Coffey Family (1890s-1960s)
John William Coffey; John W. Coffey and Son; John Nelson Coffey
Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
- Raleigh, North Carolina
Styles & Forms:
Colonial Revival; Georgian Revival; International style; Queen Anne
John William Coffey (1869-1960) and his son, John Nelson Coffey (1902-1988) were among the leading builders in Raleigh during much of the twentieth century. Although the elder Coffey practiced on his own for several years, the Coffeys are especially well known in Raleigh as the firm of John W. Coffey and Son, formed in the 1920s. This respected, prolific, and long-lived Raleigh construction business continued under the same name even after the father’s retirement and death. The Coffeys maintained strong relationships with leading architects in Raleigh, including A. G. Bauer, Thomas W. Cooper, William H. Deitrick, James M. Edwards Jr., and James A. Salter, and erected primarily residential and commercial buildings in myriad styles from the Queen Anne to the Colonial Revival and modernist modes. John W. Coffey and Son is most notably associated with many of the handsomely crafted Georgian Revival residences in Raleigh’s premier early twentieth century suburbs such as Hayes Barton and Budleigh.
John William Coffey was the second of five children and the eldest son born to Elijah Coffey (1838-1891) and his wife Mary Ann Nelson Coffey (1843-1929). Both parents descended from prominent farming families in the upper Yadkin Valley of Caldwell County. A Confederate veteran, Elijah Coffey was a cooper with a small farmstead on the south side of the river near Patterson. The family prized education, and young John was sent to boarding school at the Globe Academy in the neighboring Globe community. He later worked for the railroad before entering the building trades. In 1896 John moved east to Raleigh, drawn by the boom in construction in the capital city.
In 1899 Coffey formed a business partnership with George C. Bonniwell (1837-1919). An article in the Raleigh News and Observer of August 24, 1899 (p. 21) reported:
It takes such firms as Messrs. Bonniwell & Coffey to make a city; they put the city high up in the scale of industrial importance. Messrs. G. C. Bonniwell & John W. Coffey have been contractors and builders for many years. The firm figures and furnishes estimates upon business houses, dwellings, etc. This partnership was formed in March, 1899. . . . Mr. John W. Coffey is a comparatively young man, who has made his mark in his profession. He is a native of this State. For a period of three years he was foreman of the contracting department of the Morganton Manufacturing and Trading Company, and during that period he erected some of the finest and best residences of that thriving community and at Charlotte.
During the year 1896 he made his advent into Raleigh. Among the many residences erected by him here I mention the James I. Johnson residence, the Ernest Martin residence, the residence of Mrs. A. B. Capehart [Lucy Catherine Capehart House], four houses for Mrs. Charles Heartt, two residences for John C. Drewry, one for Captain Alderman, the residence of Dr. M. M. Marshall, the Victor Engine House for the city, etc.
Of these, the Lucy Catherine Capehart House, a Queen Anne style house designed by architect A. G. Bauer, is known to survive. The newspaper reporter also commented, “Messrs. Bonniwell and Coffey are not only well-equipped in point of experience, but likewise in every manner, shape and form for the conduct of their extended operations. They have ample means and many resources. Their work is by no manner of means confined to Raleigh, but will extend to any portion of the State, and as in the past so in the future their work will be their best advertisement. In concluding the sketch of these gentlemen I desire to say that in the matter of honor and probity they are known to thoroughly enter the very spirit of the meaning of the words. Their progressive ideas are exponents of their success, and in the construction of their work they are thoroughly conscientious.” The Bonniwell and Coffey partnership was short-lived, and by 1900 Bonniwell had left Raleigh and Coffey had started his own firm.
A prime project for Coffey early in the new century was the Grand Lodge Masonic Temple (1907), designed by architect Charles McMillen, which was a landmark of downtown Raleigh and the tallest building in town in its day. Coffey, according to the Raleigh Times of August 5, 1909, served as superintendent of the project for the Central Carolina Construction Company (see William Carter Bain), the Greensboro-based contracting firm that erected the building. The Times article also cited Coffey as the builder for a house for one J. B. Martin in Raleigh and noted his projects for Wake Forest College (Wake Forest) and St. Mary’s College (Raleigh). Receipts for building materials in the Coffey Family Papers show that John W. Coffey kept busy in the 1910s, but few of the receipts refer to specific buildings; among these are two office and commercial buildings in downtown Raleigh built in 1911: the Vass Building (address unknown) and the Shepherd Building at 120-124 Fayetteville Street (no longer standing). These two were listed among many other new structures in an account of a local building boom in the Raleigh Times of October 7 and December 19, 1911, and it is likely that Coffey was involved in others of the buildings the newspaper cited.
