What does it mean when we say an architect is not known? In the 18th century and in the early years of the 19th century, in America, it probably
means there wasn't an architect involved in the project - in the accepted (but somewhat biased) sense of the term . Architecture had been a
separate profession in the ancient world and reemerged in Europe during the Italian Renaissance, but the need for architects was not widely felt in
northern Europe's colonies during the colonial era.
The design and construction of important buildings was executed by experienced builders, sometimes called master builders for their ability to
coordinate various building trades. They would use books of details and assemblies, such as stairways, doors, windows, and fireplaces and put
them together in stock plan arrangements which had evolved over time. In other cases, well-educated and sometimes widely traveled members of
the upper class drew plans and elevations which were then turned into buildings by the master builders.
Some of these builders were known quite well, like Robert Smith. Smith was responsible for many of the most prominent buildings in Philadelphia
of the late colonial period such as Independence Hall, Benjamin Franklin's home and Carpenters Hall. His work extended to buildings in the
surrounding area such as Princeton's Nassau Hall and is he the subject of a separate entry. We know about the non-architectural accomplishments
of some gentlemen designers who have come down to us like Andrew Hamilton, the Speaker of the Assembly for the Pennsylvania colony, who is
often credited with the design of Independence Hall, physician John Kearsley who has been credited with the design of Christ Church and Samuel
Rhoads, a leading citizen who served as mayor for a time, who is credited with parts of Pennsylvania Hospital. They are only referred to as
"unknown" because we know little of their architectural education and experience and there is often some debate as to how much they actually
participated in the project's design.
A closer look at the origins of Christ Church's construction gives a good view of the problems with deciding who had a hand in colonial building.
While Dr. Kearsley is known to have organized the building project, he is sometimes given the credit for the design as well. Others point out that
Christ Church is quite unlike anything else being built up to that time in Pennsylvania (or almost any of the other colonies for that matter) from both
an aesthetic and practical point of view. It seems possible that both the design and skilled workers were imported from England for this important
building project, so it is hard to tell whether Christ Church is the result of unknown skilled master builder working with Kearsley copying church
details he had seen elsewhere, the architectural masterwork of an artistic physician and gentlemen, or the product an unknown but trained English
architect working for the Anglican Church designing an important Anglican outpost. We may never know. Another aspect of the unknown architect
can be found in the entry on vernacular architecture.
The Unknown Architect