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