Conroy, John (fl. 1790s)
John Conroy (fl. 1790s) was a builder active in Raleigh and Chapel Hill in the late 18th century. Although little is known of him, he possessed design skills as well as good connections, for he is credited with planning or constructing edifices in the new capital and at the university. There are several unsigned drawings of early university buildings; whether any is from Conroy’s hand remains to be established.
In 1793 the commissioners to plan the University of North Carolina met at the place called New Hope Chapel Hill, where they laid off a plan for the campus and established the site of a town nearby. A survey and map of the area made by John Daniel survives (see William S. Powell, The First State University). In addition, according to university historian Archibald Henderson, John Conroy was paid £10 for drawing the “plan of the intended buildings of the University,” but that document is believed to have been lost. It is possible, however, that this drawing was the one subsequently sent by Charles Wilson Harris, a young professor, to an uncle and reproduced in Powell’s First State University, but this is an open question.) It is also possible that Conroy had a role in planning Old East, which was built by James Patterson, and for which unsigned drawings survive.
Among the other early university buildings was a house for the president. Conroy presented an “estimate of the president’s house of The University,” a document that survives in University Papers. A notation in a different hand indicated, “John Conroy’s proposal £765.” Conroy’s “estimate” described the neatly finished 2-story frame house in detail, including its stone and brick cellar, a good staircase with balusters, lathed and plastered walls, windows with shutters at the first story, and the unusual inclusion of closets. University records also include a well-drawn, unsigned plan and elevation of this building, which shows the closets in keeping with Conroy’s proposal. The job went to another contractor, Samuel Hopkins. The drawing might be by Conroy. Hopkins, or someone else. A drawing of ca. 1795, depicting an elevation and plan for a grammar or preparatory school for the university, shows a similar drawing style. More investigation is needed to determine Conroy’s role in planning the university’s earliest buildings.
In 1794, John Conroy won the contract to build the Wake County Courthouse in downtown Raleigh, the newly established state capital. Before this time, the courthouse stood near the plantation house of Joel Lane. When the capital was laid out on Lane’s land a short distance east, a lot for a new courthouse was acquired on Fayetteville Street in 1793. Conroy contracted in 1794 to build for £1,099 “a large wood building” with a “spacious hall for the Courts,” and other rooms for offices and juries. By June, 1795, he had the building sufficiently complete that the justices meeting at the old courthouse voted on June 16 to adjourn “to the Court House in the City of Raleigh.” The justices noted, however, that their move should not “operate as a reception of said House from his hands or in any manner be considered to exonerate him from the smallest part of his engagement respecting the same with the Commissioners with whom he contracted.” Completed in time for September court, the Wake County Courthouse was a plainly finished frame structure that, like the brick State House of the same period (see Rhodham Atkins), later drew complaints for its lack of elegance, but it served its purpose for nearly four decades. It was removed in the 1830s to make way for a brick edifice (see Alexander Bragg); some accounts indicate that it was reused as a residence on another site. Nothing is known of Conroy’s life and work before or after his activities in Raleigh and Chapel Hill in the 1790s, and further information about him is sought.
- Archibald Henderson, The Campus of the First State University (1949).
- Elizabeth Reid Murray, “Wake County’s Courthouses Through Two Centuries (1771-1970),” unpublished typescript, copy in State Library, Raleigh, North Carolina, copy courtesy of Elizabeth Reid Murray.
- Elizabeth Reid Murray, Wake: Capital County of North Carolina, Vol. I, Prehistory through Centennial (1983).
- Contributors:John Conroy, builderDates:1794-1795Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:300 block Fayetteville St., Raleigh, NCStatus:No longer standingType:PublicImages Puslished In:Elizabeth Reid Murray, Wake: Capital County of North Carolina, Vol. I, Prehistory through Centennial (1983).Note:The Wake County Courthouse built by John Conroy in 1794-1795 was the first in downtown Raleigh. It was built on a site donated for the purpose by Theophilus Hunter, Sr., and James Bloodworth, who had acquired the southern and northern portions, respectively, of the 300 block. Each donated a half-acre lot to form a full acre lot for the courthouse. A reversionary clause in Bloodworth's deed stated that his half-acre lot must continue to serve as the site of the courthouse or revert to him or his heirs. As a result, county's courthouses have continued to occupy the same site. See Murray's Wake for images of all the courthouses.