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
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"
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
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.