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Architecture

John Niernsee: Architect, Engineer and Surveyor

MC7580 Evergreen House

Evergreen House at 4545 N. Charles Street was designed by Baltimore architect John Niernsee and his partner John Crawford Neilson in the 1850s. In 1878 the mansion was purchased by John Work Garret, President of the B&O Railroad. It remained in the Garrett family until 1942, when it was donated to Johns Hopkins University – today it serves as a museum and library.
Evergreen House, front exterior view, circa 1910, BCLM Collection, MC 7580, MdHS.

John Rudolph Niernsee (1814-1885) was one of Baltimore’s most prolific and successful architects. Over the course of his nearly 50 year career he contributed to the designs of more than 150 homes, churches, commercial and public buildings and railroad stations including Camden Station, the Greenmount Cemetery Chapel, the Carrollton Hotel, Maryland Jockey Club Clubhouse, and Grace and St. Peter’s Church. Neirnsee & Neilson, the architectural firm founded by Niernsee and his partner John Crawford Neilson in 1847 became Baltimore’s “pioneering architectural firm which set the standard for professional and design for generations to come.”(1)

Born in Vienna, Austria, Niernsee came to America in 1836, a young man educated in engineering and  architecture at the University of Prague. He joined the staff at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad serving under its chief engineer Benjamin H. Latrobe II, son of nationally famous architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820). America’s first railroad, the B&O came into being primarily as a way to compete with the newly constructed Erie Canal serving New York City. The railroad grew rapidly, extending westward over the Potomac River through Virginia to Harpers Ferry where it circled back into Cumberland, Maryland.

PP15.5 J. Rudolph Niernsee, Carte de visite.

John Rudolph Niernsee, circa 1865-1870, PP15.5, MdHS.

PVF James Crawford Neilsen and Albert

James Crawford Neilson with his son Albert, circa 1860, Portrait Vertical File, MdHS.

Niernsee’s work at the B&O later became his stepping stone to a long and successful architectural career in Baltimore. When first offered a position at the B&O, Niernsee inquired what was to be the term of that position, and was told that he would be assured of at least three years of work starting at $3.00 per day with the prospect of a raise. He was to become the official draftsman of the Baltimore office.

While at the B&O Niernsee met James Crawford Neilson (1816-1900), another fledgling architect. In 1847 they opened an architectural practice together, that essentially served the B&O Railroad. This office became the first professional architectural practice in Baltimore where interns and apprentices trained and draftsmen were employed. Niernsee was a founding member of the American Institute of Architects in 1854 and he and Neilson, who joined A.I.A. one year later, became charter members of the Baltimore Chapter of the A.I.A when it was organized in 1870.

The Niernsee-Neilson partnership thrived in the years 1848-1856 creating such notable structures as the Chapel of Green Mount Cemetery, Camden Station, Evergreen House, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, and Church of the Holy Trinity in Augusta, Georgia. Many of their works are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Camden Station, not dated, BCLM Collection, MC1260, MdHS.

In 1855, Niernsee and Neilson submitted designs to the B&O for a new centrally located railroad station in Baltimore. Completed in 1867, Camden Station, remained one of the longest serving passenger terminals in the U.S. until the 1980s.
Camden Station, not dated, BCLM Collection, MC1260, MdHS.

In 1854, Niernsee’s work at the B&O attracted the attention of South Carolina Governor John L. Manning who sent for him to investigate ongoing construction problems in the South Carolina State House. He was offered a fee of $600.00 and was awarded the project then in its’ second year of design and construction. Moving to Columbia with his family to work on the project, Niernsee remained there until 1865 during which time he earned a commission of Major in the Confederate Army. Meanwhile, his partner James Neilson remained in Baltimore where he designed a number of buildings, including the Mt. Zion Episcopal Church, additions to the Maryland Club, the American Colonization Society Building, and Aigburth Vale, a Second Empire style mansion in Towson.

MC2485-1 Mansion House Clifton Park

In 1858, merchant and philanthropist Johns Hopkins hired Niernsee and Neilson to renovate his summer estate located in what is today Clifton Park. Their design, an Italianate villa complete with an 80 foot tall tower, was finished in the late 1850s. The estate, originally intended as the site of the Johns Hopkins University, was eventually sold to Baltimore City in 1895 for use as a public park.
Mansion House, Clifton Park, ca 1906, BCLM Collection, MC2485-1, MdHS.

