Biography

MASTER BUILDER
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Born: c. 1695, Died: 1771

Biography from the American Architects and Buildings database

The master builder Edmund Woolley is chiefly remembered as the master builder-architect of the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall). Named for his father, Woolley was probably born in England and is known to have been in Philadelphia by 1705. The name of his master is not recorded but Woolley was admitted a freeman of Philadelphia in 1717. (From time to time the Common Council of Philadelphia had attempted to enforce the freedom law, 1717 being one of those, but ever-increasing population placed enforcement beyond the limited capabilities of the Philadelphia government. So little was freedom of the city honored that it was necessary on occasion to admit newly elected members of the Common Council as freemen before they could be seated!)

Woolley was an early member of The Carpenters' Company, although the loss of all Company records prior to the 1760s makes it impossible to determine exactly when he was elected. By 1732, Woolley (assisted by master builder Ebenezer Tomlinson) was at work on the Pennsylvania State House. This project would involve Woolley and his apprentices (see Thomas Nevell) off and on into the 1750s. Woolley's accounts with the Province of Pennsylvania included "drawing drafts," and a receipt of his from 1735 survives, "To drawing the Elivation of the Frount one End the Roof Balconey Chimneys and Torret of the State House With the fronts and Plans of the Two offiscis And Piazzas Allso the Plans of the first and Second floors of the State House," for which a fee of five pounds was charged.

Traditionally credit for the design of the State House has been given to Andrew Hamilton, who supervised the work, but contemporary scholarship has gradually reduced the importance of such supervisors--John Kearsley being the classic example--as more has been learned of the building trades during the colonial period. When the great hunt for the architects of Philadelphia's colonial buildings began in the late nineteenth century, it was the supervisor whose name was discovered in the archives and vestry minutes as receiving and distribution funds. Consequently these men were dubbed "architect" in popular accounts. Hamilton was doubtless consulted and he probably carried the plans back to his principals for discussion and approval. But the ultimate form, and, especially, the final details, were the result of the knowledge and skill of the master builder and his crew of workmen. Fortunately both the receipt quoted above and Woolley's drawing survive at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Woolley owned a library of architectural books that he ordered to be sold after his death. Unfortunately no list of these has been discovered, and his copy of William Halfpenny's Practical Architecture (London, 1730) at the Library Company is the only work that firmly can be proven to have been his.

Written by Roger W. Moss.

Clubs and Membership Organizations

  • Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia

 

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