Ithiel Town, born on October 3, 1784, was an American architect of the early 19th century who was a significant figure in the Greek and Gothic Revivals in this country. He was among the first professional architects here and started the first architectural firm, later joined by Alexander Jackson Davis, another seminal figure in 19th-century American architecture. His work was executed around the country at a time when the young nation was growing exponentially and establishing its own identity in a number of ways including, its architecture.
Town was born in Connecticut and studied with Boston architect Asher Benjamin, who published several builders’ guides. In 1820 Town patented his lattice truss system for bridge construction, which would earn him national fame and a considerable fortune. This fortune lent well to his passion for collecting architectural and art books and engravings which he amassed largely over the course of his travels in Europe. One source said this library included some 11,000 volumes as well as thousands of loose engravings.
Town established a practice in New York in 1826 and took Martin Thompson as his partner; later, in 1829, he partnered with Alexander Jackson Davis. Town was one of the founders of the National Academy of Design and encouraged the study of art and architecture through European traditions found in his library, which was virtually open to the public at the firm’s New York office. The firm would be responsible for many buildings around the country employing the Greek and Gothic Revival styles. Here are a few those that were built in New York City:
Tower and Steeple at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery 131 East 10th Street – St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery was constructed 1795-99 and designed by John McComb. In 1807 the tower designed by Town was added, consisting of four massive elegant pedestals with minimal Greek detail. The top pedestal has a clock face on each facet. In 1828 the crowning jewel was added in the form of a pyramid spire, designed by Town and Martin Thompson which terminates in a ball and cross finial.
Church of the Ascension (demolished in 1839 following a fire) Canal Street near Broadway – Built between 1828 and 1829, this Greek Revival style temple front church was designed by Town and Martin. Six Doric columns spanned the front facade supporting an entablature adorned with triglyphs and supporting a classical pediment. It was referred to by another renowned 19th-century architect, Minard Lefever as the finest piece of Greek work in New York and Lefever included it in his 1830 Young Builder’s Builder’s General Instructor.
University Building (demolished 1894) formerly at the northeast corner of Washington Square – This building was erected 1833-36 and designed by James Dakin with assistance from Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis for the University of the City of New York, now New York University. It was built of white marble in the English Collegiate Gothic style and featured a large central temple. It has been credited with being the first Greenwich Village artists’ enclave since from the beginning the upper stories were set aside as artist’s studios.
US Customs House (Federal Hall) 28 Wall Street – Designed in 1834 and completed in 1842, this structure is one of the finest existing examples of Greek Revival architecture in New York City. Two temple front facades are at either end of the building with eight Doric columns supporting a classical entablature and pediment and modeled after the Parthenon in Greece. At the center of the interior is a rotunda supported by Corinthian columns and modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. This building served as the city’s first customs house at a time when New York and the nation’s economic activity were expanding rapidly. From 1862 to 1920 it served as the New York office of the United States Sub-Treasury, and in 1939 it became a National Historic Site. It was one of the first buildings designated a New York City Landmark in 1965.
Town eventually moved all of his libraries to his home in New Haven Connecticut where he died in 1844, and much of his collection was donated to Yale University.