Hawks, John (ca. 1731-1790)
Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire, England
- New Bern, North Carolina
Styles & Forms:
John Hawks (ca. 1731-October 31, 1790), the English-trained architect and builder of Tryon Palace in New Bern, was the first professionally trained architect in North Carolina and one of the first in the American colonies. According to a 1765 letter from Gov. William Tryon, Hawks arrived in New Bern with Tryon in 1764 and was “the Master Builder I took over with me from England, and who is a very able Worthy Man.” In 1767, with the palace begun, Tryon reiterated that Hawks “came with Me out of England to superintend this Work in All its Branches. He was in the Service of Mr. Leadbeater.”
Hawks’s early life, long a mystery, has been pieced together through research in England. He was born in Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire to John Hawks, a joiner, and Elizabeth Hawks. He probably learned his trade from his father, gaining knowledge of building techniques that proved essential in his work as architect and master builder. As Tryon noted, Hawks had been was “in the Service of Mr. Leadbeater”—Stiff Leadbeater (Leadbetter), an accomplished English architect and builder known for his many works in the popular Palladian mode. In Leadbeater’s shop, Hawks mastered the art of architectural drawing as well as learning the construction trade.
William Tryon, who arrived in 1764 as lieutenant governor expecting to replace Gov. Arthur Dobbs, sought to improve the stature and trade of the colony as instructed by the crown. Anticipating building projects as part of that program, he brought Hawks with him for the purpose. Why Hawks chose to leave England for the colonies is unknown. Tryon waited longer than he anticipated to succeed Dobbs, but after Dobbs’s death, the ambitious new governor promptly began construction of a Government House in New Bern, which would solidify the city as the permanent seat of government. On January 31, 1767, Tryon reported that Hawks had contracted to “finish the Whole” in three years from the laying of the first brick, which Tryon believed would occur the following May.
Hawks and Tryon worked together to develop a plan for the “Edifice,” for which a series of surviving drawings represent phases of their planning. They constitute probably the most complete set of architectural drawings from colonial America. (See Alonzo Dill’s “Tryon’s Palace, A Neglected Niche of North Carolina History,” for analysis and illustrations of the various phases of drawings.)
The simplest design, believed to be the earliest, shows a 3-story building 78 by 34 feet with Palladian (Venetian) entrance and central window. The next design, dated December 29, 1766, includes a central building 83 by 59 feet with colonnades linking to flanking wings 44 by 26 feet each. In addition to the elevation drawing, there is a plan of the second floor; a framing diagram for the roof and flooring; a section of the drawing room showing doorways, windows, etc.; and the layout of drains and “sesspools” for the complex. These drawings remained in the United States, and are now at the New-York Historical Society.
A second group of drawings went to England and are in the British Public Record Office; these are believed to be the ones Tryon sent to London for crown approval with his letter of February 23, 1767. These include an elevation drawing of the building, two stories high with wings; a floor plan of the main building 82 by 59 feet with connected wings 49 by 39 feet—the size as built; and a plan of the second floor of the main building. There is also another elevation drawing with slight differences in the basement windows, which was the basis for the reconstruction of the palace in the 1950s.
The design for the palace blended ideas from several English Palladian prototypes. With its central block featuring a pedimented “frontispiece” or pavilion, and its advanced flanking wings linked by curved colonnades to create a courtyard facing the street, it had much in common with plates in books by James Gibbs, Abraham Swan, and others. Similar elements appear in great houses in England that Hawks may have known.
Even before the design was decided, on January 9, 1767, Hawks and Tryon signed an agreement describing Hawks’s role in the project, which is reproduced in full in Powell’s Papers of William Tryon. Their agreement described the multiple roles of the 18th century architect. Hawks was to contract with suppliers of building materials; inspect all materials to assure they were “good in the several qualities” and “suited to the design and intention of the respective uses”; hire and pay workmen and “Artificers”; prepare and deliver to the workmen the necessary “designs, Plans, Elevations, Proportions, drawings, or directions, for carrying on the said Building and Offices, with all suitable convenience, elegance and Strength”; superintend the work as necessary and “Survey, and Examine and Measure” every part of it; and assure that the workmen performed their duties “according to the Plan, and in a proper and workmanlike manner.” Moreover, he was to keep accounts of expenditures ready to present to the governor, and to consult Tryon before making contracts for any “considerable article.” He would be paid an annual salary of £300 proclamation money (North Carolina currency, which was worth less than sterling) and was guaranteed two years’ pay.
That February, Hawks traveled to Philadelphia to find workmen and materials “as he may judge proper,” up to the amount of £2,500 proclamation money. That amount, Tryon believed, should cover everything but the brick, lime, and timber, for which contracts had already been made. The total cost was predicted to be £5,000. Eventually it cost £15,000. Nothing has been learned of the men Hawks recruited to build the palace, though it seems likely that some of them might have remained in New Bern.
