James Hamilton Windrim established an illustrious firm which would provide a public style for many of Philadelphia's civic, governmental, and commercial properties; through his son John Torrey Windrim
the firm would continue to exert an influence on the style of public architecture well into the twentieth century. Windrim was born in Philadelphia to James and Catherine Windrim. His early education came from Locust Street Public School, but he transferred to Girard College in 1850 and graduated with its first class in 1856. Following graduation, John W. Torrey, for whom Windrim would name his son, arranged for the young man to enter the firm of Scottish-born John Notman
, designer of the building for The Athenaeum of Philadelphia. However, ill health forced Windrim to leave the Notman firm and remove himself to the healthier climate of West Chester, where he would continue his apprenticeship in building by working for carpenter Thomas Bateman. When he returned to Philadelphia, Windrim resumed his connection to John Notman and served as draftsman for stonemason Archibald Catanach, who was the builder of Notman's Holy Trinity Church on Rittenhouse Square. There followed a series of fortuitous projects which allowed Windrim to gain both design and construction experience, culminating in his employment by the Pennsylvania Railroad on the construction of Union Depot in Pittsburgh. When he returned to Philadelphia in 1867, Windrim opened his own architectural office at 129 South 7th Street and entered the Masonic Temple competition. By winning this competition at age 27, he launched his public building career, and his fortunes in Philadelphia were made. He followed the Masonic Temple building in 1872 with the design for the Academy of Natural Sciences Building in Philadelphia.
There ensued a number of important commissions which came to Windrim partially as a result of his Girard and Masonic connections. In 1871 the Board of City Trusts appointed Windrim the architect for the Girard Estate, and he subsequently designed a number of buildings for the Girard College campus and for various office properties owned by the Estate in Philadelphia. In 1889 Windrim was made Supervising Architect of the U. S. Treasury, a position which he held until 1891, when he returned to Philadelphia and was appointed Director of Public Works for the City by Mayor Stuart. In that position he remained until 1895, when he resumed private practice. By 1895, however, most of the operations of his firm had been assumed by his son, John T. Windrim, who succeeded him as architect for the Girard Estate and, through his influence, gained a number of municipal contracts.
As an architect specializing in public buildings, Windrim, of course, maintained his connections to important Philadelphia institutions. For Spring Garden Institute he served as chairman of the Committee on Art Schools (1881-82) and as chairman of the Committee on Schools of Design and Drawing (1883-84). In that year he also contributed a prize to be given for Spring Garden's architectural drawing competition. Active in the profession as well, Windrim served as president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA from 1879 to 1886.