Robert Smith (1722-1777)

Robert Smith was born on 14 January 1722 in Lugton [Loughton], in Dalkeith Parish, Lothian, Scotland, the son of John Smith and Martha Laurie. Although his father and oldest brother were bakers, Robert was instead articled to the same profession as a number of his uncles and cousins, who were well-known masons, carpenters, and master builders. One of Smith's ancestors was James Smith (ca. 1645-1731), a leading Scottish architect who, as an early follower of Palladio, may have inspired Colen Campbell's interest in the Venetian architect. This member of the Smith family was Surveyor of the Royal Works in Scotland, until succeeded by William Adam (the father of architects Robert and James Adam), who seems to have given Robert Smith his first job.

It is believed that Smith began his architectural training in the early 1740s, as a newly-qualified journeyman carpenter working for William Adam at Dalkeith Park, the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch. Shortly after Adam's death in 1748, Smith appeared in Philadelphia; his first known commission in America (with Gunning Bedford) was the Second Presbyterian Church on Third and Arch Streets, begun 1749.

According to the historian Charles E. Peterson, Smith became the leading building professional in Philadelphia. He was instrumental in the professionalization of the influential Carpenter's Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, which had been founded in 1724, following the model of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters in London. The Carpenter's Company was formed to set uniform standards for pricing and payments, and to maintain a high level of design and workmanship in building practices. Craftsmen and designers who belonged to the group had the opportunity to study models and treatises in the Company's library. Several of Smith's books went to this library upon his death. Among them were Batty Langley's Treasury of Designs (purchased in 1751), Isaac Ware's edition of Palladio (purchased by 1754), and Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus (purchased by 1756).

It is likely that Smith had a hand in shaping the Carpenter's Company's 1783 handbook for standards of workmanship and pricing, one of the first books of its kind printed in America. Entitled The Rules of Work of the Carpenter's Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, this manual was a pattern and specifications book `loaned' to every member of the Company, and kept a closely guarded trade secret. According to historian T. J. Wertenbaker, it made an important contribution to the uniformly high quality and distinctive stylistic flavor of Philadelphian Georgian architecture.

According to a list of known American works of Smith, Nassau Hall was the third building he designed in the American colonies. Smith was also responsible for the President's House, built concurrently with Nassau Hall.

Apart from the much-imitated Nassau Hall, other important works by Smith include St. Peter's Church; Benjamin Franklin's house; the headquarters of the Carpenter's Company, Carpenter's Hall; University Hall at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island; and the Walnut Street Prison. With the exception of University Hall, all of these works were built in Philadelphia.

Contemporary accounts reveal that Smith was also involved in the struggle for American independence. He is listed among a group of `mechanics' selected in 1774 to organize agitation against the British coercion of the citizens of Boston. He was also a member of a committee that aided in the formation of a general colonial congress. When war with Great Britain seemed likely, Smith employed his architectural skills in the service of the patriots. He produced designs for military architecture to protect Philadelphia from British attack, including an elaborate system of underwater fortifications in the Delaware River that stymied British communications off the coast. At the time of his death, on 11 February 1777, Smith was working on a group of barracks for the Continental Army at Billingsport, New Jersey. He is buried in the Friend's Meeting Building Ground at Arch Street in Philadelphia.

American works of Robert Smith:

1749 Design for Second Presbyterian Church, Third and Arch Streets, Philadelphia (with Gunning Bedford).

1749 Remodeling of Bush Hill mansion for the Governor of Pennsylvania, James Hamilton.

1750 Steeple at Christ Church, Second Street above Market Street, Philadelphia.

1753-6 Nassau Hall, the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), Princeton, New Jersey.

1756-7 The President's House, the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), Princeton, New Jersey.

1758-9 St. Peter's Church, Philadelphia (perhaps in collaboration with Dr. John Kearsley, a member of the church's building committee)

1760 St. Paul's Church, Philadelphia.

1761 Contract signed for the `New College' in Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania).

1761-2 Mount Pleasant at Fairmount Park, for Captain John Macpherson.

1763 Contract to build two houses for Mrs. Mary Maddox.

1764-5 Benjamin Franklin's house, Philadelphia.

1766 Third (Old Pine Street) Presbyterian Church.

1766-7 Master carpentership for the Bettering House.

1766-7 Zion Lutheran Church.

1768 Plans for Carpenter's Hall, off Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, built 1770-4.

1769 Contract to provide plans for Christ Church, Shrewsbury, New Jersey.

1769 Project for a multiple-arch bridge to cross the Schuylkill River at Market Street, Philadelphia.

1769 Assistance in the erection of an observatory to study the transit of Venus.

1770 Plans for the College Edifice at the College of Rhode Island (later Brown University), built 1770-2.

1770 Plans for a madhouse at Williamsburg, Virginia.

1771 Contract to provide plans for a stone Presbyterian church for Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

1771 Plans for a row of houses on the north side of Spruce Street, on Christ Church lands, executed over several years in cooperation with John Smith and William Williams.

1773-4 Walnut Street Prison, Philadelphia.

1775 Chevauz-de-frise, underwater fortifications in the Delaware River.

1776 Various military fortifications for the city of Philadelphia.

1777 Continental Army barracks, Billingsport, New Jersey.