Biography

MASTER BUILDER
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Died: 1708

The master builder John Harrison was one of the most prominent members of his craft in early Philadelphia. Trained as a carpenter in London where he was presented as an apprentice at Carpenters' Hall, he migrated to Philadelphia in the 1690s. Harrison was of the Church of England and one of the founders of Christ Church, Philadelphia, giving him a strong circumstantial claim as master carpenter for the first structure of 1695. One commission may have led to another. When, in 1697, a Swedish Lutheran missionary was sent to America to build a new church at Christina--present-day Wilmington, Delaware--he followed a pattern that would characterize building in the Lower Counties and the upper Eastern Shore for the next century. Pastor Eric Bjork turned to Philadelphia for his craftsmen. Joseph Yard, Sr. and his three sons came as masons, while John Brett and John Smart executed the rough carpentry. When the shell reached completion in the winter of 1698, John Harrison was called into finish "all ye Inside work." It soon became apparent that Harrison was "a better and neater--workman" than Smart and "a sober, industrious and capable man." Smart was eased out of the job and Harrison hired to finish the job.

Harrison so obviously pleased the Wilmington congregation that upon his return to Philadelphia he was commissioned for similar services in the construction of Gloria Dei. Again he worked within Joseph Yard's masonry walls, completing the rough work of Brett and Smart. These two Lutheran churches, built entirely by the same team of Philadelphia, British-born and trained craftsmen, survive today largely as built. They are the best documented seventeenth century structures in the Delaware River Valley.

That Harrison was a successful builder of no little skill, both his estate of 722 pounds and the surviving work of his hands amply attest. Of even greater importance is his role as the founder of the most prominent family of Philadelphia master builders in the early colonial period. John Harrison's three sons--John II, Joseph, and Daniel--are among the most active men in their craft through the mid-eighteenth century.

The elder John Harrison may be an important link between the deteriorating London guild system and the establishment of The Carpenters' Company of the City and County of Philadelphia. The commonness of the name makes it difficult to be sure whether the Philadelphia John Harrison is one of the three men by that name known to have been entered as an apprentice at Carpenters' Hall in London, 1663, 1684, 1691. The probability is strengthened by three payments made by Harrison's estate to "the Carpenters Compa" between 1711 and 1714. Since this is more than a decade prior to the founding the The Company in Philadephia, these are most likely payments to the Worshipful Company of Carpenters in London.

Written by Roger W. Moss.

Clubs and Membership Organizations

  • Worshipful Company of Carpenters ( London)

 

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