Richard Upjohn

Richard Upjohn (1802-1878) was an English-born American architect whose expressive vocabulary of Gothic design helped to make this style popular in the mid-19th century.

Richard Upjohn was born in Shaftesbury, Dorset-shire, on Jan. 22, 1802. At the age of 27 he went to America with his wife and son. Upjohn became a skilled cabinetmaker before entering the profession of architecture, which explains his penchant for precise, meticulous architectural decoration. Detailed Gothic buildings probably gave him more pleasure to design and construct than the currently popular Greek revival style, whose proportions he could approve but whose paucity of decoration was to him absurd.

In 1830 Upjohn settled in New Bedford, Mass., where he was listed as a carpenter and worked in the office of an oil and lumber merchant. Within 3 years Upjohn began designing buildings. The first was a house for Isaac Farrar in Bangor, Maine (1833-1836), in the prevailing Greek revival style. His first church was St. John's, Bangor (1836-1838; destroyed), in the Gothic style, with which he was thereafter identified.

In 1839 Upjohn moved to New York when he was asked to design a new Trinity Church (1839-1846). It is now considered his finest ecclesiastical work. In plan, decoration, and character it is modeled after the church building concepts of the English Ecclesiologists, who believed in returning directly to medieval architecture and liturgy for inspiration. The effect is clear and precise, though to some extent it lacks integration between ornament and structure.

Trinity Church set the tone for numerous other Gothic churches throughout America, and it helped Upjohn get a large number of commissions which placed him at the top of his profession. His other notable churches are the Church of the Ascension, New York City (1840-1841); Christ Church, Brooklyn (1841-1842); Grace Church, Providence, R.I. (1847-1848); Grace Church, Utica, N.Y. (1856-1860); St. Peter's, Albany, N.Y. (1859-1860); Central Congregational Church, Boston, Mass. (1865-1867); and St. Thomas's, New York City (1868-1870)—all designed in variations of the Gothic theme.

Upjohn's public and commercial buildings were generally done in an Italianate style with semicircular, arched windows and doors. They are monotonous in the repetition of motifs and lack compensating decoration.

Sporadic attempts to form an association of professional architects were made for 2 decades before Upjohn and 12 other New York architects organized as the American Institute of Architects in 1857, with Upjohn as first president. The list of members soon included all the best architects of the era, and the institute is still central to all professional activity in the country.

Rural Architecture (1852) is Upjohn's only complete book, though many drawings and photographic views of his buildings appeared in contemporary magazines. He died in Garrison, N.Y., on Aug. 16, 1878. His most important pupil was his son Richard M. Upjohn.


Further Reading on Richard Upjohn

The definitive book on Upjohn is Everard M. Upjohn, Richard Upjohn: Architect and Churchman (1939; repr. 1968).