Meanwhile, on December 14, 1898 Coffey married Frances Elizabeth Little (1878-1967) of Raleigh. To this union were born four children: Natalie Little (1899-1996), John Nelson (1902-1988), Frances Elizabeth (1904-1997), and Mary Lou (1908-1983). In 1914 the family moved to a new house Coffey had designed and built at 711 McCullock Street in the newly developed neighborhood of Boylan Heights. (The John W. Coffey House, an eclectic assemblage of Queen Anne and Colonial Revival elements, still stands, handsomely renovated.) Though raised in the Adventist Church of Caldwell County, Coffey obligingly joined his wife’s church, Edenton Street Methodist. He remained a strict evangelical Protestant throughout his long life, observant of the Sabbath and denying himself the pleasures of smoking, drinking, and cards. Like his father, Coffey was a lifelong member of the A.F. & A.M. and twice served as Master of Raleigh’s Hiram Lodge (1904 and 1909). At heart, John W. Coffey was a skilled craftsman and a maker of things. During his long years of retirement he spent many hours in the workshop adjacent to his house where he built indoor and outdoor furniture for his children and grandchildren, as well as canopied sandboxes, sliding boards, see-saws, bench swings, and play tables and chairs for his great-grandchildren. For his grandson John he built a wooden sailboat and the wings and fuselage of an airplane.
In the mid-1920s John W. Coffey took into partnership his son John Nelson Coffey, who graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1924 with a degree in civil engineering. He attended Raleigh public schools, graduating from Raleigh High School in 1920. At UNC he played varsity baseball and was briefly tempted by a career in professional ball but decided to join his father in the building business (see note, below). The resulting firm of John W. Coffey and Son proved to be a successful and durable business, responsible for the construction of many commercial and residential buildings in Raleigh and Eastern North Carolina. How the two men divided the operations of the firm is not established.
Their timing was excellent, for John W. Coffey and Son was formed when there was a demand for high quality construction for prosperous families who were moving into Raleigh’s elite and expansive new suburbs north and west of the center of town. In association with Raleigh’s leading architects, John W. Coffey and Son, along with builders Howard Satterfield and James A. Davidson constructed many of Raleigh’s finest residences in the fashionable new neighborhoods of Hayes Barton and Budleigh. During the Great Depression when commercial building was scarce, John W. Coffey and Son continued their high quality residential work among clients fortunate enough to be able to build new homes in these suburbs and elsewhere. During the 1930s they often worked in collaboration with Raleigh architects James M. Edwards Jr. and Thomas W. Cooper. The Coffey Family Papers (Special Collections Research Center, NCSU Libraries) contian a few drawings on tracing paper signed by Nelson and Cooper for unnamed residences and a set of blueprints (1929) by Nelson and Cooper for the Nathaniel A. Dunn House. In 1938 the firm published Houses by Coffey, a 78-page promotional booklet featuring fifty-eight single and duplex dwellings in Raleigh, many of which were built in the 1920s and 1930s. The firm also built a structure in Raleigh that was to see intensive service during World War II, the Union Bus Terminal (1941).
After World War II under the leadership of John N. Coffey, the firm turned increasingly to commercial clients; it continued under the same name even after the elder Coffey retired, probably in the 1940s, and died in 1960. (Raleigh city directories of the 1950s still listed John W. as part of the firm along with John N. Coffey.) Among mid-century projects designed by notable architects of the period were the University Lodge Motel at Chapel Hill, designed by architect Archie Royal Davis; and two buildings on Raleigh’s Hillsborough Street—the State Capital Life Insurance Building, designed by William Deitrick, and the Branch Banking & Trust Co. Building (1962), a small, elegant modernist building designed by architect F. Carter Williams, which for many years was distinguished by the lighted stained glass mural by NCSU artist Joe Cox. Along with his career in construction, John N. Coffey became active in Raleigh civic life and served prominently on the city council. In 1953 John N. Coffey Jr. joined his father in the business, but he left ten years later to pursue other ventures. With John N. Coffey Sr.’s retirement in 1966, the firm of John W. Coffey and Sons ended.
Note: John N. Coffey’s career was vividly recounted in a profile article in the Raleigh News and Observer of May 25, 1959, headlined “Former Star Athlete is Busy Councilman”:
They threw away the mold when they made John N. Coffey. The 57-year-old contractor who once played professional baseball under an assumed name knows what he wants and how to get it. Coffey did more perhaps than any other member of the Raleigh City Council in getting a new city hall project under way in the Capital City [see G. Milton Small, Jr.]. As chairman of the powerful Public Works Committee, he helped organize the Citizens’ Committee which selected the Coke property for the new city hall. He then pushed the sale of surplus city property in order to finance the erection of a new municipal building. But people who knew Coffey weren’t surprised at the success of the projects. “He’s the kind who takes the bull by the horns,” said another Council member.
