John Berry --
Builder of The First College

Dr. Henry S. Stroupe
Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies Wake Forest College
WAKE FOREST MAGAZINE, February, 1965



John Berry, architect and builder, was born August 18, 1798, near Hillsborough, North Carolina, the son of John and Rhoda (often spelled Rhody) Berry. On , June 15, 1805, Rhoda Berry contracted with William Nash to buy for $10.00 lot 54 on West Queen Street in Hillsborough. This suggests perhaps that her husband had died and that she wanted to move into the village to rear her son.

Sometime during his formative years John Berry learned bricklaying. According to The Daily Sentinel (Raleigh, January 18, 1870), he was "Apprenticed in early youth to the trade of a Brickmason," but extant court records do not mention the apprenticeship. Family tradition holds that he built the structure now known as the Berry Brick House in Hillsborough in 1815, when he was 17 years of age. It is a matter of record that Samuel Hancock was an established , brickmason in Hillsborough at this time, and John Berry probably worked with him in building both the Berry Brick House and the Presbyterian Church. The men are definitely known to have been I associates but the exact nature of the |relationship is obscure. Berry may have been Hancock's apprentice or may have worked for him for pay. In any event, by 1821 Hancock could refer to Berry as his "partner," however informal the relationship may have been.

Although there are no records indicating that John Berry had the benefits of a formal education, his letters show that he was an educated man. Beginning life with few advantages, he seized the opportunities at hand. The Daily Sentinel declared that "Of no man could it be more truly asserted that he was the artificer of his own fortune . . . To his professional knowledge he found time, . . . to add a fund of general information, the fruit of much reading and study, in ancient and modern history, and especially in the history and politics of his own country.

Berry's professional development was doubtless aided by the removal to Hillsborough in 1824 of Francis Lister Hawks lawyer, historian, and grandson of John Hawks, the architect of Tryon Palace. It is said that Hawks initiated Berry into his first knowledge of books on architecture. Berry is known in later years to have relied heavily on patterns and designs from such books as Asher Benjamin's The Practice of Architecture, The Practical House Carpenter, and The American Builders Companion, and Owen Biddie's Young Carpenter's Assistant, and the Berry family says that he acquired quite a sizable library at Sunnyside, a house on St. Mary s Road in which he was living at the time of his death (In his Will, written in 1859, he left half his library, including his law books and "literary works," to his son Cicero; the other half to his son John. On June 16, 1831, half a dozen years or more after meeting Hawks, John Berry wrote to Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin: "I have procured a number of Books on the science of Building and I have made it my study for a number of years back and I flatter myself at this time from the experience I have had both in practice and theory that I can have their building (i.e., the Courthouse at Yanceyville in Caswell County) executed in as good stile and as substantially as any other person in this section of country." (Ruffin Letters. II, 35.)

A curious aspect of the life of John Berry is the fact that contemporaries early called him "Captain," and everybody who has since written anything about him calls him "Captain," but nobody now knows why he was addressed in this manner. The Hillsborough Recorder stated on June 16, 1825, that "Captain John Berry would be the marshal of the day" during the forthcoming Fourth of July celebration. Perhaps he was a captain in the North Carolina militia.

On March 1827, Captain Berry was married to Elizabeth Ann Vincent of the Cross Roads Community of Orange County. Born October 25, 1803, Elizabeth Ann was 24 years old when she married the 29-year old builder and came to live in the Brick House on West Queen Street in Hillsborough. According to the Berry family, her friends and relatives had teased Betsy about marrying the "long-nosed" Captain Berry.

The early Vincents had been thrifty French Huguenots who had come from France to Maryland, and then to North Carolina. Two sheets (4 pages) from the Vincent family Bible, preserved in the Duke Library Manuscript Room, record their family history from the 1730's. Thomas Vincent (Betsy's father's) Will (written January 28, 1825), in the Orange County Courthouse (Will Book E. pages 84-85), is a most unusual document. After providing for his four sons he leaves Betsy an 80-acre tract during her single life. If Betsy wishes to live on it, her four brothers are to build her a "comfortable house 16' X 18' with a rock chimney and a comfortable kitchen." She is also to have a Negro woman named Vic and a Negro girl named Mary. If the Negro woman has two children, son Thomas is to have one; if she has but one, it is to be valued, and Thomas is to have half its valuation. Vic's other children are to belong to Betsy. Betsy is to have first choice of the horses, one bed and furniture (first choice), one bureau, one oval table, one cow and calf, one sealskin trunk, 4 sitting chairs, 6 head of hogs, 4 sheep, "my spinning machine; my loom with all the tackling thereunto belonging, one big wheel, and oven and put." Thomas Vincent also leaves for the use of John, Thomas, and Betsy "1000 wt. of pork, 30 barrels of corn, & 20 bushels of wheat." Thus, John Berry married something of an heiress when he married Betsy Vincent and brought her home to the Brick House with her slaves, her household furniture, and her looms.

