Leary, Samuel Linton (1863-1913)
S. L. Leary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
- Durham, North Carolina
- Charlotte, North Carolina
Styles & Forms:
Gothic Revival; Romanesque Revival; Shingle Style
Samuel Linton Leary (1863-1913), a native of Philadelphia, moved to North Carolina about 1889 and had a brief architectural career in Charlotte and Durham, planning buildings for the fast-growing industrial towns at a time when they had relatively few local architects. He is best known for two major works in Durham: the Trinity College Main Building (Washington Duke Building) which once stood at present Duke University and St. Joseph’s A. M. E. Church.
Samuel was a son of W. A. and Rachel Leary, prominent residents of Philadelphia; W. A. Leary, who had a well-known bookstore, died in 1886, and Rachel lived until 1910. Nothing is yet known of Samuel Leary’s training or architectural experience in Philadelphia. In 1889, the Charlotte News of March 23 noted that Leary had located there recently and established an office. “He brings the best of credentials, having been engaged successfully on some of the finest architectural work in Philadelphia and other places.” On June 1, Leary placed an advertisement in the same newspaper as “S. L. Leary, Architect,” with offices at 5 East Trade Street. During his time in Charlotte, as noted in the Wilmington Star of May 10, 1889, he traveled to Rutherfordton to plan a large hotel for the Rutherfordton Hotel Company. The Manufacturers’ Record reported on May 18, 1889 that he was drawing plans for the hotel and on July 6 that a contract had been let for its construction. In 1890 the Manufacturers’ Record noted on January 18 that Leary had drawn plans for the First Presbyterian Chapel, probably a mill village chapel sponsored by Charlotte’s First Presbyterian Church, and the Charlotte News of March 11 reported that he had drawn plans for “an elegant city residence” for Dr. C. A. Misenhimer.
While he was still in Charlotte, Leary pursued and gained the prestigious commission as architect for the main building of Trinity College, the Methodist school founded in Randolph County before the Civil War. In 1887 its new president sought offers from various cities to enable the college to move to a more urban location. Raleigh leaders made an attractive offer, and in 1889, when Methodist leaders were considering the capital as a likely site, Leary offered his services as architect for the new buildings that would be required (John S. Alspaugh Papers finding guide, Duke University Library Special Collections). A notice in the Manufacturers’ Record of August 17, 1889 stated optimistically that Leary “will probably prepare the plans for the new buildings for Trinity College, lately reported as to be moved to Raleigh.” On September 7, the Record announced that the college was to be built in Raleigh at a cost of $50,000, and that “S. L. Leary, of Charlotte, is architect.” As late as December 14, 1889, Raleigh was still the intended location. Shortly after this, however, Durham leaders—notably Washington Duke and Julian S. Carr—made a much larger offer that brought the college to Durham.
The Raleigh Evening Visitor reported on June 2, 1890 that the building committee of Trinity College had met in Durham “last Friday” and had adopted a plan for the building and selected S. L. Leary, “of Charlotte” to “take charge of the design and see that it was carried out.” On June 3, the Visitor stated that Leary, “who secured the award for the design of the building, has submitted his plans. . . . It will be undoubtedly the handsomest college building in North Carolina.” The main building was to be three stories high of stone and pressed brick, with a tall entrance tower; additional annexes and buildings would accommodate a variety of purposes.
The Durham Globe of November 12, 1890, reported on the cornerstone laying on the previous day and provided a detailed description of the event and the building. The main building of “Romanesque “style was to be built of brick trimmed in brownstone and terra cotta with a footprint measuring 50 by 208 feet. The front, central clock tower was to rise 150 feet high and carry a bell weighing 2,500 pounds. The contractor was Charles H. Norton, who had recently constructed other buildings in Durham.
As the college edifice began to rise, Leary’s prospects in Durham were sunny. On May 20, 1891, “Mr. S. L. Leary (the architect of Trinity College)” wed Miss Iula (also sometimes misspelled Ila or Julia) Smith at her father’s home in Durham. Leary quickly attracted additional commissions, including those for the Durham Graded School and Durham Fire Station #1, substantial brick buildings that represented the city’s emphasis on civic progress. He had offices in rooms 17-19 in the Wright Building. Leary also probably designed his own large and stylish residence, the Leary-Coletta House, on property he bought in March 1891 at 809 Cleveland Street. Especially important was his commission for St. Joseph’s AME Church, one of the most imposing churches yet built in Durham. The Gothic Revival brick edifice was erected in the midst of Durham’s Hayti neighborhood with financial support from the Duke family. The cornerstone (marked with Leary’s name as well as others) was laid on August 31, 1891 at a festive ceremony attended by a large crowd of black and white citizens.
