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Born: 1811, Died: 1849

William L. Johnston was one of a group of architects that emerged from the Philadelphia building trades in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. From 1833 through 1840, Johnston (he added the "t" to his family name and adoped the middle initial c.l840) listed himself as a house carpenter. From 1841 until his death from tuberculosis in 1849, he listed himself as an architect. (Interestingly, his contemporary, John Notman also changed his directory listing from "carpenter" to "architect" in 1841. In 1838 Johnston, together with John E. Carver, was appointed to teach in The Carpenters' Company architectural school. Johnston reported, "we propose to teach lines for five dollars, Shadeing [sic.l Perspective and Ornamental Drawing for ten dollars, per quarter." Neither man taught in the school during 1839, notwithstanding their directory listing, "drawing school, Carpenter's Ct." and Theodore Thierry took their place. In 1841, however, Johnston was reappointed and appears to have continued teaching until he was succeeded by G. Parker Cummings in 1845.

As a teacher of "Shadeing Perspective and Ornamental Drawing," it is not surprising that Johnston submitted to the Artists' Fund Society exhibition designs for a mansion (1840), a Methodist Episcopal Church (Eighth near Race sts.), buildings near Logan Square, and a country seat (1842). Johnston's earliest known work, the First Methodist Protestant Chapel at 11th and Wood streets, also comes at this time (1840,) and he was able to secure a number of relatively important commissions during the l840s: the Mercantile Library (1844), Odd Fellows Hall (1845) and the Spring Garden Commissioners' Hall (1848). But Johnston's fame principally rests on the design of the Jayne Building (1847--1851) -- an eight-story, granite proto-skyscraper -- the destruction of which at the hands of the Park Service in 1957 remains one of the most culpable acts of architectural vandalism in a good cause on record. Unfortunately, Johnston died in October of 1849; within days, Thomas Ustick Walter was on the job and, according to Walter's diary, the distinctive features of the structure's verticality and detailing belong to the senior architect who was about to begin his work on the United States Capitol. Walter later stated, "William Johnston Architect made the original design, and the foundations and first story of the Chestnut Street front had been erected before he died."

The fourteenth edition of Peter Nicholson's The Carpenter's New Guide (Philadelphia, 1850) contains "additional plans for various staircases by William Johnston."

Written by Roger W. Moss.

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  • Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia

 

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