Birth, William W. (1808-1907)
William W. Birth, a native of Washington, D. C., was a long-lived and accomplished stonemason who, like many building artisans, traveled widely during his career. His only known work in North Carolina was his important if brief service (1833-1834) as superintendent of the masonry department during the first phase of building the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh. The capitol was a monumental stone building that required exacting craftsmanship on the part of all the artisans and especially the stonecutters and stonemasons. Birth’s work was vital during the key early years and set the standard for subsequent phases of the stonework.
At the State Capitol, Birth worked directly with William S. Drummond, who was appointed superintendent of the project in January 1833, even before the building commissioners had settled on the final plan. By mid-April, as the Fayetteville Observer of April 16, 1833 reported, the commissioners had decided upon the size and plan of the capitol (see William Nichols); the newspaper also stated that superintendent Drummond was to be “assisted by Mr. Wm. Birth, an eminent mason from Washington, who will have the care of the stonecutting and masonry.” Drummond, likewise of Washington, D. C., probably knew Birth already and might have recommended him for the position. By summer there were about 120 workmen engaged on the building including highly skilled stonemasons and stonecutters from England and Scotland as well as the United States. Evidently Drummond and Birth met the expectations of the building commissioners, who reported favorably on Drummond’s “zeal, industry, and good management.” By July 4, 1833, the walls stood several feet high, with a space left for the cornerstone that was dedicated that day. Later that summer, the New York architectural firm of Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis entered the project and substantially altered the design (though not the basic cruciform plan which was already fixed). Under Drummond and Birth’s supervision, the walls of precisely cut granite blocks were built to a height of two stories, or about 40 feet.
There followed a tumultuous period in the management of the project. In August 1834, likely for political reasons, the building commissioners abruptly dismissed Drummond, and the Raleigh Register of August 14, 1834 reported that Birth had been “induced” to resign as well. Local citizens objected strongly to the move. The commissioners hired Thomas Bragg, Sr., a Warrenton, North Carolina builder, as superintendent. Within two months the commissioners fired Bragg and decided to dispense with a general superintendent and employ only a superintendent of the masonry work. In mid-September 1834, Scots-born stonemason and architect David Paton, recruited by architect Ithiel Town, arrived in Raleigh to superintend the masonry work. In March 1835, the commissioners severed ties with Town and put Paton in full charge as superintendent of the project. On March 31 commissioner Beverly Daniel wrote to Birth in Washington expressing his regrets for the previous tumult, asking him to return to the project as “Master builder of masonry,” and assuring him that he would find working with Paton a good situation. It is not clear whether Birth did so.
William W. Birth’s stint in Raleigh was but a brief chapter in a long and diversified career which was described in the Washington, D. C., Evening Star of Feb.1, 1890, evidently based on an interview with Birth. (See text of article, below.) He was born in Washington, D. C., the son of an English-born marble cutter in whose marble yard he learned his trade. He married Elizabeth Taylor in Washington on May 5, 1834, and they had at least one child. He was soon widowed never remarried. After leaving Raleigh, he returned to Washington, worked for a time in Alabama and Mississippi, then returned north and took various jobs in Baltimore and Washington and established himself in the grocery business. He was a founder of a Washington organization called the “Oldest Inhabitants” and served as a vice-president. The group paid their respects to him at his death at the age of ninety-nine.
Note: On Feb. 1, 1890, the Washington, D.C. Evening Star published the following note under the title “Some Old Inhabitants”:
“Wm. W. Birth is a native of this city. He was born opposite the ‘six buildings’ on Pennsylvania avenue near Washington circle on January 11, 1808. Mr. Birth is of the opinion that if the young men now would live as he has lived more of them would give promise of attaining a good old age. Although eighty-four years old Mr. Birth’s memory is still as good as it was in his younger days, and he stands so straight that he is often called the ‘ramrod’ . . . . After leaving school in 1823 he went to work for his father, who kept a marble yard and remained with him for ten years. In 1833 he went to Raleigh, N.C., to superintend the construction of the state house walls. The following year he joined Capt. D.H. Bingham, a civil engineer [a North Carolinian who had operated a military academy in Raleigh in the early 1830s], and went with him to Alabama, where he was doing the surveying for three lines of railroad. All three roads failed as did many of the cotton planters and merchants in 1837, and in 1839 or 1840, Mr. Birth returned north and accepted a position in the office of the Baltimore American [newspaper]. At the end of three or four months he came back to Washington and was employed as a clerk in the jewelry store of Robert Keyworth, where Willett & Ruoff’s hat store is now located. He married a relative of his employer in 1834 but his wife died a year later. From that time Mr. Birth has lived the life of a widower. In connection with the late John C. Harkness he was appointed by the government to inspect, measure and report on all the materials and work on the Soldiers’ Home building when that structure was erected. He performed the same service for the east wing of the patent-office building and for the foundations and marble work of the two wings of the Capitol building when those structures were being erected under the supervision of Lieut. (now Gen.) M.C. Meigs. In 1847 he started in the grocery business on his own book, opening in the Jackson hall building, on Pennsylvania avenue. He soon moved to the corner of Indiana avenue and 3d street, where he continued in business until 1887, when he retired. Having been used to an active life, Mr. Birth still takes out-of-door exercise every day and in the evening he reads the newspapers, never failing to read The Star before retiring. Often he reads for an hour or two without the use of his glasses.”
- Beverly Daniel to W. W. Birth, Mar. 31, 1835, D. J. Harrill Collection, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- “Senior Celebrate,” Washington Herald, Nov. 7, 1907, http://www.newspaperabstracts.com/link.phpaction=detail&id=76042.
- “Some Old Inhabitants,” The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Feb.1, 1890, http://archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/DC-OLD-NEWS/2004-04/1081203272.
- Treasurers and Comptrollers Papers, North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- “Washington D.C. Genealogy Trails,” http://genealogytrails.com/washdc/marriages/marr1831-1835.html.
- 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.