Trimble, John M. (1815-1867)
John M. Trimble (1815-1867) was a New York architect who specialized in designing theaters. In a period of fluid professional identities, he began his working life as a carpenter and became a stage carpenter before moving into a role as a sought-after theater architect, who planned more than thirty such facilities including some of New York City’s most famous. His obituary in the New York Times of June 9, 1867, cited him as one of the nation’s leading architects and builders of theaters. His only known work in North Carolina is the City Hall-Thalian Hall in Wilmington, designed as a combination civic building and theater at the height of the city’s antebellum prosperity.
During the late antebellum period, Wilmingtonians commissioned many large and stylish edifices, including some from nationally active architects such as Thomas U. Walter and Samuel Sloan, whose urbane designs expressed the city’s recovery from recent fires and its civic pride and ambitions as the largest town and chief port in the state. The port’s civic leaders had frequent contact with New York, Philadelphia, and other coastal cities, and it was not surprising that they selected a leading New York theater architect to plan their new civic edifice.
In 1854 the city commissioned a plan from Trimble, which he submitted in 1855. Combining government and culture, the large masonry building was planned to have the governmental functions in the front and the theater—to seat 1,000 people in a town of not quite 10,000—at the rear. Each part had its own entrance, the municipal section on the front, the theater on the side. Trimble’s design for the large masonry building was in the Italianate style, a mode popular in Wilmington as in other cities at the time.
John C. Wood and Robert B. Wood (see Wood Brothers) and G. W. Rose were chosen as builders in 1855 and James F. Post as supervising architect. The project proceeded slowly, with the building not fully completed until 1858. Local authorities took a strong role in the undertaking, including making changes in the design.
As the edifice neared completion, the Wilmington Daily Journal reported on October 12, 1858: “The original plans were drawn, we believe, by Mr. Trimble of New York, but subsequently modified in some of their details. The pediment and portico on the Western or Town Hall front, for instance.” Local masonry builder Robert B. Wood composed an entirely new portico design, with towering Corinthian columns, instead of a small portico planned by Trimble, which was similar to that built on the side at the entrance to the theater section. The change, it was believed, “adds elevation and dignity to the principal front.” Other alterations were made to the arrangement of the theater. It was not unusual in this period for a client to commission a design from a national expert, only to make changes, often in coordination with a local builder or architect, before the completion of the building. Though not part of Trimble’s design, the portico of the City Hall-Thalian Hall presents, as its sponsors intended, a clear expression of the stature and purpose of the building in its time and as part of the streetscape. (A linen drawing of the elevation signed by R. B. Wood was found in the cornerstone; it is illustrated in Mills Lane, North Carolina. Presumably Trimble’s front portico design was similar to the side portico of the building.)
- Contributors:Henry E. Bonitz, architect (1901; 1904); Robert Finey, brickmason (1855-1858); William Finey, brickmason (1855-1858); Joseph Keen, overseer (1855-1858); James F. Post, supervising architect (1855-1858); Price Family, plasterer (1855-1858); John M. Trimble, architect (1855-1858); James Walker, foreman and general manager (1855-1858); Wood Brothers, builders (1855-1858); John C. Wood, builder (1855-1858); Robert B. Wood, builder (1855-1858)Dates:1855-1858; 1901; 1904Location:Wilmington, New Hanover CountyStreet Address:102 N 3rd St., Wilmington, 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 Eastern North Carolina (1996).
Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait (1984).Note:In 1901 Henry E. Bonitz planned a redecoration of the clerk's and treasurer's office, and in 1904 he made major improvements to the theater in Thalian Hall to keep up with changing theater styles, comply with fire and safety regulations, and make repairs. Updated over the years, the imposing building continues as a civic landmark and still serves its original purposes. It has been the scene of many political events and notable theatrical performances.