John Haviland properly is regarded as one of the most important architects working from Philadelphia in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. Born at Gundenham Manor, near Taunton, Somerset, England, the son of James and Ann (Colby) Haviland, young John was bound in 1811 to the London architect James Elmes (1782-1862) who was barely ten years Haviland's senior. In later years, Elmes would emerge as a critic and scholar, but Haviland left him in 1815 in the hope of securing an appointment to the Russian Imperial Corps of Engineers. In Russia he met George von Sonntag and John Quincy Adams, who encouraged Haviland to try his hand in the United States. He arrived in Philadelphia in September of 1816 and within a few months had married Mary von Sonntag Wells and settled in as one of the few professional architects in the city. He first appeared in the Philadelphia city directories in 1818 with an office at 26 North Fifth Street.
In what would become time-honored tradition, Haviland advertised himself by producing a book. Builder's Assistant, Containing the Five Orders of Architecture, for the Use of Builders, Carpenters, Masons, Plasterers, Cabinet Makers, and Carvers... (Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1818, 1819, 1821) appeared in three volumes over several years. This publication was a landmark event in American neo-classical architecture; not only was it one of the earliest architectural pattern books written and published in North America, but it was probably the first to include both Greek and Roman orders. Haviland would later reissue Owen Biddle' s Young Carpenter's Assistant (Philadelphia: McCarty and Davis, 1833) with a new preface and several additional plates "particularly adapted for country use." He also opened a drawing academy with Hugh Bridport and later taught drawing at the Franklin Institute.
In part due to The Builder's Assistant, Haviland began to secure what would be his most important commissions in the l820s: the First Presbyterian Church (1820), the Eastern State Penitentiary (1821), Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church (1822), the Pennsylvania Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb (1825), the Franklin Institute (1825).
At this point a fatal combination of bad luck and poor judgment struck. Haviland began to speculate in his own projects, most notably commercial arcades in Philadelphia (1825-1828) and New York (1826-1827) and an ill-conceived amusement park called the Labyrinthine Garden (1828). Threatened by bankruptcy, Haviland diverted funds from the Naval Hospital (1826-1833) at Port Nelson, VA, to cover some of his debts. These monies proved to be inadequate, however; and Haviland was forced into bankruptcy and full disclosure; he would never secure another major Federal commission, and his career passed under a cloud in Philadelphia.
Elsewhere Haviland's reputation as a designer of prisons brought him important commissions. At the New Jersey Penitentiary (1833-36) Haviland again used the radial plan developed for the Eastern State Penitentiary and introduced Egyptian details that also appeared as motifs at the New York City Halls of Justice and House of Detention (the "Tombs," 1835-1838). Haviland provided prison designs for Missouri, Rhode Island, and Arkansas as well.