Prairie, Joseph P. (ca. 1834-1888)
Joseph P. Prairie (ca. 1834-April, 1888), an architect and builder from Canada came to North Carolina in about 1858, and worked in Raleigh and Chapel Hill for several years before leaving for Virginia. Linked with Republican political figures and identified by some as a “carpetbagger” during the tumultuous Reconstruction period, he constructed three substantial buildings in Raleigh, the best known being the Italianate style Metropolitan Hall (a city hall and market).
In Raleigh in 1858, Prairie may have been employed in construction of First Baptist Church, which was designed by architect William Percival and built by Thomas H. Coates; a 1909 account surely erred in recalling him as the builder and designer of the church, but he may have been involved in some capacity and possibly came from Virginia along with Coates and Percival. In 1860, Prairie was listed as a “master mechanic” aged 27 and a resident of Chapel Hill, where he and his wife Isabella (17) and their infant child were living in the household of Latin professor F. M. Hubbard along with several other men in the building trades. (Prairie was noted as a native of Canada, but his wife and baby were natives of Virginia.) Prairie may have been working with Coates on New East and New West, planned by Percival for the University of North Carolina.
After the Civil War, according to Branson’s North Carolina Business Directories (1866-1872), Prairie was proprietor of an oyster saloon, liquor dealership, and billiard room on Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street. His first documented engagement in construction came in April 1869, when Raleigh’s city commissioners voted that “Mr. J. P. Prarie [sic] be requested to draw plans and specifications for a new city hall and market” to replace the 1840 structure destroyed by fire in December 1868.
The project came in the thick of Reconstruction politics, The Conservative Daily Sentinel claimed that initially the commissioners had awarded the contract on a low bid of $17,000 to Thomas H. Briggs, Sr., “a well-known and skillful architect of this city” who had friends among the Conservatives (later Democrats). But then, said the Sentinel, the commissioners re-advertised twice more, and even though Prairie’s bids were higher than Briggs’s, Briggs lost out because he was “not loyal” to the Republican party then in power.
The Republican North Carolina Standard touted Prairie as a “master builder,” who “undertakes a job and pushes it through to completion and does his work in workmanship style.” In the fall of 1869, the Standard editor asserted that the city building would “reflect great credit on the . . . good taste of the contractor.” As work progressed, the newspaper issued reports on the building’s features, including the tin roof, the cupola (“not tall enough”), and the installation of the town clock. Soon after its completion, rumors—perhaps politically motivated—claimed that the building was unsafe and that people were afraid to attend entertainments in the second floor Metropolitan Hall. But as an old Raleighite later recalled, the county sheriff “hit upon a scheme to test the safety of the building by giving a free entertainment and inviting everybody in the city and county. Every space in the hall was packed to the doors. After this test nothing more was heard about the building not being safe until interested real estate dealers began to advocate another sale and removal.”
Prairie’s patronage among Republicans continued when he was employed to design the _North Carolina Standard’_s printing office and book bindery on Fayetteville Street. The editor of the paper, carpetbagger Milton S. Littlefield, praised Prairie as “well known in the State as an architect and builder” and described the “model building” of brick and granite in detail. The gas lights illuminated the office “as to almost rival daylight.” And the building was piped with water, which came “from a reservoir at the top of the building into which water is forced by a force pump from below, which obtains water from a large cistern holding some 20,000 gallons.” The basement held the three presses; on the ground floor was the composing room and job printing office; and in the top story was the book bindery.
Littlefield also made a point of describing local labor and racial relations in an article he had probably sent to the New York Tribune and then reprinted from that paper, “The job of digging the cellar was done by a colored man in three days. The contract for laying the brick was also given to a colored man, who did the job in 18 days and a half. The job for carpenter work was given to a white man, but colored men worked with them side by side. The building was completed in less than 60 days. These facts argue well, not only for the Raleigh Standard, but for Negro labor in the South as well as elsewhere.” The editor also noted in September, 1869, that Prairie “has been in North Carolina since 1858 and will remain here, we doubt not, to do many jobs which will give equal satisfaction with the Market House and the Standard Office.
