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William Williams: "A Firm Patriot — an Honest Man"

By Carl G. Karsch

Into his 45 years, a member with the unlikely name of William Williams crammed experiences others could only admire.

  • Promoted from Captain to Lt. Colonel in the Revolution; captured by the British, he escaped a few months later to re-join Washington's army;
  • A trend-setter for the new Federal style of architecture;
  • Attired in a suit of armor made of cardboard and astride a white horse, he led the parade celebrating ratification of the Constitution;
  • Designed and superintended construction of a lavish mansion offered to President-elect John Adams, who turned it down.

Williams, although the most illustrious master builder of his time, remains largely a shadow. His first two decades are blank; we must assume he was well recognized as a house carpenter before sailing for England to study with his mentor, Robert Adam. An exponent of a new lightness and freedom in using Classical elements, Adam set the fashion in Britain for public buildings and private homes. In Philadelphia, Williams became the champion of the new Federal style.

Now 23 years old, Williams returned (1772), ambitious and eager for work. The "Pennsylvania Packet" of January 4, 1773, published a lengthy advertisement in which he "proposes carrying on the business of house carpentry in the most useful and ornamental manner, as is now executed in the city of London . . . He also fits up shop fronts, from the plainest to the most elegant, according to original plans taken in London."

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The master builder boldly inscribed his name in a "Book of Ornaments" he purchased while studying in London. The volume is in the Carpenters' Hall library.

Williams' abilities were quickly recognized. One month after the advertisement, he was elected to the Carpenters' Company, whose new meeting place was nearing completion.

Ironically, Americans had no difficulty opposing British colonial policies while admiring fashions and furnishings of the mother country. And there was no shortage of grievances. The First Continental Congress (1774) specified fourteen in their petition to King George III. One grievance not included was the lack of American made textiles and manufactured goods. European powers of any era expected colonies to export raw materials in return for products of the homeland. America's chief exports: grain, timber, cotton and indigo. The policy was ideal for keeping colonies subservient — and profitable. England would fight a bitter war to retain her largest trading partner, America.

Williams built a house for himself on 2nd St. just below South St., opposite the home of Robert Smith, his future father-in-law. Smith was then the acknowledged master of Georgian architecture, a style replaced by Williams' "Federal." Smith died in February, 1777, while working on barracks for a new fort guarding the Delaware. Two months later, Williams married his neighbor's daughter, Hester Smith. (Read: "A Walk with Robert Smith")

That summer, as the British threat to Philadelphia increased, Williams apparently enlisted and received a captain's commission. In October — one month after General Howe marched his troops into the city — Washington attempted to re-take it. The battle of Germantown was a bitter defeat. One of the Americans taken prisoner was Captain Williams. Several months later he escaped, rejoining the army at Valley Forge. Williams was mustered out in 1780 with the rank of Lt. Colonel. Why was he promoted? No one knows.

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Cliveden, a mansion with sturdy stone walls, became a stronghold for British troops who repelled Washington's forces at the battle of Germantown. Williams was captured but soon escaped to re-join the Americans wintering at Valley Forge.

Once more a civilian, the man who modestly described himself as a house carpenter resumed his profession. From what is known, his remaining 17 years were busy. Again, however, there are more shadows than substance.

  • In the 400 block of Spruce St. are the only two surviving examples of Williams' domestic architecture.[1]
  • It's May, 1788. Eight states have ratified the Constitution; one more is needed to make it official. Charles Willson Peale, the city's foremost portrait artist, already has given plans to William Williams for a parade float symbolizing the new government. The parade is to be on July 4th — or will it? Then in the third week of June, Virginia and New Hampshire ratify. Being optimists, Williams and his journeymen carpenters probably had the float underway. But the deadline was tight.
  • On July 4th — twelve years from the Declaration of Independence — a float named the Grand Federal Edifice led the parade celebrating the new United States of America. Leading the procession, riding a white horse and clad in cardboard armor made by Peale was William Williams. In this way, a master artist honored a master builder. (Read: "The Federal Procession of 1788.")
  • Problem: Congress Hall is too small to accommodate delegates elected following the first Federal census (1790). Solution: enlarge the building by extending it southward 26 feet. Result: ample room for the House of Representatives and, on the second floor, a spacious Senate chamber. The Builder: William Williams and a colleague from the Carpenters' Company, Joseph Rakestraw.
  • New York and Philadelphia campaigned strenuously to become the nation's permanent capital. As enticements, both erected what they hoped would become the future "white house." Both efforts failed. The mansion at 9th & Market Sts. became the second home of the University of Pennsylvania.

    Design is credited to Williams, one of four Carpenters' Company members who set to work in the spring of 1792. Construction — from cornerstone to finishing touches — took nearly five years. Williams witnessed just the first two. He died October 18, 1794. His brother-in-law, John Smith, superintended completion, supervising as many as 20 carpenters on the costly, $100,000 project.
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A pair of town houses on Spruce St. portray the "house carpenter" in his prime. At right (No. 427) lived the first French consul general to the United States. Dolley Madison and her second husband, James Madison, lived next door (No. 429).
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For the Constitution's Bicentennial parade in Philadelphia (1988), the Carpenters' Company re-created the original Federal Edifice. The cupola represented the new central government. Ten states which voted for ratification received columns; space for the three which had not yet voted (New York, Rhode Island and North Carolina) remained vacant. Carved in the float's base was a motto which still resonates: "In Union the Fabric Stands Firm."

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Williams and his close associate, Joseph Rakestraw, died three years before the palatial presidential mansion was completed. Both died within a few months of each other (1794) during the annual yellow fever epidemic. Rejected by President-elect Adams, the structure was purchased (1800) by the University of Pennsylvania.

One day after Williams' death, he was buried in an unmarked grave, probably near that of his wife, in the "Friends burying ground" near 4th & Arch Sts. A week later appraisers listed assets, principally his three-story house "generously furnished:" But it's the items of little monetary worth which deserve attention: "Sundry Books & Drawings valued at 3 pounds in the Back Parlour"; in the garret "Sundry Carpenter's Tooles & c., 12 pounds"; and in the cellar an early edition of "Pain's Builder's Companion," which Williams probably brought home from London.

His most enduring possession, his reputation, is found in these words from Williams' obituary: "Society will long regret the loss of one of its most valuable members, a firm patriot — an honest man."


[1] Since this article was published, another residence built by William Williams has come to light. The Carpenters' Company is retracting Carl Karsch's statement, "In the 400 block of Spruce St. are the only two surviving examples of Williams' domestic architecture." In Old Philadelphia Houses on Society Hill, McCall states "... 425 Spruce Street was built in 1792 by William Williams, builder of a number of houses in the Society Hill area. It was then occupied by Chalmers Moore Wharton, member of a prominent Philadelphia family that has taken an active part in the City's history." (McCall, Elizabeth B., Old Philadelphia Houses on Society Hill, 1750 - 1840 (Architectural Book Publishing Co., Inc. New York, 1966), 69)

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