Niernsee’s work as chief architect of the State House project was interrupted by the Civil War. In February 1865, Union General William Sherman and his forces invaded Columbia. The State House, still under construction, presented a very tempting target for the Yankee soldiers. Sherman’s troops wreaked havoc on the building, bombing it, shattering the ornamental sills and balustrades on the principal corridor on the first floor, and destroying Niernsee’s papers. In April 1865, occupying soldiers defaced the walls of the building, and the bronze statue of George Washington in front of the structure was pelted with rocks and hit by sharp shooters. Washington’s cane was broken during the melee and remains so today, a reminder of those terrible times. The work on the  state house project was eventually halted because of the war and the unsettling times that followed. Niernsee returned to Baltimore late in 1865 and his partnership with Neilson picked up again. They took in a number of interns who developed into prominent architects; R. Snowden Andrews, Eben Faxon, Bruice Price and for a short time, E. Francis Baldwin, who in 1872 followed in Niernsee’s footsteps as the chief architect for the B&O.

The next ten years were productive ones for the firm having received commissions to design banks, hotels, schools, and residential products, but in 1874 the partnership with Neilson dissolved and Neirnsee brought his son Frank in to the practice.

New State House, Columbia, South Carolina, not dated, PP15.4, MdHS.

New State House, Columbia, South Carolina, not dated, PP15.4, MdHS.

Working with Johns Hopkins’ Dr. John Shaw Billings (1838-1913) the senior Neirnsee collaborated on the design of the new Johns Hopkins Hospital along with the Boston Firm of Cabot and Chandler. This, the original building at the Hospital, opened in 1889.

In 1882 Niernsee moved his family back to South Carolina so he could resume work on the State House; this time with the assistance of his son Frank. Senior developed severe stomach problems and died shortly thereafter in 1885. He is buried at  St.Peter’s Catholic Church in Columbia. After his father’s death, Frank was appointed along with some other architects to complete the structure; he remained in South Carolina until his death in 1899. In all it took 53 years (from 1854 to 1907) and a total of six architects to complete the state house project that both father and son worked on. (Sidney Levy)

Sidney Levy is a volunteer in the Special Collections Department at the Maryland Historical Society.

Academy of Music, 516 N. Howard Street, not dated (taken before 1930), BCLM Collection, CC2982, MdHS.

The Niernsee and Neilson designed Academy of Music, located in the heart of Baltimore’s theater district on Howard Street, was completed in the early 1870s. In the 1920s the building was torn down and replaced by the Stanley Theatre. The Stanley was itself demolished in 1965; today the site is a parking lot.
Academy of Music, 516 N. Howard Street, not dated (taken before 1930), BCLM Collection, CC2982, MdHS.

Greenmount Cemetery Chapel, designed by Niernsee and Neilson in the early 1850s. Photograph, 2008, not from MdHS collection.

Greenmount Cemetery Chapel, designed by Niernsee and Neilson in the early 1850s.
Photograph, 2008, from Wikipedia.

Villa Anneslie, designed by Niernsee in 1855, was built on the grounds of the former estate of Govane Howard. It is located on Dunkirk Road in Towson. Like many of Niernsee's creations, it can be found on the National Register of Historic Places. Photograph, 2009, from Wikipedia.

Villa Anneslie, designed by Niernsee in 1855, was built on the grounds of the former estate of Govane Howard. It is located on Dunkirk Road in Towson. Like many of Niernsee’s creations, it can be found on the National Register of Historic Places.
Photograph, 2009, from Wikipedia.

John Rudolph Niernsee, not dated, Portrait Vertical File, MdHS.

John Rudolph Niernsee, not dated, Portrait Vertical File, MdHS.

Footnotes:

Chalfant, Randolph W. & Charles Belfoure, Niernsee and Neilson, Architects of Baltimore (Baltimore Architecture Foundation, Baltimore: 2006), viii.

Discussion

3 Responses to “John Niernsee: Architect, Engineer and Surveyor”

  1. Thanks very much for this. It is well done.

    Posted by Rod | 05. Nov, 2015, 9:50 am
  2. Niernsee was a notable architect, but he was no surveyor. Baltimore surveyors of the time are well documented and he is not among them. You should correct the headline on that. In fact, I’ve never heard of him referred to as an engineer either. “John Niernsee, Architect” is correct, and sufficient.

    Posted by Joel Leininger | 05. Nov, 2015, 2:58 pm
    • Thanks for reading our blog and contributing your comments. Actually, Niernsee was educated as an engineer and architect at the University of Prague. In 1839 he served on B&O engineering staff. He also served as a military engineer for the Confederacy from 1864 to 1865. He also did surveying for the Baltimore and Port Deposit Railroad in 1835 and conducted railroad surveys for the Federal Government in 1836-839 (This information can be found in “Niernsee and Neilson, Architects of Baltimore”).But, the title of the post is misleading, as he was primarily known as an architect. We’ll change it to “John Niernsee: Architect, Engineer, and Surveyor.”

      Posted by mdhslibrarydept | 06. Nov, 2015, 1:11 pm

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