Tefft, Thomas (1826-1859)


Rhode Island


  • Providence, Rhode Island


  • Architect

NC Work Locations:

Building Types:

Styles & Forms:

Romanesque Revival

Thomas Tefft (August 2, 1826-December 12, 1859) was a Providence, Rhode Island architect who had a brief but prolific and distinguished career. His only known project in North Carolina was his design for the Chapel Hill Baptist Church (1851-1855), which was constructed by local builder Paschal McCoy.

The son of William C. and Sarah Tefft, Thomas was raised a Baptist. After displaying drawing abilities as a schoolboy, he was encouraged to move to Providence and study architecture. He worked in a prominent local architectural firm and studied at Brown University before establishing his own practice in 1851. In 1856 he began a grand tour of Europe to study architecture, but in 1859 he died of a fever while in Florence. During his brief but highly productive career, he specialized in round-arched styles then growing in popularity. Focusing in New England, his works included residences, school buildings, railroad facilities, industrial buildings, and churches, including a number of Baptist churches. Along with a few commissions in Virginia, the Chapel Hill Baptist Church (1851-1855) was evidently his only project in the South.

As M. Ruth Little and Marshall Bullock have demonstrated, Tefft provided the design for the Baptist church in Chapel Hill. The publication, Thomas Alexander Tefft: American Architecture in Transition, 1845-1860: An Exhibition by the Department of Art, Brown University (1988), includes Tefft’s perspective drawing of a Baptist church in Chapel Hill, NC, dated 1853 (held by the John Hay Library at Brown University). The drawing shows a simplified Romanesque-Italianate edifice with a central, projecting entrance tower with an open belfry in front of the front-gabled sanctuary; the building has round-arched arched openings and appears to be stuccoed.

As noted in the entry for McCoy herein, the Baptist church minutes recorded, “A bargain was closed between the [building] Committee on one side and Paschal McCoy contractor on the other, for the erection of a neat substantial Brick building.” It was to be 60 feet long “exclusive of the tower,” and 45 feet wide, with the walls 20 feet high“ above the highest part of the ground.” It was to be “completed entirely according to plan & specifications” for $3,200. McCoy signed the contract for the project on March 6, 1851, and delivered the building to the church trustees on May 5, 1855.

Suggestive of how the Tefft commission came about is a letter in the University Archives at the University of North Carolina, from the Brown University Librarian, F Way Ca[illegible], dated February 29, 1853, to University of North Carolina president D. L. Swain. The librarian explained that the pastor of the Baptist church in Chapel Hill “wrote to me to procure a drawing of a place of worship. The architect lost the letter and I have forgotten the address.” The librarian hoped that Swain could help him, presumably to supply the address of the Baptist pastor in Chapel Hill. The architect in question was Thomas Tefft of Providence, where Brown University is located. The fact that he was a Baptist and planned a number of Baptist churches may explain why the Chapel Hill minister had turned to him.

As shown in M. Ruth Little, Town and Gown Architecture, the Chapel Hill Baptist church was indeed built according to the essentials of Tefft’s design, with round-arched windows and a three-stage entrance tower. Evidently the local committee or the builder made some adjustments—not an unusual occurrence—for the church as built differed slightly from Tefft’s perspective drawing. The tower appears more compact and its third stage had louvered openings rather than the open belfry shown in the drawing. The brick walls are left exposed rather than stuccoed: like some other major buildings in Orange and nearby counties, they show a late use of Flemish bond brickwork, the handsome checkerboard pattern popular in the 18thand early 19th centuries.

The Baptists’ decision to obtain a church design from a northern architect of note was part of a larger antebellum trend in Chapel Hill. The Episcopalians had built the Chapel of the Cross in Gothic Revival style from designs by the Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter, and the Presbyterians had a “Vitruvian Tuscan” church designed by New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis, who had been introduced to the community as architect for buildings at the University of North Carolina. By obtaining their design from yet another leading northern architect, by 1855 the Chapel Hill Baptists had a house of worship comparable to others in town, in a round-arched style new to the community.

M. Ruth Little, The Town and Gown Architecture of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1795-1975 (2006).

“Thomas Alexander Tefft,” Wikipedia.

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  • Chapel Hill Baptist Church

    Paschal McCoy, contractor; Thomas Tefft, architect


    Chapel Hill, Orange County
    Street Address:

    W. Franklin St. at Church St., Chapel Hill, NC


    No longer standing



    Images Published In:

    M. Ruth Little, The Town and Gown Architecture of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1795-1975 (2006).
    Steven Stolpen, Chapel Hill: A Pictorial History (1978).


    The Biblical Recorder, a Baptist newspaper published in Raleigh, reported on May 10, 1855 on the dedication of the “meeting house” in Chapel Hill. Noting that the church had only about fifty members, the writer reported that it now had “a house of worship which in every respect is equal to any in the village. We were supplied with the dimensions of the building, but have not the paper containing it at hand.” Located in a “pleasant and growing part of town,” the building was of brick, “substantial, and sufficiently large for all ordinary occasions. It is entered by a large vestibule, which projects out some 15 feet from the body of the house, on which is a neat belfry. The bell has been procured, and we were particularly pleased with its clear, deep and rich tones. The isles [sic], seats, pulpit and gallery are well arranged and in good taste.” The cost of the building including the lot was “a little less than four thousand dollars.” Its completion signaled a “new era” for Baptists in and around Chapel Hill. The 1855 brick church served the congregation for many years, but after the congregation moved out, it was renovated in 1931 and dedicated for use as a Masonic lodge. It was demolished to make way for a parking lot in 1961. The congregation erected a large new church on S. Columbia St. in 1923, and in the mid-20th century the congregation’s name was changed to University Baptist Church.

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