Amanda, the Berry's first child, was born in 1828. Subsequently there were seven other children. One of these, John, was graduated from Wake Forest College in 1858 and served during the closing phases of the Civil War as Assistant Surgeon of the Forty-second Mississippi Infantry.

At the age of thirty, to resume the story of John Berry the builder, Captain Berry was Senior Warden of Eagle Lodge of the Order of Ancient Free and Accepted Masonry, a manager of the Orange County Sunday School Society, and well-established locally as an architect and builder. From St. Luke's Church in Salisbury, completed in 1828, he went on to build the Caswell County Courthouse in Yanceyville and the College Building at Wake Forest.

A remarkably fine portrait of John Berry is owned by his granddaughters, Miss Mary P. Bell and Mrs. John Sprunt Hall, 2531 Mimosa Place, Wilmington, North Carolina. When Captain Berry finished the courthouse at Yanceyville in 1833, the Caswell County Commissioners were so pleased with the building that they ordered two portraits of the builder painted, one to hang in the new courthouse, and one as a gift for Captain Berry himself. The courthouse at Yanceyville burned and with it the portrait; and Captain Berry's own portrait, now the property of his granddaughters, is the only one to survive. It was evidently painted sometime after 1833 when he was 35 years of age or a bit more and shows him to have had a thin, serious face with a long aquiline nose. He is dressed in the conventional and elegant dark frock coat and high white stock of the day. The painter is unknown, but he may have been William Carl Browne, who painted many portraits in the area.

Considerable information regarding Berry's work at Wake Forest is available. The plan selected by the Board of Trustees for the first permanent building was not his work but he was solely responsible for its execution, including the choice of brick over stone for the walls. The building was 132 by 65 feet and consisted of a central part and two urgings. The central part was three stories high. The first floor serving as chapel, the second for classrooms and library, the third for society halls. The two wings were four stories high and contained 48 dormitory rooms in all, enough to provide living accommodations for 96 students.

Thomas Meredith, after visiting Wake Forest, wrote in the Biblical Recorder of November 18, 1835, that "The buildings are going forward under direction of Captain Berry, architect and contractor, with a regularity and dispatch which promise their completion by the time stipulated, January 1, 1837 . . . [The main building] will be a handsome and substantial structure, equally creditable to the ability of the contractor and to the enterprise and liberality of the Trustees. We consider it due to the parties concerned, to say, that the Board have been most happy in securing the services of Captain Berry. Few other men would have conducted the perplexing operation of a large building in the midst of 100 students, with the ease and dignified equanimity which have uniformly marked the movements of this gentle man, and which have secured him the universal respect of both students and instructors."

Captain Berry's granddaughter, Margaret Berry Street, writes, "The family tradition is . . . that when Captain Berry started to erect a building, he moved his family, his tools and equipment, and, of course, his men to the site and provided quarters for all to live there until the building was completed. He probably had a saw mill although I do not remember any specific statement as to this. He certainly had tools such as planes, saws and whatnot for dressing molding and beading the lumber and shaping it in whatever manner he desired for the buildings. He secured his lumber as near the site and had his brick made as nearby as possible because everything had to be carted to the job Virtually all his transportation was by wagons and teams. Only such things as nails, locks, windows and hardware were imported from without. It is not known how long it required him to build one of these structures, but certainly it took many months and some possibly two years or more. Having the brick made and allowing it to season, the lumber cut and probably largely air-cured, laying his foundation and allowing it to 'settle' for months before the building was started . . . all this necessarily took a long time. After the building was finished, the Captain took his family, his men, tools, equipment, wagons and teams and either went back home or to another job where the same procedure was repeated. To me the most interesting feature of his construction work is that with a very small amount of material brought from a distance, he converted timbers from the forest and clay from the ground into structures that are still sound after more than a hundred years. Captain Berry's attention to careful craftsmanship and painstaking detail has become a legend. The story is often told that he trained Negro slaves until they became fine craftsmen. In his Will,for example, he mentions "Joseph my carpenter" and "Ned my Tinner valued at $2,000."

In the case of the buildings Berry erected at Wake Forest, the bricks were made and the lumber cut in the immediate vicinity of the campus. The labor of making the brick and of building was done by the slaves of Captain Berry, two of whom lost their lives by a fall from the building. They were buried in the Wake Forest cemetery. The cost of the main building was $13,000. Until its destruction by fire on May 5, 1933, this was the principal building on the Wake Forest campus. Berry designed and built two faculty houses in Wake Forest, completing them in 1838 at a cost of 53,000 each. One of these impressive brick structures still stands near the southeast corner of the campus, and is the home of Dr. E. E. Folk, Professor of English at Wake Forest College.