The first brick was laid on August 26, 1767, and by March, 1768, the main building was “up to the plates.” The next January the main building and wings had been roofed with wood shingles, an English metal worker had installed the plumbing, and the window sash and mantels were arriving from abroad. Hawks pushed the work ahead in a timely fashion, despite ongoing political problems associated with cost overruns, and the Tryon family occupied the residence in June, 1770. Tryon wrote to Lord Hillsborough in a letter dated June 7, “The palace being in such forwardness as to afford me a residence I am just removed into it from Brunswick. The whole structure I am in expectation will be completed by next Christmas.”
The palace met with diverse reactions. Visitors found it the most impressive sight in an otherwise undistinguished architectural landscape, a model of “pure English taste.” During its construction, North Carolina Piedmont farmers known as the Regulators had cited the “palace” in their complaints against unfair tax policies. On its completion the edifice struck some observers as too extravagant for the relatively poor and tax-resistant colony. One commentator, “Atticus,” complained in 1771 that Tryon, seeking to leave “an elegant Monument of your Taste in Building behind you,” had “regardless of every moral . . . changed the Plan of a Province House for that of a Palace, worthy the Residence of a Prince of the Blood.”
Although Tryon left North Carolina for New York in 1771, Hawks remained in New Bern for the rest of his life. He was probably involved in more building projects than the few indicated by surviving records. In New Bern in 1766 he was paid £20 for “his Extra Trouble Care and Ingenuity in Superintending and Designing the Works on the Courthouse” of Craven County, probably a repair job. He was a building commissioner for a jail and jailer’s house in New Bern in 1771. In addition, stylistic similarities with the drawings for the palace suggest his role in such houses as the Georgian style John Wright Stanly House (1779-1783). Additional New Bern houses have been suggested as Hawks’s work, or that of men influenced by him, based on their interior finish, including the Coor-Bishop House (ca. 1770s, 501 E. Front St., remodeled 1904); and the Coor-Gaston House (ca. 1785-87, 421 Craven St.). The Palladian form, brick plantation house Bellair (1790-1795), which was built immediately after Hawks’s death, is also considered to be in the Hawks “school.” All are illustrated in Sandbeck, New Bern and Craven County.
Beyond New Bern, correspondence and drawings (in the John Hawks Papers, Southern Historical Collection) show Hawks’s work on Edenton projects. When Edentonian Robert T. Paine sent the papers to the University of North Carolina in 1857, he identified the items as “papers relating to the building of the Church, Court house and Jail at this place.” The handsomely rendered drawings include an elevation of a domed “Cupola for Edenton Church,” dated 1769, doubtless intended for St. Paul’s Church, but not built, and a 1773 plan and elevation for the Edenton jail, with instructions about its construction, also unbuilt.
No documentation has been found to put Hawks’s name to the design of the Chowan County Courthouse, but its overall character so resembles the central block of Tryon Palace that many have attributed it to Hawks. His letter in the John Hawks papers offers tantalizing but enigmatic evidence. On September 29, 1773, Hawks wrote Joseph Hewes (a member of the courthouse building committee) a letter to explain “the inclosed drawings”—evidently for a proposed repair to the courthouse, to stabilize the span of the ceiling over the courtroom. Hawks had expected to deliver the drawings himself, but was sending them to Hewes by way of “Mr. Nash in order that you may have time to consult the workman and if any part should want a further explanation I can deliver it to you during the next sessions of Assembly.”
Hawks commented, “To the plan of the colonnade I have drawn a double row of columns and pillasters and Groin arches, which would make the Job more complete, but to this there are two objections, one is, it would amount to three times the sum, the other If I rightly Recollect the inside range of columns would be almost or quite close to the first Step of the Court, which may be thought an obstruction to the passing and repassing. As no further memorandum can be wanting than that the Soffite or underside of the arch from Pillaster to column of a single row, should be the exact width of the column at the top which is 10 Inshes. And the pillasters a [?] in the plan to project sufficiently from the brickwork to receive at top [?] the width of the Ovolo and Bead which is 3 1/2 Inshes.” In a post-script Hawks added, “please to deliver the inclosed Letter and Drawing to Mr. [Samuel] Johnston.”
Hawks may have designed buildings farther inland as well. A drawing placed in Hawks’s papers, based on the drawing and handwriting techniques, shows a fine, undated elevation and plan of a “Hillsborough Church,” with a cupola akin to that proposed for the one Hawks drew for the church in Edenton. It is believed to be Hawks’s drawing for the colonial St. Matthew’s Church built in Hillsborough. Some sources have also suggested that Hawks designed the Anglican churches for Granville Parish in 1771, including present St. John’s Church in Vance County, for which detailed specifications but no drawings survive. Although feasible, this connection has not been documented.
Hawks became a prominent citizen of his adopted New Bern, where he occupied a social position among the local gentry rather than the artisan class—due both to his professional stature and to his wife’s family status. Soon after arriving in New Bern, probably in 1769, he married Sarah Rice, of a leading planter family. They had two sons, Samuel (d. 1804) and Francis (1769-1831). Francis stayed in New Bern, served as collector of customs, married, and had five sons, the most prominent of whom was Francis Lister Hawks (1798-1866), an Episcopal priest and historian with a strong interest in architecture.
