John Fraser was one of several Scot emigre architects who practiced most successfully in Philadelphia. He first appears in Philadelphia in 1848 as a resident of the County of Philadelphia who declares his intent to become a citizen of the United States (notes found by F. James Dallett in the Philadelphia City Archives, Court of Quarter Sessions, Docket 21, p. 889); and he appears in the city directories in the 1850s, practicing independently; but by 1856 he and civil engineer Andrew Palles
have established Fraser & Palles
, with offices at 112 South Fourth Street in Philadelphia. By 1860 Fraser is listed in the federal census as a resident of Cinnaminson, NJ (Burlington Co.), where he is noted as residing with his wife Sophia and daughters Sophia (age 3) and Agnes (age 1), and his mother (Agnes, age 60, also born in Scotland).
By 1861 Fraser's partnership with Palles has dissolved, and Fraser has returned to private practice. Soon (1862) he will be involved in what is perhaps his best-known Philadelphia building, the Union League on South Broad Street, designed by Fraser and constructed by John Crump. In 1867, he, Frank Furness, and George W. Hewitt have established the influential firm of Fraser, Furness & Hewitt. This firm continued for nearly four years before Fraser relocated to Washington, DC, where he was first superintendent of the new building for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and then Acting Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury during the suspension of James G. Hill. He would serve in that capacity from December 1878 to May 1879. During his tenure in Washington, DC, Fraser designed several city residences in addition to the buildings required by the federal government.
However, during his sojourn in Washington, DC, Fraser retained his listing in the Philadelphia city directories, indicating in his listing that he has offices at 430 Walnut Street. Exactly how much time he spent in Philadelphia, of course, is unclear; but by 1888 at the latest Fraser had returned to Philadelphia fulltime, with an office with his son Archibald A. Fraser at 8 South Broad Street. (Antoinette J. Lee has discovered an 1888 letter preserved in the Treasury Department records at the National Archives, from Fraser in Philadelphia to Will Freret which reminds Freret of Fraser's service to the federal government.) Subsequent commissions in Philadelphia record John Fraser & Son as architects; however, although Archibald Fraser died in 1895, the firm did not disappear from the Philadelphia city directories until 1904 when Fraser retired to Riverton, NJ, where he (and his son) had maintained residence.
Fraser was one of the founding members of the Pennsylvania Institute of Architects. He also maintained membership in the T-Square Club, American Institute of Architects (elected March 1869), Franklin Institute, and the St. Andrews Society.
Note: F. James Dallett has suggested that the "Frasers were in reduced circumstances at the time John Fraser died in 1906 and thereafter." This perhaps explains the absence of a probate of his estate.