Berry's liberality toward Wake Forest was shown in many ways. He, for example, allowed the Board additional time in which to pay for the work done without charging interest. From 1850 to 1862 he was an active member of the Wake Forest Board of Trustees. It was luring this period that he built Smith Hall on the University of North Carolina campus and St. John's College at Oxford.

Meantime, Captain Berry had continued his career as an architect and builder in his own community. He built the stone jail in Hillsborough and in 1845 completed there the Orange County Courthouse, regarded by many today as his masterpiece. The cornerstone was laid on September 7, 1844, by Captain Berry's own lodge, Eagle Lodge Number 19. The lodge also opened Masonic Hall for a festive dinner "on the temperance principle," served by Richison Nichols, owner of the Orange Hotel (now the Colonial Inn), and the building proceeded according to plan. In 1846, Lemuel Lynch brought out the clock from its storage place in a warehouse on King Street, ordered new parts, and two new dials for it, installed it, and the people of Orange had their courthouse which, the Recorder triumphantly said, "is not surpassed by any courthouse in the State, and . . . is perhaps not surpassed in the Union." Editor Dennis Heartt noted with particular pride and satisfaction that the architect and builder of the beautiful structure was one of Orange County's own.

The courthouse today is just as beautiful as the day it was finished Its photograph has appeared countless times in hooks on North Carolina architecture, in books on Greek Revival architecture, in hooks on public buildings, in North Carolina guidebooks, and so on and on. It has been called one of the most beautiful county courthouses ever built, and it probably is.

Said Talbot Harnlin in his Greek Revival al Architecture in America (Oxford University Press, 1944): "The courthouse (1845) at Hillsboro is one of the best of its type anywhere in the country. Its four-columned, widely spaced Greek Doric Portico, its unusually forceful and well-designed cupola, and its quiet brick walls are almost perfect of their kind."

During the last quarter-century of his life, John Berry followed two careers simultaneously. To his professional career as architect and builder, he added that of a public servant. In 1847 he served as Town Commissioner of Hillsborough and in 1848 was chosen for the State Senate over Hugh Waddell in a contested election He was State Senator again four more times, in 1850, 1852, 1864, and 1866. Berry and William A. Graham were the delegates from Orange County to the North Carolina Convention of May 20, 1861 which took the State out of the Union. In 1862 Berry was a member of the House of Commons and in 1865 he and S. F. Phillips were the delegates from Orange to the North Carolina Convention. Thus Berry served in various elective and appointive offices until excluded by the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States for having engaged in rebellion against it. "In all these public trusts," reads the account of his death in The Daily Sentinel, "he evinced the same diligence and attentiveness which governed his private business, a modest integrity and fineness in its maintenance, which inspired universal respect, . . ." Berry died January 11, 1870, as the result of cold and pneumonia contracted while working on a large store and ballroom which he was erecting in Hillsborough. Even though he had accumulated considerable property and had reached the age of 72, Berry continued "to handle the implements of the trade he had been taught, till the attack of illness which ended in his death."

His success as an architect and builder may be attributed to the fact that he applied himself diligently to learning architecture, trained his masons and carpenters as well, and worked beside them on the building site. Public trusts came because his character was such as to gain the respect and confidence of those with whom he associated.

Eva Ingersoll Gatling in an article entitled "John Berry of Hillsboro, North Carolina" (Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Volume X, Number 1), writes that "Berry's work was characterized by a simplicity which at times reached the point of austerity. He followed the trends of his time, working in all of the revival styles, but was more at home with the Greek. He drew heavily on Asher Benjamin for details, but he also created a style based on simplicity and fine craftsmanship which was well suited to the needs of his clients and essentially right for its surroundings, and which is still so after 100 years, particularly in Hillsboro, where so much of his work remains standing. He belongs to that group of anonymous builders who have made the American style."

The work Berry did for Wake Forest College was significant in the development of the institution. On December 20, 1838, the Board of Trustees still owed him $10,000, a debt destined to hamper the College during its first quarter of a century. "On the other hand," as Professor Paschal, historian of Wake Forest College, wrote, "these buildings were from the first the biggest material asset of the institution. In the eyes of the denomination and the people generally they gave local habitation and name to a purpose which without them would have seemed visionary. The institution which was now becoming a college could hardly have been maintained at all during the trying years 1838-50 had it not been for the completion of the noble building program of a few members of the Board who were men of vision.'' Thus we are reminded that the buildings which today constitute the material expression of Wake Forest College are important as a means of characterizing the quality of the work which is carried on within.

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