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Born: 1721, Died: 1797

The master builder/architect Thomas Nevell, who designed the most famous Philadelphia country house--Mt. Pleasant (1763)--and founded a school of architecture in Philadelphia (1771), was the son of Thomas and Mary Nevell. By 1730 both of his parents had died and the lad was placed in a series of foster homes until apprenticed to Edmund Woolley to learn house carpentry. Woolley was one of the most influential master builders in the city and during Nevell's apprenticeship was engaged in what was for the time the largest building project in Philadelphia's history--the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall). From Woolley, Nevell must have gained more than the basic education usually specified by indentures of apprenticeship, and he probably received the additional fillip to his career of nomination into the select Carpenters' Company of master builders. An independent master by 1745, one of Nevell's earliest known commissions was a double twist stair case-no mean feat of geometry and joinery-causing him to be called by his client "an ingenious House Carpenter."

Little is known of Nevell's work during the 1750s. He helped his former master erect the State House tower and steeple (that he would demolish in 1781) and built a "fine stair case" for Edward Shippen's house on South Fourth Street. Following a period in jail for unpaid debts, Nevell is known to have worked at the Pennsylvania Hospital. It was in 1763, however, that Nevell began what would come down in history as his masterpiece. On July 27, 1763, Nevell recorded in his account book under Capt. John MacPherson for the centerings to complete the distinctive chimneys at Mt. Pleasent, and by March 23, 1764, Nevell recorded that Robert Smith and John Thornhill had valued the Schuylkill frontispiece at twenty-five pounds.

The date of Nevell's election to The Carpenters' Company is unknown; it certainly predates the earliest surviving Company records of 1763. By 1768 he was on the committee with Robert Smith and Benjamin Loxley to purchase a lot for Carpenters' Hall. Nevell was the second highest contributor to the cost of the Hall, probably made possible by income from the renovations of John Cadwalader's grand town house on the west side of Second Street between Spruce and Delancy Streets. Concurrently, Nevell erected for himself a house at (modern) 338 South Fourth Street, 1769-1770; where, at the "sign at the Carpenter's Hall," Nevell opened Philadelphia's first school of architectural drawing.

Approached by several persons "anxious to improve themselves in the art of architecture," Nevell announced,

" . . .I will take upon me to instruct a small number of youth, or others, the right use and construction of lines for the formation of regular or irregular arches, groins for vaults, or ceilings, brackets for plaistered cornices, and the like; the best method for striking out the ramp, and twist rails for stair cases; the most expeditious and approved method of diminishing colums and pilasters; the readiest rule for laying out the flutes and fillett, the method of forming raking cornices for pediments, &c. The geometrical rules for finding the length, back and bevel of hip or valley rafters, to any constructions, streight or circular, and to lay down principal roofs in ledgement. . . ." (Pennsylvania Gazette 31 October 1771, and quoted in "Thomas Nevel (1721-1797): Carpenter, Educator, Patriot", by Hanna Benner Roach)

By the use of models the students would study these principles, "after which I propose to proceed to teach...the drawing of the five orders, and designs...requisite to form a true and compleat architect." Any person of "common capacity" could assimilate all of these skills "in two months at most" by attending the school four nights a week! The cost would be "Ten Shillings for entrance and Twenty Shillings per month."

These students would not be Nevell's first. In 1766 he had taken John King "to instructions in the Art of Drawing Sundry Propositions in Architecture." In 1771, however, his list of paying students included: David Williamson, Joseph Howell, Duncan McKeller, John Alexander, Thomas Proctor, Joseph Grub, Thomas Savery, John Priest, and John Sanders.

Nevell's school was sufficiently successful to encourage a second season "for instructing a small number of Youth in the Art of Drawing," and, in the fall of 1773, he announced a third and what would prove to be the final term. His accounts mention only payments from John Taylor. (Interestingly, Nevell charged his students one pound for all "T Square & draught board" and one pound 14s 6d for a case of drawing instruments.)

During the Revolution, Nevell was fully engaged with the patriot cause. On the eve of the war,however, he had acted as agent for the engraver John Norman in the latter's edition of Swan's British Architect, and when The Company voted to publish their price book in 1785 it was Nevell who offered the "Plates representing diferent sic parts of Carpenters work...draughts necessary for the Engravers." The thirty-five engraved plates that illustrate The Company's Articles of the Carpenters Company of Philadelphia and their Rules for Measuring and Valuing House-Carpenters Work (Philadelphia, 1786), was the first such work of architecture native to America and provided a fitting memorial to the "ingenious House Carpenter" whose brief efforts at founding a school of architecture anticipated the transition from apprenticeship-trained carpenter/builder to professional architect.

Written by Roger W. Moss.

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  • Carpenters' Company of Philadelphia

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