Meanwhile, sudden disaster had struck. Leary’s initial and most important commission, the Trinity College Main Building, was nearing completion under contractor Norton when its soaring tower collapsed. At about 11 p.m. on August 8, 1891”persons living in the vicinity of Trinity College . . . were startled by a strange noise. Some though[t] an earthquake was on. But it was not that. The tower of the new college building, situated on the front. . . collapsed from some cause and fell down. It did not fall to one side as if the foundation had given away, but came down in a heap to the ground, over the very spot where it was just completed Saturday afternoon.”The 100-foot tall tower contained about 400,000 bricks. Fortunately, because of the late night hour, no one was injured. The tower “was built with a view of settling and not carried into the walls of the main building to any considerable extent so when it fell it came down smoothly and left the two wings intact.” Damages were estimated at $10,000 (Charlotte Mecklenburg Times, August 14, 1891).
College leaders immediately called in Richmond, Virginia, architect Albert L. West to evaluate the causes of the collapse. West was well known for his substantial brick churches, many of them Methodist, including Durham’s Trinity Methodist Church (1883-1884) with its entrance tower and spire said to be the tallest structure in the city. West attributed the failure to faulty materials and workmanship but apparently did not assign blame to either Norton or Leary. The Charlotte Observer carried a report on August 18, 1891, that “the verdict is that the costly accident was caused by the use of inferior material, which the architect had condemned and refused to receive, but which [Trinity College] President Crowell had used in order to proceed with the work faster.” The accuracy of this account is unknown; no such statement was published in the Durham papers. The Durham Globe reported on August 22 that “Colonel Leary is happy to day. Colonel West says he was not to blame for the falling of the tower on Trinity college. Colonel West has not yet said who was. Wait for his official report.”
Architect West’s August 28 report to the building committee, as related by Charlotte V. Brown in Architects and Builders in North Carolina, cited improper sand in the mortar, improper methods of erection, and improper conditions for construction. Without assigning blame to any one person, he recommended employing a “competent practical and reliable man to stay at the building and see that proper materials are used and that the work is properly done.” None of the Durham newspapers carried West’s report. The Durham Globe opined on September 21, “The tower of Trinity college fell, and as the matter is a private affair and consequently no one’s business it has not yet been given out whose fault it is. This is eminently proper.” On October 8, the Globe said, “The fact that some poor material was used; the fact that poor workmanship—well, no one was informed what the real matter was. The tower tumbled and that ended it. Now it is going up again and again that ends it.” On October 10, Samuel Leary wrote to Benjamin Duke, “Will you please send by bearer the Report of Mr. West on the Tower of Trinity College?”
By that time, contractor Norton had already begun rebuilding the tower and repairing the damaged portions of the building, which by December was well on its way to completion. Some accounts indicate that William J. Hicks was employed to oversee the rebuilding; he constructed most of the other early campus buildings. (Further investigation in the Benjamin Duke Papers and Trinity College records may reveal additional details about the causes and responsibilities for the tower collapse.)
Although no blame was placed on Leary, he and his career suffered permanent damage. For a time, Durham newspapers carried upbeat reports on the construction of local buildings he had designed, including the fire station and the graded school, which were completed in 1891 and 1892, respectively. The Durham Globe of December 23, 1891 praised the newly completed fire station as being “of the very best material, and is made to last. It is handsome in design, the plan having been furnished by Mr. S. L. Leary, who also furnished the plan for the graded school building and a number of other public and private buildings in this city.” Leary continued to seek architectural work, as evidenced by his frequent advertisements in Durham and Raleigh newspapers during the autumn of 1891 and the first half of 1892, but without success. He evidently gained new no commissions. The mortgage on his house in Durham was foreclosed.
On July 10, 1892, Leary left Durham for Philadelphia. The Durham Globe in reporting his departure said “Mr. Leary is an architect of no mean ability and The Globe hopes that he may prosper.” Mrs. Leary and their son Edward joined him in late October. In Philadelphia from 1892 through 1900, Leary worked as a clerk or a draftsman. In 1900 his and Iula’s household included his mother, Rachel, and their four children, three of whom were born after the move. Leary and his family traveled back and forth between Philadelphia and Durham.
Shortly after 1900, Leary turned to work in photography. He acquired a photography business in Winston-Salem in about 1902. He was active in the regional photographers’ association of North Carolina and Virginia and served as its secretary in 1903 (Asheville Citizen, Oct. 22, 1903). He sold his Winston-Salem office in 1904 and in 1905 bought a photography shop in Statesville. He and his family moved there, but in 1906 his building and photo gallery in Statesville burned, and he and his family moved back to Philadelphia (Charlotte Observer, Jun. 17, 1905; Statesville Record and Landmark, June 16 and Sept. 22, 1905; July 21, 1906;). By 1910 he and Iula and their five children—Edward, Rachel, Hunter, Ruth, and Robert J. (the first and last of whom were born in North Carolina, the others in Pennsylvania)—were back in the Philadelphia area, where they lived in Wilkes-Barre and he worked as a clerk. His mother, Rachel, resided with them; she died on June 21, 1910, at Samuel’s home in Wilkes-Barre; he was her executor and principal heir (Wilkes-Barre Record, Jul 9, 1910).
