Coor, James (fl. 1737-1796)
James Coor (fl. 1737-1796) was a wealthy and politically prominent resident of New Bern whom local tradition has described as an architect or builder. The source of this tradition is not clear, and no known documents from his lifetime record such a role. Three exceptionally fine late Georgian style houses in New Bern are credited to him on stylistic and traditional grounds, but proof remains elusive.
New Bern historian Gertrude Carraway described Coor as a “naval architect, builder, and revolutionary leader,” who was probably born in England but “apparently moved to North Carolina from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to serve as a naval architect at the invitation of Thomas Webber of Jones County, owner of land on Trent River as well as in New Bern.”
Carraway writes that Coor is “said to have drawn plans for a house for Webber at 506 Craven St. as well as one for himself [the Coor-Gaston House] on the same street and for several other men. The Masonic Lodge and the New Bern Academy are also said to have been designed by him.” Much of Carraway’s information came from the memoir of New Bernian John D. Whitford, “The Home Story of a Walking Stick” (p. 59), which includes information Whitford gathered in the late 19th century from older New Bernians. In many cases, Whitford’s accounts are accurate, while others are less reliable. Two of the standing buildings attributed to Coor—the Masonic Lodge and the New Bern Academy—date from after his death; it is not impossible that he had a hand in early planning for these institutions.
Architectural historian Peter B. Sandbeck suggests in The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina that Coor may have been a contractor who worked in association with architect John Hawks. Lynda Vestal Herzog notes that James Coor and John Hawks were associated in several civic roles and groups from the 1770s onward. Their relationship in construction activities, if any, remains undocumented.
Circumstantial and stylistic evidence tend to support the tradition of Coor’s role in three late 18th century houses that share certain late-Georgian details akin to the John Wright Stanly House of 1779-1783 (and to Hawks’s drawings for the interior woodwork of Tryon Palace; see John Hawks). Coor’s own residence, the Coor-Gaston House (ca. 1786) is a fine example of late Georgian architecture with several details related to those at the John Wright Stanly House. Coor also owned and may have built the Coor-Bishop House (ca. 1770-1778, ca. 1904), which likewise has details in common with the Stanly House. Also attributed to Coor is the original portion of the Smith-Whitford House (ca. 1772-1782?, ca. 1875-1880), which was Whitford’s home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and has features related to the aforementioned houses.
Supporting the tradition of his involvement in building, Coor did take two apprentices to the house carpenter’s trade: John, a free boy of color aged 8 in 1777 and Solomon Johnston, probably white, aged 14, in 1784. It is possible that he himself trained and worked with these boys, but it was not uncommon for merchants and other non-artisans to take apprentices to skilled trades and then assign their training to other artisans. Whether Coor was himself an artisan or perhaps a contractor or speculator who employed others to execute buildings is not known.
Coor’s early life is obscure, but according to Carraway he was in New Bern by 1737, serving as clerk of court, and in 1745 he and his wife, Mary, witnessed a local will; she was a daughter of Thomas Smith of New River. The couple had at least one son. Coor’s political career, on the other hand, is well documented. As described by Carraway, he served in the North Carolina colonial assembly during the 1770s and later in the provincial congresses. After the American Revolution, he served in the state legislature and as speaker of the state senate. The New Bern North Carolina Gazette of Saturday, December 31, 1796 noted the death on the previous Wednesday of “James Coor, Esq., an old inhabitant of this town, formerly a member of the Legislature, and speaker of the Senate.”
Note: Dendrochronology studies on the Coor-Gaston House and the architecturally related Craven County plantation house, Bellair, have shown later construction dates than originally believed; long thought to have been built shortly before the American Revolution, their probable construction dates are ca. 1785-1786 and 1790-1793, respectively. Future dendrochronology study may reveal revised dates for the other New Bern houses associated with Coor. Although repeated research on Coor’s role in building has found no documentary evidence, possibly new evidence will be found to illuminate the authorship of these distinctive and important 18th century buildings.
- Gertrude Carraway, “Coor, James,” NCpedia, http://www.ncpedia.org/biography/coor-james.
- Gertrude Carraway, “James Coor,” in William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 1 (1979).
- Lynda Vestal Herzog, “The Early Architecture of New Bern, 1750-1850,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California (1977).
- Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).
- John D. Whitford, “The Home Story of a Walking Stick—The Early History of the Biblical Recorder and Baptist Church…” (1899-1900), John D. Whitford Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Variant Name(s):E. K. Bishop HouseDates:Ca. 1767-1778; 1904 [remodeled]Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:501 E. Front St., New Bern, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).Note:Peter Sandbeck notes that Coor bought the property in 1767 for 140 pounds and sold it in 1778 to one Thomas Emery for 3000 pounds, who sold the property in 1798. The 18th century house was overbuilt as an imposing Southern Colonial residence for merchant Edward K. Bishop from designs by New Bern architect Herbert Simpson, but many elements of the original late-Georgian style house survive including the fine stair.
- Contributors:James Coor, attributed builderDates:Ca. 1785-1786Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:421 Craven St., New Bern, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture (2005).
Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).Note:The large house takes a locally unusual form, with its gable end toward the street and an inset porch along one side. Its late Georgian style interior finish shares many elements with Tryon Palace, the John Wright Stanly House, and the plantation house Bellair. It is one of several North Carolina houses for which a new construction date has been indicated by dendrochronology study. Long thought to have been built about 1770, the house has principal timbers evidently cut after the growing season of 1785. (Notably, Coor had taken an apprentice carpenter in 1784.) Coor bought the property in 1767 and evidently owned it until his death. The house was later the home of the distinguished New Bern jurist William Gaston. Next to it stood the Coor-Cook House, which was begun by Coor and left unfinished at his death; it has been moved to another site (see Sandbeck, New Bern).
- Contributors:James Coor, attributed builder (ca. 1772-1782)Dates:Ca. 1772-1782; ca. 1875-1880Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:506 Craven St., New Bern, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).Note:The original interiors of the 18th century house survive despite extensive updating to the exterior in the late 19th century. Dendrochronology study would be valuable here. Sandbeck reports that it was built for Henry Smith, who bought the vacant lot in 1772 and sold the property to Thomas Webber in 1782 for a substantial price indicative of a building there. Gertrude Carraway states that Coor built the house at this address for Thomas Webber, and John D. Whitford, who lived in the house years later, also attributed its construction to Coor. It was evidently Whitford who remodeled the exterior of the house.