Thomas Nevell: "An ingenious House Carpenter"
by Carl G. Karsch
True, he built houses, from his own modest home on south 4th St. near Pine to a showcase mansion in Fairmount Park for a privateer ship's captain. But during his 76-year lifetime Thomas Nevell also created gun carriages, coffins, and a new roof and spire for Independence Hall. The second largest donor to erection of Carpenters' Hall, he also shared in its construction. Edward Shippen, a wealthy judge, added the word "ingenious" to Nevell's job description for designing "a fine staircase" with a double twist for Shippen's elegant home. Nevell's unique contribution to his profession, however, was the city's — and probably the nation's — first architecture school.
A Fortunate Orphan. Born in 1721, Thomas was an only child orphaned nine years later. Fortunately, Edmund Woolley, a Company member, was his third guardian who also agreed to take Thomas under his professional wing. Much of Nevell's apprenticeship coincided with Woolley's major work, the Pennsylvania State House. Begun in 1732, the largest building in colonial America became a project lasting two decades. The young carpenter could have had no better training ground than this complex structure. In 1750, when Woolley received the commission to erect the tower and steeple on the south side, Nevell was hired to assist. Like workmen of any era, he couldn't resist the impulse to be remembered. His initials are carved in flowing script behind a panel near the door to the Assembly room. Thirty-one years later, in 1781 (the year of victory at Yorktown) he was awarded the contract to remove the decayed wooden steeple, cover the tower with a new roof and design a spire. Philadelphia architect William Strickland provided the present spire in 1828.
Soon after completing his apprenticeship, Nevell made his first real estate investment, a lot on Vine St. He erected "buildings and improvements," including a house where he brought Mary Davis, the first of three wives he would outlive. Nevell's only children were twins, John and Eleanor. John survived, later becoming his father's business partner, then a coachmaker in Germantown. More real estate purchases — and more debt — yielded Nevell two years in debtors' prison and the "sale of all he owns" to satisfy creditors.
In the 18th century, imprisonment for debt carried no greater stigma than personal bankruptcy today. Prosperity soon returned in the form of contracts for repairs to Pennsylvania Hospital, construction of the new Alms House and renovations to John Cadwalader's home — all buildings designed by Company members.
The decade prior to the Revolution was probably Nevell's busiest. He married his second wife, Mary Ann Hunt, purchased a lot on south 4th St. for their future home, designed and was master builder for a magnificent summer mansion, and joined the Carpenters' Company.
Mansion for a Privateer. John Macpherson had an arm shot off while gaining a fortune as a privateer. Now he wanted to enjoy the best of everything, including a summer mansion known today as Mount Pleasant. He hired the best architect and master builder, Thomas Nevell, who in turn engaged the city's premier carvers, turners and carpenters. John Adams said it best: "the most elegant seat in Pennsylvania." And so it remains. In 1779, following the British occupation of Philadelphia, Benedict Arnold purchased the mansion as a wedding present for Peggy Shippen, the vivacious and mercurial daughter of Nevell's early client, Judge Shippen. However, the couple never took up residence, owing to Arnold's appointment as commander of the fort at West Point, New York,
With Nevell's reputation now secure, Edmund Woolley easily gained him admission to the Carpenters' Company, a relationship which would prove mutually beneficial. Soon the new member was on a committee of three to choose the site for Carpenters' Hall. He contributed money and labor to its construction and made bookshelves for the Hall's first tenant, Franklin's Library Company of Philadelphia. In 1779, after the British occupation of the city, he hosted meetings of the Company in his home while repairs were made to the Hall, which had served as an army hospital.
Seven years later the Friendship Company of Carpenters merged with its larger rival, the Carpenters' Company. The result: the "1786 Rule Book," one of the earliest works on American architecture. Thomas Nevell supplied 37 drawings for this unique volume, which illustrates, describes and sets prices to be charged for components of a building. Original copper engravings of structural and decorative elements — roof trusses, fanlights, dormer windows and fancy railings to name but a sampling — are among the Company's most treasured possessions.
[Today, each new member of the Company receives a copy of the "1786 Rule Book," reproduced from the original plates and annotated by the late architectural historian, Charles E. Peterson. Copies are on sale at the Hall's gift shop and through the website.]
Night School for Architects. "The Pennsylvania Gazette," the colony's largest and most influential newspaper, published in October 31, 1771, a lengthy advertisement which doubled as syllabus for Nevell's new venture.