By January 1911 Leary and his family made yet another move, this time to Wilson, North Carolina, where he joined in a partnership with one Golie Maynard, a funeral parlor operator; the announcement of the partnership stated that Leary was experienced in the trade and a former teacher at an (unnamed) embalming college. The Leary family moved into a new home on Nash Street. The partnership was announced in January and terminated in December. Thereafter, according to subsequent newspaper accounts, Leary traveled extensively on business, including trips to Florida and the West, though the nature of his business was not explained.
In 1913, while returning from a business trip by train from St. Louis, Leary made a stop at Norfolk to visit Virginia Beach for a dip in the ocean. He checked his personal possessions at the beach bath house and went to the beach for a swim. He was never seen again. “The accepted theory,” according to the Fayetteville newspaper, was that he had “an attack of heart trouble immediately after entering the surf and was swept out to sea by the strong undertow. Despite an extensive search, Leary’s body was never recovered (Fayetteville Weekly Observer, Sept. 10, 1913; Greensboro Patriot, Sept. 11, 1913; Wilmington Morning Star, Sept. 4, 1913).
Iula Leary survived her husband until her death in 1951. Their daughter Rachel Linton Leary married Dr. Edson Worth Carr of Chicago in 1915 at Wilson’s St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church (Greensboro Daily News, Dec. 24, 1915). The Learys’ youngest son, fRobert J., studied at Alabama Polytechnic (present Auburn University) and practiced architecture in Virginia and later in Chicago.0;
Despite Leary’s major contributions to Durham’s late nineteenth century cityscape, he is little remembered in the city except as architect of St. Joseph’s, which has become an important community center. Had it not been for the collapse of the Trinity College tower, he might have accomplished much as an architect in Durham and other growing cities.
Note: Some sources indicate that Leary came to Durham to build tobacco warehouses for the Duke family; local tradition associates Leary with the design of one or more of the imposing brick tobacco warehouses constructed for the Duke company, but thus far no such role is documented.
- Elizabeth Lloyd Meiheck Mansell, “The American Tobacco Company Brick Storage Warehouses in Durham, North Carolina: 1897-1906,” M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1980).
- Claudia P. Roberts (Brown) and Diane E. Lea, The Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory (1982).
- Dates:1891Location:Durham, Durham CountyStreet Address:212 N. Mangum St., Durham, NCStatus:No longer standingType:PublicImages Puslished In:opendurham.org.Note:According to opendurham.org, Leary's original fire station was razed in 1924.
- Dates:1891Location:Durham, Durham CountyStreet Address:809 Cleveland St., Durham, NCStatus:AlteredType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Claudia P. Roberts (Brown) and Diane E. Lea, The Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory (1982).Note:The Leary-Coletta House is the principal example of the Shingle Style in Durham and one of the most notable in the North Carolina Piedmont (Claudia Roberts Brown, "Cleveland Street Historic District," National Register of Historic Places nomination, 1984). The Durham Globe reported on December 30, 1891 that the "handsome new residence" of Col. S. L. Leary was nearing completion and would be ready for occupancy in February. It evidently took longer to complete than anticipated. It served as a rental house and a boarding house for some years.
- Dates:1891Location:Durham, Durham CountyStreet Address:Main St., Durham, NCStatus:No longer standingType:CommercialNote:The Mangum and Son building, which housed Michaels and Company Druggists on the first floor, was nearing completion in November, 1891, and described as "the finest" building on Durham's Main Street.
- Dates:Begun 1891Location:Durham, Durham CountyStreet Address:800 Fayetteville St., Durham, NCStatus:AlteredType:ReligiousImages Puslished In:Joel A. Kostyu and Frank A. Kostyu, Durham: A Pictorial History (1978).
Claudia P. Roberts (Brown) and Diane E. Lea, The Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory (1982).Note:The congregation of St. Joseph's A. M. E. Church originated in 1869 under the leadership of the Reverend Edian D. Markham. After worshiping in a brush arbor and two frame churches known as Union Bethel, in 1890 the congregation began fundraising for a more substantial church. Tobacco industrialists Washington Duke and Julian S. Carr both contributed substantially to the endeavor, and Duke's portrait appears in stained glass on the main façade. It may have been through his Duke connections that Leary took the commission to design the large, towered Gothic Revival brick church. The cornerstone was laid in 1891 and the congregation adopted the name, St. Joseph's A. M. E. Church. The church features a spacious auditorium plan. The brick is described as having been made in the brickyard of leading black citizen Richard B. Fitzgerald. Construction took several years to complete. After long service as a religious center in the midst of Durham's Hayti neighborhood, in 1975 the building became a community arts center. It is the principal surviving work by Samuel L. Leary in North Carolina.
- Variant Name(s):Washington Duke BuildingDates:1890-1892Location:Durham, Durham CountyStreet Address:Trinity College Campus (now East Campus, Duke University), Durham, NCStatus:No longer standingType:EducationalImages Puslished In:Joel A. Kostyu and Frank A. Kostyu, Durham: A Pictorial History (1978).
Claudia P. Roberts (Brown) and Diane E. Lea, The Durham Architectural and Historic Inventory (1982).