Langdon, John (fl. 1790s-1815)
John Langdon (fl. 1790s-1810s, d. September 16, 1815) was a Philadelphia house carpenter who came to Rowan County, North Carolina, to finish the house built for political leader John Steele, in fashionable Philadelphia style. Steele’s papers document the project in unusual detail.
John Langdon, house carpenter, appeared in Philadelphia city directories from 1793 through 1800, living at various addresses on North Third Street and Cherry Alley. In 1793 he was living with Jane Langdon, a widow who was probably his mother, and he was probably the John Langdon born to Thomas and Jane Langdon and baptized in Second Presbyterian Church on July 30, 1769. John Langdon married Polly Martin in 1795, and they baptized children Thomas (b. 1796) and Jane (b. 1799) at Second Presbyterian Church.
In 1800, Langdon decided to leave Philadelphia for North Carolina. On March 13 of that year he signed an agreement with John Steele (1764-1815), a Rowan County merchant and North Carolina political figure. Steele had spent time in Philadelphia during the 1790s when it was the temporary capital of the country and he was serving as Congressman and in the first years of his tenure (1796-1802) as Comptroller of the Treasury of the United States. He evidently found Philadelphia’s architecture to his liking. In the early stages of planning his house to be built near Salisbury (John Steele House), he gave detailed specifications in his 1799 contract with local house joiner Elam Sharpe on every feature, including having the pitch of the roof “rather flatter than the common run of Buildings in or near Salisbury.” During construction, Steele’s agent, Maxwell Chambers, along with Steele’s wife, Mary, and his daughter, Ann, kept Steele abreast of progress on the project.
The agreement between Steele and Langdon showed Steele’s insistence on controlling the conditions of Langdon’s employment. It began by stating that Langdon, “having heard favorable accounts of Salisbury in the State of North Carolina is desirous of going thither for the purpose of carrying on his business as a Mechanic.” Steele, who had “lately erected near that Town a small frame house,” was “willing in consideration of the good character which he has heard of the said Langdon to let him do the inside work according to such directions as may be given.”
The agreement specified that Langdon was to pay for his own travel expenses and his own boarding, as well as to pay any journeyman he might employ. He was to make no demand upon Steele beyond “the usual prices of the work which he may do according to the Philadelphia rates” as listed in a previously signed document. This was probably a reference to the Rules of Work of the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia (1786), which gave rates of pay for various types of work. Any additional work Steele wanted was also to be “compensated according to the Philadelphia pay rates.”
Steele promised to pay “for the whole work as soon as it may be completed in a workmanlike and proper manner.” Langdon signed over to Steele a chest of carpenter’s tools as security against any sums that Steele might advance to him. Moreover, “To the end also that . . . Steele may be made secure that the work undertaken by the said Langdon shall be performed, and completed within a reasonable time,” Langdon obligated himself and his heirs “in the penal sum of Four hundred dollars to proceed with it, with as little delay as possible, and that he will not enter upon other work without the consent and approbation of Maxwell Chambers, Esqr. until it be finished.” Why Steele saw a need for such terms, and why Langdon agreed to them, remain unknown.
Langdon soon traveled to Salisbury and began work on the house, making minor alterations as needed and installing the finish, which followed current Philadelphia fashion in a graceful Federal style new to North Carolina. The stair in the side passage, as noted by Davyd Foard Hood in his study of Rowan County architecture, was modeled on Plate XXII in the Philadelphia Rules of Work of the Carpenter’s Company.
Questions arose as work proceeded, when Langdon sought to adhere to the agreement in which he would receive Philadelphia pay rates for any additional work, while Steele sought to reduce his prices. In a letter that highlights reasons why city craftsmen seldom stayed in rural settings for long, when Steele wanted Langdon to build a fence and a gate, he wrote on October 18, 1800, to Mary concerning the work: “The prices which he shewed me in his Book of rates appear to me to be excessively high considering the low price of bread, meat, wood, house rent &ca. in that part of the country.” Steele continued, “He is I think a man of very fair intentions, and will no doubt see the reasonableness of conforming his Philadelphia prices for prices for coarse work which common carpenters can do, to the change of place and circumstances.”
Steele claimed that since he himself had been “instrumental in introducing him into that part of the country,” he felt a “sincere desire to afford him all the . . . support in my power, and particularly so in relation to any advantage that may be supposed to result from employing him to do my work.” He hoped that Mary Steele and Maxwell Chambers could persuade Langdon to build the fences “upon terms of fair and mutual profit.” John Steele continued to send Mary detailed instructions and questions about the project and her management of it. (See Hood, Rowan County, for transcriptions of correspondence concerning the building project.)
Along with his work on Steele’s house, Langdon took on other jobs (presumably with Maxwell Chambers’s approval), which evidently slowed progress at the Steele house. On June 2, 1801, Ann Steele reported to her father, “Mr. Langdon is indifferent when or where he receives the money but wishes to settle with you when you return; in my opinion he will not finish the two stories before fall for he has engaged to have the Court house [Rowan County Courthouse] ready to sit in by August Court. The roof is not completed yet, and you know how dilatory he is with all his work.” Langdon completed the house that summer, for on August 3, 1801, state political leader William R. Davie wrote to his friend Steele to congratulate him upon being “under your own humble roof which, by the by, is the most decent chateau in the neighborhood, ornamented too with no little taste, enough I am afraid to mark you soon as an Aristocrat.”
Although John Langdon remained in Rowan County for several years, no other works have been attributed to him. He took apprentices to his trade in Rowan County, including George Rufty to the carpenter’s trade in 1804, and William Adams, aged 19 years and 5 months, to the joiner’s trade in 1805. According to local historian James Brawley, Langdon appeared in county tax lists until 1815. He evidently found work in Fayetteville, for the Raleigh Register reported on September 29, 1815, the death on September 16 of “Mr. John Langdon, carpenter, a native of Philadelphia and for some years a resident of that town.” Langdon’s works in Fayetteville have not been identified.
- James H. Craig, The Arts and Crafts in North Carolina, 1699-1840 (1965).
- Davyd Foard Hood, The Architecture of Rowan County North Carolina: A Catalogue and History of Surviving 18th, 19th, and Early 20th Century Structures (1983).
- John Steele Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
- Anthony A. Roth, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, to Catherine W. Bishir, Sept. 26, 1977, citing Philadelphia city directories and church records.
- Rowan County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- H. M. Wagstaff, ed., The Papers of John Steele, 2 (1924).
- Contributors:John Langdon, carpenter and joiner; Elam Sharpe, carpenterVariant Name(s):
1799-1801Location:Salisbury, Rowan CountyStreet Address:
1010 Richard St., Salisbury vicinity, NCStatus:
ResidentialImages Published In:
Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina (2003).
Davyd Foard Hood, The Architecture of Rowan County North Carolina: A Catalogue and History of Surviving 18th, 19th, and Early 20th Century Structures (1983).
Frances Benjamin Johnston and Thomas Tileston Waterman, The Early Architecture of North Carolina (1941).Note:
Steele’s side-passage plan frame house was a showplace of Salisbury for many years and was photographed by Frances Benjamin Johnston, including its delicately proportioned Federal style mantel enriched with composition ornament Steele ordered from the Wellford Company of Philadelphia. In the 20th century the house was heavily altered and many of its fine Federal style mantels and other elements were removed to other buildings. In the late 20th century the house was painstakingly restored by its owner, Edward Clement of Salisbury.