The versatile architect John Notman was born in Edinburgh, Scotland (the son of David and Mary (Christie) Notman), trained at the Royal Academy of Scotland, apprenticed to a builder, and worked in the office of William Henry Playfair before migrating to Philadelphia in 1831. According to his biographer, Constance M. Greiff, Notman "introduced the Italianate villa to the United States at Burlington, New Jersey, and was recognized by the chief apostle of the picturesque, A. J. Downing
, as one of the country's most skillful practitioners in that vein. For The Athenaeum of Philadelphia he designed an innovative Renaissance Revival building, a stylistic prototype for clubhouses for decades afterwards. He planned America's first architect-designed, park-like rural cemetery at Laurel Hill, Philadelphia, and, in Richmond, Virginia, the first psychiatric hospital embodying the advanced ideas of Dr. Thomas Kirkbride for the treatment of the mentally ill. Notman was, in sum, one of America's most innovative architects in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Although not stylistically an originator, he was an importer of sophisticated design ideas from Britain, translating them skillfully for his American clientele. He also was quick to utilize the technological developments that transformed the art of building in the nineteenth century, and he was alert to the availability of new mateials and new techniques."
Notman first appeared in the Philadelphia city directories listed as a carpenter, a title he did not change until the directory of 1841. Early in his American career, Notman met John Jay Smith, entrepreneur and librarian of the Library Company of Philadelphia. Smith was an important contact for Philadelphia's architect, and he would prove influential not only for Notman, but also for Thomas Ustick Walter and James C. Sidney. Smith hired Notman to design and erect a building for the Library Company (1835), and the next year secured for him the important Laurel Hill Cemetery commission. In turn, through the backers of the Laurel Hill scheme, Notman met and secured commissions from Nathan Dunn (1837) and Bishop George Washington Doane (1839) -- both projects were published in Downing's A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1841). From that point Notman became one of the leading architects working from a Philadelphia base; by 1854, Thomas U. Walter would write from Washington, "you wish me to recommend some one to you in whose taste I have confidence. My own impression is that Mr. Notman (Spruce above Broad) is the best Archt in Philada. I am not personally acquainted with him, but his works, as The Athenaeum, St. Mark's Church, and other things I have seen of his, indicate taste, genius, and practical skill." Like Walter, Notman worked all of his career to establish the profession of architect, and he was one of the two Philadelphians invited to be among the founders of the American Institute of Architects.