Coffey was born on South Salisbury Street in 1902. His father, John William Coffey, now 90, was the founder of the construction company the councilman heads. His mother, Mrs. Frances Little Coffey, 83, also is living.
Always a man of action, Coffey was an All-State halfback at Hugh Morson High School [Raleigh High School] and could do the 100-yard dash in almost 10 seconds flat. That was a long time ago. He went to the University of North Carolina to study civil engineering before that school was moved to State College. He taught one year as an assistant professor following his graduation in 1924.
However, Coffey had been playing professional baseball under an assumed name between school terms. “All those college boys were doing it in those days,” he explained. He played under the name of Larry Lauzon of Seattle, Wash., at Tuskegee and Montgomery, Ala. Johnny Dobbs, then manager of the Birmingham team, offered the hustling first baseman a contract and a chance for the big time.
Young Coffey, who was batting a healthy .370, almost signed the dotted line but changed his mind after talking with his father. “Either be a ball player or a contractor,” Coffey said. “It was the smartest thing I ever did. No ball player ever gets anywhere. I had some brains, something to rely on besides my baseball ability.” Some of the buildings which have been built by Coffey include the State Capital Life Insurance Building, the Raleigh Bus Station and the Flue-Cured Stabilization Building.
Now balding and somewhat pudgy around the middle, Coffey still shows evidence of the physical power that nearly led him into professional baseball. His six-foot frame, which once was a trim 186 pounds, has added some 15 pounds during the years of sitting behind the desk.
He was married in 1928 to the former Mary Thelma Gatewood of Wadesboro. She was a student at Meredith College when first he spied her going across the campus. “I was covering the front,” he said. “I knew everybody out there and had a baby blue Buick to cruise around in. . . . I set eyes on her and started a campaign.” Wedding bells rang two years later.
For hobbies, Coffey spends most of his time on aviation. He owns his own plane and flies all over the Eastern Seaboard. He also enjoys golf, football, baseball and fishing. He has two sons, John Nelson Coffey Jr. and Thomas Gatewood Coffey. John is in the family business and Thomas is planning to attend State College next year.
When Coffey ran for the City Council in 1957, it was his first venture into politics and he placed third in the race. He dropped to fourth place in his recent bid for re-election. He wants to see Raleigh’s water and sewer expansion program carried out during the next two years. Besides being a member of the Council, he is a director in the First Federal Savings and Loan, past chairman of the Salvation Army, a member of Hayes Barton Methodist Church, a Lion and an Elk.
- Coffey family archives, private collection.
- Houses By Coffey, Charlotte Vestal Brown Papers, Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Dates:1962Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1806 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NCStatus:AlteredType:CommercialNote:The small modernist bank was constructed as a branch to serve nearby NCSU. It originally had a stained glass mural by NCSU professor and artist Joe Cox, which was removed in a late 20th century remodeling. The landscaping was by Richard Bell of Raleigh.
- Dates:1938Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:2613 White Oak Rd., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Houses By Coffey, Charlotte Vestal Brown Papers, Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Dates:1963Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:3206 Sussex Rd., Raleigh, NCStatus:AlteredType:ResidentialNote:The house was altered by architect F. Carter Williams for his daughter, Carol and her husband, Dr. Robert Bilbro: the living room ceiling raised to accommodate clerestory glazing.
- Dates:1937Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1128 Harvey St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:Residential
- Dates:1927Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1515 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The large, brick Georgian Revival house is one of a group of Daniels family houses that stand near one another in Hayes Barton.
- Dates:1907Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:133 Fayetteville St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:FraternalImages Puslished In:Linda L. Harris and Mary Ann Lee, An Architectural and Historical Inventory of Raleigh, North Carolina (1978).Note:Cited in the Manufacturers' Record (April 18, 1907) as the "Grand Lodge of Masons Building," the 7-story building like other Masonic buildings included rental space for stores and offices as well as the Masonic hall. Faced in tan brick and detailed in neoclassical fashion, the building is especially noteworthy as the state's oldest reinforced steel tall building, having survived after the slightly earlier Independence Building in Charlotte (1906) has been lost. As noted in the Raleigh Times of August 5, 1909, John W. Coffey was superintendent of this building for the contractors, and a photograph in the Coffey Family Papers (Special Collections Research Center, NCSU Libraries) shows Coffey at the building site in the early phase of construction.
- Variant Name(s):John E. Evans HouseDates:ca. 1930Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1002 Vance St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Houses By Coffey, Charlotte Vestal Brown Papers, Special Collections Research Center, North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Dates:1939 and laterLocation:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1720 Canterbury Rd., Raleigh, NCStatus:No longer standingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:
- Dates:1914; 1930s; 1990sLocation:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:711 McCullock St., Raleigh, NCStatus:AlteredType:ResidentialNote:John W. Coffey constructed this house for his own family and expanded it in later years to include two apartments for married children.