"Whereas I have been requested by sundry persons, anxious to improve themselves in the art of architecture, to undertake the teaching so necessary a mystery as the carpenters' business, I will take upon me to instruct a small number of youth or others..." Instruction included mathematics for drawing more than a score of building elements. "I propose to teach the drawing of five orders [of classical architecture] and designs... to form a true and complete architect... As soon as six persons, at least, have acquainted me with their interest of being taught, I shall attend at my own house, at the sign of the Carpenters' Hall, in 4th St., four nights each week [for two months], they paying ten shillings for entrance and twenty shillings per month."
Nevell's optimism paid off so well that the following year he and John Lort, a Company member and briefly his business partner, erected a two-story wooden classroom behind the house. Again, there was a good response to an announcement in the "Gazette." Enrollment dwindled, however, in the fall of 1773 as the potent brew of taxes and tea came to a boil. In October, the month classes began, news arrived that ships laden with tea had sailed from England for American ports. The British East India Company, to avoid bankruptcy, had the king's permission to cut the price of tea below smuggled Dutch tea. Great idea, except that colonists felt strongly about the tax on tea, still in effect. Just how strongly became obvious in December. Every history book records Boston's "tea party." Philadelphia's response was less newsworthy but just as effective. A handbill proclaimed: ..."What think you, Captain Ayres [of the Polly], of a halter around your neck, ten gallons of liquid tar decanted on your pate, with feathers of a dozen wild geese laid over that to enliven your appearance?" Captain Ayres got the message and sailed away, cargo unloaded.
Private to Lt. Colonel. Nevell disbanded the school and, with typical gusto, gave himself to the Revolution. First, since he now lacked a steady income, he advertised for sale "a large variety of carpenter's tools: planes, chisels, benches, grindstones, ladder, etc. One of the ladders could be used for a fire ladder, since it was 45 feet in length and very strong."
Both the Continental army and navy awarded him contracts for gun carriages. At Fort Mifflin on the Delaware river, Nevell mounted both carriages and six 18-pound cannon when a previous contractor's work proved deficient. Company member Robert Smith hired him to supervise construction and installation of underwater river defenses known as "chevaux-de-frise." (Read: The Battle for Philadelphia.) Lead for bullets was desperately short. The Committee of Safety appointed Nevell "to receive lead [from downspouts and rain gutters] paying at the rate of six pence per pound, clock weights excepted, since iron weights not yet available." Not even the State House was exempt.
Few privates advance to lieutenant colonel in twelve months. Nevell did. In July, 1776, soon after the Declaration was proclaimed, the versatile house carpenter joined the First City Battalion of militia. Benjamin Loxley, a Company member, enlisted Nevell as "clerk of stores" for his rapid strike force known as a "flying camp." Twelve months later Nevell's experience with heavy weapons was rewarded; he is now lieutenant colonel of Philadelphia's Artillery Battalion.
At 58, he married again, this time to Elizabeth Weed, already widowed three times. Having sold some furniture, tools and his trademark sign depicting Carpenters' Hall, Nevell moved into Mrs. Weed's home near Front & Arch Sts. For the groom, marriage was a financial blunder. The new husband paid taxes on the property, which was held in trust for Mrs. Weed's youngest son, George, until his 21st birthday. Then Nevell would become homeless and penniless.
Friendships formed during the Revolution paid off in construction jobs. One which he and Company member Gunning Bedford would probably prefer to have forgotten was a 40-foot high Triumphal Arch spanning Market St. at Sixth. The occasion: ratification of the peace treaty ending the war with England. Charles Willson Peale decorated the arch — a wooden framework covered in canvas — with numerous transparencies illuminated by candlelight. A spectacular result was predictable. Fire turned the arch into a blazing torch, igniting fireworks including rockets in an explosive grand finale to the Revolution.
Nevell in Need. For one who had given so much to his city and country, the closing years were hardly golden ones. Mrs. Nevell died in 1790. Two years later the city failed to reappoint him as a "street regulator," depriving Nevell of his only income. The Carpenters' Company became his lifeline, a source of assistance on which destitute members and their families relied for a century and a half. When George turned 21, the Company rented a room for Nevell in the Spruce St. home of Mary Lort, widow of his former business partner. They provided clothing and, finally, a nurse. In August, 1797, Nevell died. He was 76. The Company paid for a hearse and burial expenses.
Thomas Nevell once advertised for the return of a lost notebook, in which he inscribed these words: "Live free or freely die." There could be no more fitting epitaph for the "ingenious house carpenter."