Like other builders of the day, Prairie constructed investment property, most notably the “Prairie Block of Houses” onRaleigh’s South Wilmington Street. He advertised in the Standard on April 25, 1871, that he would rent out its component “four houses, each containing 7 rooms, with closets and kitchens with gas throughout, front balcony and back porch to each house,” plus “two of the stores in the above building.” He explained that he had constructed the block “with a view of its being a hotel, if parties should desire to rent it for that purpose. The stand would be a good one, as the building is convenient to all the business of the city.” Even the editor of the Sentinel acknowledged on May 22, 1871 that Prairie’s Wilmington Street buildings presented “a very stylish appearance and are really a credit to the city.”
As a Republican, Prairie was elected three times to the Raleigh Board of Commissioners, and was also elected City Treasurer. In 1870 he appeared in the United States Census as a carpenter and head of household, owner of property valued at $10,000. But although Prairie continued to advertise in local newspapers into the early 1870s as a contractor and building, his name did not appear in city directory lists of architects or builders, nor is there any record of his further involvement in local construction. Perhaps his fortunes fell as they had risen, with politics, when Democrats returned to power in the 1870s. City directories indicate that he operated his billiard saloon and a liquor dealership until the mid-1870s, and thereafter was identified as a farmer from 1875 through 1887. Financial problems led him to mortgage his house near the corner of Wilmington and Davie streets and to leave Raleigh. He died in April 1888, probably in Richmond, Virginia, and his home and his Prairie Building were sold to pay his debts.
Prairie had married Amelia Scott in Raleigh on May 10, 1866, and they had three sons. After her death on February 19, 1873, he married Georgiana (Annie) Baughan in Richmond, Virginia, on February 9, 1876, and she survived him and married a Mr. Strudwick. Their son Robert died in 1884 at age eight. Prairie’s older sons, J. P. (or J. B.), Basil, and Percy, clerked in Raleigh stores during the 1880s and later became businessmen in Charleston, West Virginia.
- Branson’s North Carolina Business Directory (1896, 1897).
- Jonathan Daniels, Prince of Carpetbaggers (1958).
- Elizabeth Reid Murray, Wake: Capital County of North Carolina, Vol. I, Prehistory through Centennial (1983).
- Elizabeth Reid Murray Collection, Olivia Raney Library, Wake County Public Libraries, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- North Carolina Standard, Sept. 7, 1869; Oct. 27, 1869; Nov. 4, 1869; other issues through 1871.
- Raleigh City Directory, 1880s-1890s.
- Raleigh Daily Sentinel, Apr. 19, 1869; Dec. 16, 1868; May 28, 1869; Mar. 4, 1869; other issues through 1871.
- Raleigh News and Observer, May 25, 1909.
- Wake County Records, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Contributors:Joseph Prairie, architect and contractorVariant Name(s):Raleigh City Hall and MarketDates:1869-1870Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:219 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).
Steven Stolpen, Raleigh : A Pictorial History (1977).Note:Initially called the "Market House, City Hall, and Theatre," by May 1871 the municipal building was called Metropolitan Hall. The Italianate style edifice was three stories tall and ran through the block from Fayetteville Street to Wilmington Street, with gable ends facing the street, a cupola and pediment at the Fayetteville Street end, and arched open bays in the first story. The multi-purpose building had market stalls and other facilities on the ground floor and offices and a theater on the upper floors. In the 20th century, after complaints about its uncomfortable arrangements, unsanitary conditions, and the odor wafting up from the market stalls to the auditorium, it was replaced by a "modern" and "sanitary" city market designed by James Matthew Kennedy and built near Moore Square a few blocks eastward.
- Contributors:Joseph Prairie, architectVariant Name(s):News and Observer BuildingDates:1869Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:400 block of Fayetteville St., Raleigh, NCStatus:No longer standingType:CommercialNote:After the North Carolina Standard's demise in 1870, the building was occupied by another newspaper, by the Edwards and Broughton Publishing Company (1871-1873), and by the (Democratic) News and Observer (1873-1907). It was demolished in 1912.
- Contributors:Joseph Prairie, architect and builderDates:1871Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:113 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:CommercialNote:The row of four investment "houses" (or at least the surviving section thereof) was referred to as the Prairie Building until the end of the 19th century. In the early 20th century the surviving portion of it was known as the Trade Building. It suffered from a fire in March 1975, but the 18-inch thick walls were credited with preventing its destruction. The surviving north section, 113 S. Wilmington St., has been restored for new uses.