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Alexander Parris
Alexander Parris.jpg
Personal information
Name Alexander Parris
Nationality American
Birth date November 24, 1790(1790-11-24)
Birth place Halifax, Massachusetts
Date of death June 16, 1852 (aged 61)
Place of death Pembroke, Massachusetts
Buildings Virginia Executive Mansion
Quincy Market

Alexander Parris (November 24, 1780 - June 16, 1852) was a prominent American architect-engineer. Beginning as a housewright, he evolved into an architect whose work transitioned from Federal style architecture to the later Greek Revival. Parris taught Ammi B. Young, and was among the group of architects influential in founding what would become the American Institute of Architects. He is also responsible for the designs of many lighthouses along the coastal Northeastern United States.


Early life and work

Parris was born in Halifax, Massachusetts. When aged 16, he apprenticed to a housewright in Pembroke, but talent led him towards architecture. Married to Silvina Bonney Stetson in 1800, he moved to Portland, Maine, then experiencing a building boom. The city had been bombarded during the Revolution by the Royal Navy, reducing three-quarters to ashes in 1775. But following the war, its trade recovered, almost challenging Boston as the busiest port in New England. Parris received numerous residential and commercial commissions, working in the fashionable style of architect Charles Bulfinch. Like most housewrights of the era, he often used elements derived directly from English architectural books, or those published in the United States by Asher Benjamin. Unfortunately, some of his designs were lost in the Great Fire of 1866, but early photographs and Parris' surviving drawings bespeak works of neoclassical artistry and taste.

The Executive Mansion at Richmond, Virginia in c. 1905

The boom would end, however, with Jefferson's Embargo of 1807, which lasted 14 months and devastated Portland's mercantile base. Merchants went bankrupt. The Portland Bank, its building designed by Parris, failed. By 1809, construction in the city had come to a halt. Parris left for Richmond, Virginia, where he designed the Wickham House and the Executive Mansion. But architect Benjamin Latrobe examined Parris' preliminary plans for the Wickham House, which resembled his previous Federal style works in Portland, and gave it a blistering review. Latrobe's advice left a profound imprint on the future work of Parris, beginning with the building's revised design. Consequently, the Wickham House is considered a watershed design by Parris, marking the shift from his earlier Adamesque period towards his later, more severe, monumental and architectonic period. In the War of 1812, he served in Plattsburg, New York as a Captain of the Artificers (engineers), gaining knowledge of military requirements for engineering.

Boston and federal patronage

In 1815, he moved to Boston, where he found a position in the office of Charles Bulfinch. Like his famous employer, Parris produced refined residences, churches and commercial buildings. When in 1817 Bulfinch was called to Washington to work on the U.S. Capitol Building, Parris helped complete the Bulfinch Building at Massachusetts General Hospital. With Bulfinch's departure, Parris soon became the city's leading architect, and a proponent of what would be called "Boston Granite Style," with austere, monolithic stonework.

Quincy Market in 1830, Boston, Massachusetts

In 1824, however, he began a twenty year association working for the Boston Navy Yard in Charlestown. He would end his career as chief engineer at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. With the federal government as patron, Parris produced plans for numerous utilitarian structures, from storehouses to ropewalks, and was superintendent of construction at one of the nation's first drydocks, located at the Charlestown base. Today, he is fondly remembered for his stalwart stone lighthouses, commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. They are often of a tapered form termed "windswept."

Parris balanced the delicacy of his "superb draftsmanship," as it was called, with the coarseness of his building material of choice: granite. His most famous building, Quincy Market, is made of it. Parris died in Pembroke, where he is interred in the Briggs Burying Ground.


United First Parish Church, 1828, Quincy, Massachusetts -- exterior
-- and interior


  • Richard M. Candee, "Maine Towns, Maine People -- Architecture and the Community, 1783-1820," a chapter in Maine in the Early Republic; Maine Historical Society & Maine Humanities Council; University Press of New England, Hanover & London 1988
  • Arthur Gerrier, "Alexander Parris' Portland Years, 1801-1809," Landmarks Observer (Greater Portland Landmarks, Inc.), VIII, November-December 1981, pp. 10-11
  • Edward F. Zimmer, Pamela J. Scott, "Alexander Parris, B. Henry Latrobe and the John Wickham House in Richmond, Virginia," The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 41, No. 3 (October, 1982), pp. 202-211

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