William Williams was one of the leading master builder/proto-architects in late eighteenth-century Philadelphia. He first comes to notice with a provocative advertisement in the Pennsylvania Packet for January 4, 1773:
William Williams, a native of this city, where he was regularly bred to the business of HOUSE CARPENTRY, begs leave to inform his friends, and the public that having lately returned from London, where he has for some time studied ARCHITECTURE in its various branches, he proposes carrying on the business of House Carpentry in the most useful and ornamental manner, as is now executed in the city of London, and most parts of England; and humbly hopes, from his practice and experience, to give the highest satisfaction to such as shall be pleased to employ him, in a new, bold, light and elegant taste, which has been lately introduced by the great architect of the Adelphi Buildings at Durham Yard [Robert Adam]; and which is now universally practiced all over Britain. He also fits up shop-fronts in the nicest manner, from the plainest and most simple to the most elegant and tasty, according to original plans taken in London.
Williams's advertisement is one of the earliest Philadelphia references to Adamesque neo-classicism, and he also is know to have owned several English architectural books that were new in the 1770s, such as N. Wallis's A Book of Ornaments in the Palmyrene Taste containing upwards of sixty new designs...(London, 1771), that survive with his signature in the library of The Carpenters' Company.
Williams was elected to membership in The Company on February 15, 1773, together with Robert Allison and Joseph Ogilby; he signed the Articles on April 19, 1773. Two years later he was an Encourager of the Philadelphia edition of Abraham Swan's The British Architect (R. Bell for J. Norman, 1775), the first book of architecture published in America. During the revolution, he rose from Captain to Lt.-Colonel between 1775 and 1780. On April 6, 177, he married Ester Smith, daughter of the late master builder/proto-architect Robert Smith, at St. Michael's and Zion Church; in October he was taken prisoner by the British at the Battle of Germantown, and several months later he escaped and rejoined the American forces. For the rest of his life he was referred to as Colonel Williams.
Following the Revolution, Williams resumed his craft and served as Warden of the Carpenters Company, 1785-1786. For the Grand Federal Procession of July 4, 1788, to celebrate the ratification of the Constitution, Williams and his journeymen erected a float for the Company in the form of a dome resting on thirteen columns in the Corinthian order, rich in the adopted symbolism of the new nation: "The frieze decorated with thirteen stars; ten of the columns complete, and three left unfinished [for those states that had not yet ratified the Constitution]. On the pedestals of the columns were inscribed, in ornamented ciphers, the initials of the thirteen American states. ON the top of the dome a handsome cupola, surmounted by a figure of Plenty bearing cornucopias and other emblems of her character. Round the pedestal of the edifice were these words: 'In Union the fabric stands firm.'"
Too little is yet known about the other work of this key figure, who, together with Thomas Carstairs, may be an important link to British neo-classicism in Philadelphia. Williams was one of the carpenters granted two shares in the Library Company of Philadelphia for his work on Library Hall (designed by William Thornton, 1789-1790), and two fine examples of Williams's domestic work survived on Spruce Street (modern numbers 435 & 427). The first of these he built in 1792 on speculation and sold to Anthony Butler for 1400 pounds. The second house (427) was erected at about the same time (c. 1790-1792) and sold to the French Consul General to the United States, Antonine de la Forest. Executed in the finest late eighteenth-century Philadelphia style, this house was resold in 1795 for 8,000 Spanish milled silver dollars to Don Joseph de Jaudenes, Commissary General and Envoy from the King of Spain.
Additional insight to Williams's place in Philadelphia architecture comes from 1793 when Stephen Hallet and James Hoban attacked William Thornton's design for the United States Capitol. President Washington, at his wits end over the bickering between these three sent Hallet and Hoban to Philadelphia to meet with Samuel Blodget, Superintendent of Public Buildings, and Thornton. Since Blodget also thought Thornton's plan was "impracticable," Thornton arrived at the meeting with Colonel Williams and Thomas Carstairs as his advisors. Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, presided over this extraordinary meeting that resulted in some changes in the Thornton plan. Williams, whom Jefferson called an "undertaker," -- that is, a builder/contractor -- produced several suggestions for how Thornton's design could be improved. But Jefferson was not convinced; he wrote to President Washington, Williams's "method of spanning the intercolonnations with secret arches of brick, and supporting the floors by an interlocked framing appeared to me totally inadequate; that of unmasking the windows by lowering the galleries was only substituting one deformity for another, and a conjectural expression how head-room might be gained in the Stair-ways shewed he had not studied them." The meeting temporarily saved the Thornton design, but it must have taught Williams the lesson that Benjamin H. Latrobe would soon learn -- amateur architect Jefferson could be outspoken and pigheaded on matters of taste and architecture.
Other references to Williams's professional activity include sizeable payments for work done "at the President's House by Wm Williams" (1792-1797) made to his estate by Richard Wells, supervisor of construction, in 1796. While John Smith, Joseph Rakestraw, and Robert Allison also worked on this seminal structure located on the west side of Ninth Street, south of Market (demolished c. 1829), the design is usually attributed to Williams. In partnership with Joseph Rakestraw, Williams worked on the southward extension of Congress Hall that created the Senate Chamber, 1793-1794. Rakestraw and Williams appear to have been on a retainer and were regularly paid 75 pounds each during the period they were engaged at the building; they were paid in full on May 19, 1794. Shortly thereafter both men died, probably from yellow fever.
Following William Williams's death, the Columbianum or American Academy of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, &c opened an exhibition that included several architectural drawings by Robert Smith, John Sproul, Abraham Colladay, and Williams. So far as is known, this was the first exhibition of architectural drawings ever held in the United States.
Roger W. Moss.
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- Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia
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