1975).
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  • Lea Laboratory Building



    Wake Forest, Wake County
    Street Address:

    Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest College) Campus, Wake Forest, NC





    Images Published In:

    Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).


    Wilson drew plans for Lea Laboratory late in 1886 in collaboration with Dr. James R. Duggan of the Wake Forest College chemistry department. Originally it contained lecture rooms, offices, and, in the wings, chemical and biological laboratories. It was named in honor of Sidney Lea and his wife Fannie; Sidney Lea was a Baptist from Caswell County who donated generously to the college. The contract was let to Ellington, Royster, and Company of Raleigh in March 1887, and the building was ready for occupancy by October 1888. It was constructed principally of “penitentiary brick,” meaning the bricks manufactured at Central Prison in Raleigh; other edifices of penitentiary brick included the North Carolina Executive Mansion (see Samuel Sloan) and Holladay Hall (see Charles L. Carson) in Raleigh. This is the oldest surviving building on the campus.

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