In addition to his professional activities, Hawks became involved in New Bern civic affairs and held several responsible and doubtless remunerative appointments where his administrative abilities served him well. He was appointed collector of customs for the Port of Beaufort, apparently served as Tryon’s secretary, and in the early 1770s served as town commissioner, clerk of the council, and justice of the peace. Despite his initial association with the royal governor, he became active in the patriot cause and the new state, serving on the Council of State and in various civic positions.
At his death in 1790, Hawks had an extensive library including novels, law books, histories, and the classics. He owned much silver, some gold jewelry, mahogany furniture, many household possessions, and fine clothing. Indicative of his position as a professional architect, not an artisan, he held the tools of his profession—mathematical instruments, architectural rules and squares, a large pair of dividers, camel hair brushes, and 11 architectural books (unnamed). It is probably fortunate that Hawks did not live to see the fire that destroyed his palace in 1798. His drawings, however, were preserved over the years, and served as a basis for the reconstruction of Tryon Palace in the 1950s.
- 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).
- Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (1990).
- Marc D. Brodsky, The Courthouse at Edenton: A History of the Chowan County Courthouse of 1767 (1989).
- Thomas R. Butchko, Edenton, an Architectural Portrait: The Historic Architecture of Edenton, North Carolina (1992).
- Chowan County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- James H. Craig, The Arts and Crafts in North Carolina, 1699-1840 (1965).
- Alonzo T. Dill, Jr., Governor Tryon and His Palace (1955).
- Alonzo T. Dill, Jr., “Tryon’s Palace, A Neglected Niche of North Carolina History,” North Carolina Historical Review, 19.2 (Apr. 1942).
- Alonzo T. Dill, Jr., “Public Buildings in Craven County,” North Carolina Historical Review, 20.4 (Oct. 1943).
- John Hawks Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
- Lynda Vestal Herzog, “The Early Architecture of New Bern, 1750-1850,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California (1977).
- Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).
- Sidney Fiske Kimball and Gertrude S. Carraway, “Tryon’s Palace,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin, 24 (Jan. 1940).
- William S. Powell, ed., The Correspondence of William Tryon and Other Selected Papers, 2 vols. (1980-1981).
- Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).
- Peter B. Sandbeck, unpublished research notes and files, Tryon Palace (1996-2000).
- Contributors:John Hawks, attributed architectDates:
1767-1769Location:Edenton, Chowan CountyStreet Address:
E. King St., Edenton, NCStatus:
PublicImages Published 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).
Marc D. Brodsky, The Courthouse at Edenton: A History of the Chowan County Courthouse of 1767 (1989).
Thomas R. Butchko, Edenton, an Architectural Portrait: The Historic Architecture of Edenton, North Carolina (1992).Note:
The Chowan County Courthouse is attributed to Hawks based on its similarity to Tryon Palace, but no documentation substantiates the attribution.
1768-1769; 1784-1786 [remodeled]Location:Hillsborough, Orange CountyStreet Address:
N. Churton St. at Tryon St., Hillsborough, NCStatus:
No longer standingType:
ReligiousImages Published In:
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).Note:
In 1768 the vestry of the Anglican church in Hillsborough advertised in the Virginia Gazette of Feb. 4, 1768, for bidders to erect a church in the community, and to apply at the clerk’s office in Hillsborough to be “more particularly informed. Drawings—a side elevation and a plan placed in the John Hawks Papers at the Southern Historical Collection—are for that church. Although unsigned, the style of drawing and the handwriting appear to be from Hawks’s hand.
The colonial church stood at the corner of Tryon and Church Streets, on the site now occupied by the Presbyterian church. The parish of St. Matthew’s was organized in 1752, and in 1767, Gov. William Tryon assigned George Micklejohn as minister; it would have been natural to obtain a design from Hawks. During the Regulator movement, demonstrators threatened in 1770 to damage the newly completed church, but were dissuaded. In 1778, political leader James Iredell of Edenton wrote that the town of Hillsborough included “a remarkable handsome church,” which was the Anglican one. The building was damaged during the American Revolution, during which time it served as a war hospital. Especially important, the church was the meeting place for the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1788, in which the delegates refused to ratify the Federal constitution; it was ratified the next year in Fayetteville, after the Bill of Rights had been added. The church was extensively repaired and remodeled in 1784-1786 by carpenter Martin Palmer and others to serve as a boys’ academy. It fell into disuse in the early 1800s, and the church for the newly established Presbyterian congregation was built on its site in 1815-1816 (John Berry, Samuel Hancock). In the 1820s the formerly Anglican parish reorganized and built the present St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church (William Nichols; John Berry).
1767-1770; 1953-1959 [reconstructed]Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:
Tryon Palace Dr., New Bern, NCStatus:
ResidentialImages Published 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).
Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).Note:
The original building burned in 1798. For full sets and explanations of Hawks’s drawings for Tryon Palace, see Alonzo T. Dill, Jr., “Tryon’s Palace, A Neglected Niche of North Carolina History,” North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Apr. 1942). This photograph shows the reconstructed Tryon Palace (William Graves Perry, architect) accomplished in the 1950s from Hawks’s drawings and other evidence.