Peter Harrison (1716-1775) was born in Yorkshire, England to Quaker parents and came to Newport in 1738 as a cabin boy on a merchant vessel. Upon arrival he worked with his brother, Joseph, in both agriculture and trade, dealing in wines, rum, molasses and mahogany under the auspices of Newport merchant John Banister. On June 6, 1746, he married Elizabeth Pelham, Banister’s youngest sister-in-law and a descendant of Benedict Arnold, first governor under the Rhode Island charter of 1663. The couple took up residence on a farm on Brenton’s Cove.
Harrison, with no known professional training, began to practice first as a shipbuilder and then as an architect. He produced his first public building, the Redwood Library, in 1748. This skilled amateur progressed to design King’s Chapel, Boston (1749-54) Fort George, Newport (1754), the Brick Market, Newport (1761), Christ Church, Cambridge (1761), and Touro Synagogue, Newport (1762-63). In the derivation of these designs, Harrison depended, like other amateurs of his time, on the engraved European architectural books which codified the best designs available. To a degree, Harrison introduced to America a style of academic classicism which was influenced by the English Palladian revival. Amazingly most of his work was performed without compensation. Architectural historian Fiske Kimball rates Harrison as “the most notable architect of colonial America.”
In 1761, the Harrison brothers moved from Newport to New Haven where Peter was made collector of customs in 1768. His Loyalist sympathies subjected him to great pressure, and after he died in that town seven years later, a rioting American mob destroyed most of his personal property including his fine library and all his architectural drawings and papers.
The career of this remarkable, self-taught architect is described in detail by Carl Bridenbaugh, the foremost historian of urban life in colonial America, in a biography aptly entitled Peter Harrison: First American Architect (1949). Antoinette Downing and Vincent Scully, Jr., in their classic work The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island (rev. ed. 1967) refer to the mid-eighteenth century as “Peter Harrison’s Era.” According to these authorities, it was because of Harrison’s “ability to adapt and interpret two-dimensional English drawings into three-dimensional colonial reality that Newport’s public buildings of the years after 1748 rank among the most advanced and academic in style in the colonies.”
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