- Dates:ca. 1936Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1540 Caswell St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Note:The Georgian Revival style brick house is a member of the group of nearby Daniels family houses.
- Dates:Ca. 1931Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1544 Carr St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialNote:The architects and builder of this classic 2-story, red brick Georgian Revival house are cited in the Hayes Barton National Register nomination. A Julian Rand project is cited in the Satterfield building list. Julian and Lillian Rand, longtime residents of Ferndell Lane (near Maiden Lane and State College) first appeared at 1544 Carr Street house in the 1932 city directory.
- Dates:1897-1898Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:400 block N. Blount St., Raleigh, NCStatus:MovedType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:William Bushong, North Carolina's Executive Mansion: The First Hundred Years (1991).
Linda L. Harris and Mary Ann Lee, An Architectural and Historical Inventory of Raleigh, North Carolina (1978).Note:The Capehart House originally stood on N. Wilmington St. but was moved to N. Blount St. in the late 20th century to avoid demolition for development of the state government mall.
- Dates:1930sLocation:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:123 Forest Rd., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:
- Variant Name(s):N. A. Dunn HouseDates:1929-1930Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1105 Cowper Dr., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Note:Nelson and Cooper's blueprints, dated 1929, for the Nathaniel A. Dunn House are in the Coffey Family Papers, Special Collections Research Center, NCSU Libraries. It is a characteristic example of the Georgian Revival style residences prevalent in Hayes Barton. The blueprints are the only set by Nelson and Cooper identified thus far.
- Variant Name(s):Lulu Press, Inc.Dates:late 1940sLocation:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:3101 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:Commercial
- Dates:1950sLocation:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:Capitol Blvd., Raleigh, NCStatus:No longer standingType:CommercialNote:With its columned façade representing its name and the idea of southern hospitality, the Plantation Inn was a popular hostelry for many years.
- Dates:1937Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:3210 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NCStatus:AlteredType:CommercialNote:An unusually early local example of modernism, the brick building featured a restrained, sleek entrance.
- Contributors:Coffey Family, contractors; John N. Coffey, contractor; John W. Coffey, contractor; John W. Coffey and Son, contractorsVariant Name(s):Colony Theater; A&P Grocery StoreDates:ca. 1940Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1620 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:CommercialNote:Originally a grocery store; converted into a movie theater in the early 1940s and currently known as the Rialto.
- Dates:1936Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1541 Caswell St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Note:Tudor Revival residence.
- Variant Name(s):Birdwood FarmDates:1933Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:13136 St. Alban's Dr., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:Note:Turk was a descendant of the Mordecai family, who owned extensive property in the area. The residence is now owned by Duke Raleigh Hospital and used as hospitality house.
- Dates:1911Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:120-124 Fayetteville St., Raleigh, NCStatus:No longer standingType:CommercialNote:The Coffey Family Papers include many receipts and bills from the early 1910s, a few of which refer to the Shepherd Building. Raleigh City Directories indicate that it stood at 120-124 Fayetteville St. Although Coffey was very active in this period, this is one of the few buildings from the 1910s that has been attributed to him in this period. Also mentioned is the Vass Building, also 1911, of which further details are not yet known.
- Dates:1949Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:2620 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:CommercialNote:The red brick building now houses facilities of North Carolina State University.
- Dates:late 1930sLocation:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1718 Canterbury Rd., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In:
- Contributors:Coffey Family, contractors; John N. Coffey, contractor; John W. Coffey, contractor; John W. Coffey and Son, contractorsDates:1941Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:217 W. Morgan St., Raleigh, NCStatus:No longer standingType:Transportation
- Dates:ca. 1951Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:411 W. Morgan St., Raleigh, NCStatus:AlteredType:PublicNote:Built by J.N. Coffey Sr. as rental property with U.S. Post Office as a long-term tenant.
- Dates:early 1960sLocation:Chapel Hill, Orange CountyStreet Address:NC 54, Chapel Hill, NCStatus:No longer standingType:CommercialImages Puslished In:Daily Tar Heel, Mar. 19, 1952.Note:The Daily Tar Heel of Mar. 19, 1952, carried an article about the soon to be built University Lodge, a "motor court" with 34 rooms which was to help accommodate the growing numbers of visitors anticipated when the University of North Carolina hospital was completed. It was to be built in a "brick colonial design in keeping with Chapel Hill architecture." After many years as a favorite Tar Heel inn, it was razed for new development. Drawings for the University Lodge are in the Archie Royal Davis Collection, Special Collections Research Center, NCSU Libraries.
- Dates:1932Location:Raleigh, Wake CountyStreet Address:1521 Jarvis St., Raleigh, NCStatus:StandingType:ResidentialImages Puslished In: