John S Norris (1804-1876) was one of Savannah’s most prolific architects in the antebellum period, designing many of the most notable buildings and homes of that era.
Norris was active in Savannah from the mid 1840s through the 1850s. Though many of Savannah’s other architects are associated with a single style, Norris produced works in several, employing Italianate, Greek Revival and Gothic Revival details in his buildings.
Around two dozen buildings in Savannah were designed by, or are attributed to, John Norris, who also had one of the longest careers in Savannah of any 19th-century architect.
He may have drawn up many other designs besides these. Documentation at that time did not always adequately record who was the principal architect for a given work, and in many cases has not been preserved.
Norris’s use of a variety of styles in his work makes the attribution of undocumented buildings to him more difficult than it is with architects such as William Jay, who worked in a more consistent style.
Not all of Norris’s known (or attributed) works have survived, but many can still be seen around Savannah today, including some of his best and most widely-known creations, such as the Green-Meldrim House on Madison Square, the Mercer-Williams House on Monterey Square and his very first commission in Savannah, the United States Custom House.
See below: List of John Norris’s architectural works
Life & Career Of John Norris
John Norris was born in 1804 in the vicinity of New York City. Little is known about his early life. He married his first wife, Henrietta, while still in New York. Henrietta’s untimely death left Norris a widower, and around 1837, he remarried. His second wife, Sarah Ann, was also a native of New York State.
The Norrises had two daughters together: Josephine, in 1838 and Eveline, in 1841. Norris made his home in New York, where Sarah and the children remained while he traveled to other cities to work.
As was common at the time, Norris’s first ventures into the architectural business began with work as a mason and builder. He may have worked on several projects in the New York area, possibly including buildings for which he was the principal architect (he listed himself as an architect in a New York City directory in 1847), but so far, none has been found.
By the late 1830s, Norris had advanced to the position of lead supervisor on high-profile building projects, which would provide him with his entrance into the field of professional architecture and allow him to establish his own, independent office.
Norris’s first documented employment was in Wilmington, North Carolina. He arrived in Wilmington in 1839, having traveled there to work as superintendent on the construction of the St James Episcopal Church.
That building, completed in 1840, was one of Wilmington’s earliest buildings to have been designed by an imported northern architect, in this case Thomas U Walter. Norris’s duties including selecting the construction materials and overseeing the work of the chief brickmason and carpenter and their workmen.
In the few years after, Norris divided his time between Wilmington and his family, back home in New York. He was able to obtain several other commissions in Wilmington, though these are not all reliably documented.
One known work was the Bank of Cape Fear Building, which Norris was employed to remodel in 1840 after its partial destruction in a major fire. Later, Norris’s acquaintances in Wilmington encouraged him to enter the design competition through which he would obtain his first documented major commission as lead architect, for the new Wilmington Custom House.
While still in Wilmington working on its Custom House, Norris submitted a design entry for another competition, again for a Custom House, but this time in Savannah.
Norris’s design was selected, and he traveled to Savannah in 1846, in time for the planned start of construction. He took temporary lodgings in the Pulaski House Hotel, returning every now and then to Wilmington to supervise progress on his earlier work, still at that time underway.
Norris’s design for Savannah’s Custom House attracted the attention of city residents. He received numerous Savannah commissions thereafter and was able to establish a thriving office there.
In his earlier years in Savannah, Norris produced designs for local organizations such as the Georgia Historical Society and the Chatham Artillery, and designed a pair of lighthouses constructed as aids to navigation up the Savannah River. Later, the majority of his commissions were for residential properties.
During at least some of his time in Savannah, Norris rented office space in the Sorrel-Weed House on Madison Square, which provided a convenient base for his work on the adjacent Green-Meldrim House, one of the earliest Gothic-inspired buildings in Georgia.
He also designed modifications to the Sorrel-Weed House itself. Norris’s addition was its sandstone columns and decorative entrances, the original exterior being plain.
Over the course of his decade and a half in Savannah, Norris found plenty of work as an architect, designing numerous houses for the city’s wealthier residents alongside an array of institutional, religious and commercial buildings.
During most of this period, he appears to have traveled with regularity between his home in New York and his office in Savannah; there is no known record of Norris’s family having moved with him to the South.
Norris’s final documented work in Savannah was the Mercer-Williams House, constructed from around 1859 and completed after the Civil War. In 1860, as war began to threaten, Norris left Savannah, returning north to his wife and children in New York.
How Norris spent the next few years is not known. The Norrises’ youngest daughter, Josephine, died in 1865, then in her mid twenties. Sarah died the following year, at 52. Around this time, Norris moved to a farm in Blauvelt, in Rockland County, New York, which he had purchased in 1853.
John Norris lived out his remaining decade on that farm, on which he lived with his surviving daughter, Eveline (now Simmons), and her husband and children. Norris died on July 25, 1876, leaving the farm to Eveline. He is buried in the graveyard of the Greenbush Presbyterian Church, together with his family.
Works Of John Norris
1839-1840 – Supervision of construction of St James Episcopal Church, 25 South 3rd Street. Norris superintended construction of this Gothic Revival church, designed by Philadelphia architect Thomas U Walter. It is now Wilmington’s oldest surviving church.
1840 – Remodeling of Bank of Cape Fear Building. John Norris produced designs in the Italianate style for the renovation of this bank, one of many buildings damaged by a destructive fire in downtown Wilmington in early 1840. It has since been demolished.
1841 – Masonic Hall, formerly on Front Street. The design for this Gothic-inspired building erected for a local chapter of the Free Masons is loosely attributed to Norris. It has since been demolished.
c1842 – Armand deRosset House, 23 South 2nd Street, currently the City Club inn and restaurant. This Greek Revival house is attributed to John Norris.
1843-1847 – Wilmington Custom House, formerly on Water Street. The Wilmington Custom House was Norris’s first major documented commission. The Greek Revival building was demolished in 1915 to make way for a larger US Custom House, the facade of which echoes Norris’s earlier work.
c1850 – PK Dickinson House, formerly at Front and Chestnut Streets. This three-story house is loosely attributed to John Norris on the grounds that its facade had similarities to his design for the Bank of Cape Fear Building. The building was demolished in 1900 to make way for the Murchison National Bank Building.
1846-1852 – United States Custom House, 1-5 East Bay Street. Savannah’s Greek Revival Custom House was Norris’s first work in the city. He won the commission through a design competition.
1846-1849 – Georgia Historical Society Library, formerly on East Bryan Street. Norris designed a Gothic Revival library building for the Georgia Historical Society, built on a lot originally allocated to the US Custom House. The Society later moved to a new building on Forsyth Park.
1847-1849 – Chatham Artillery, formerly on Wright Square. This two-story armory in the Gothic Revival style was erected for the Chatham Artillery, a local volunteer company. It has since been demolished.
1848-1849 – Oyster Beds Lighthouse, formerly in the Savannah River. This small, square navigational tower on Oyster Beds island was built as a complement to the (surviving) Cockspur Island Lighthouse.
1848-1849 – Cockspur Island Lighthouse, immediately east of Cockspur Island. This small, round tower was erected as a navigational aid for ships coming into Savannah’s port. It is no longer in active service.
1849 – Andrew Low House, 325 Abercorn Street (open to visitors). This house, mostly in the Greek Revival style, was built for cotton factor Andrew Low and later occupied by founder of the Girl Scouts of the USA, Juliette Gordon Low. Norris is believed to be the architect.
1849 – Joseph Fay House, 1-3 West Liberty Street, currently occupied by the Knights of Columbus. This large house a block north of Madison Square is attributed to John Norris.
1851 – Unitarian Meeting House, 311 East Harris Street, currently the Unitarian Universalist Church. John Norris either designed or supervised the construction of this Gothic-inspired church, originally built on Oglethorpe Square for the Unitarians. The building was subsequently purchased by St Stephens Episcopal Church, who moved it to its current location on Troup Square. The Unitarian Church later bought back their former meeting house, and use it to this day.
1853 – Alexander A Smets House, 2-4 East Jones Street, currently SCAD’s Morris Hall. The design for this red brick Italianate corner house is attributed to Norris. It formerly housed one of the best collections of rare books in the South, amassed by its original owner Alexander Smets.
c1853-1856 – Green-Meldrim House, 14 West Macon Street (open to visitors). John Norris designed this Gothic style house – said to be the best such design in the South – for Charles Green, who in the mid-19th century was one of the wealthiest men in Savannah. General William Sherman occupied the house during the Civil War.
1855-1872 – First Presbyterian Church. Norris prepared plans for this Gothic-inspired church in 1855, but construction was halted due to financial problems. In 1872, long after Norris had returned to the north, construction resumed. This later work is frequently credited to Norris’s associate DeWitt Bruyn, but it is possible he used Norris’s own, earlier, plans. The building has since been demolished.
1855 – Presbyterian Manse, West Oglethorpe Avenue.
1855-1856 – Massie School House, 201-213 East Gordon Street, currently the Massie Heritage Center (open to visitors). The Massie School was one of Savannah’s first schools, founded through the benefaction of Peter Massie.
1857 – William F Brantley House, 20 West Gaston Street. This Italianate townhouse mansion was built on the north side of Forsyth Park by William Brantley, for AR Lawton.
1857 – Noah B Knapp House, 10 West Jones Street. This sidehall townhouse, combining Greek Revival and Italianate elements, is attributed to John Norris.
1857 – Edmund Molyneux House, 450 Bull Street, currently the Oglethorpe Club. This house, attributed to Norris, was constructed for the English Consul Edmund Molyneux. General Henry Reade Rootes Jackson bought the house, which was later operated as the Oglethorpe Club, one of Savannah’s most prominent private social clubs.
1858 – Abrahams Home for Indigent Females, 548 East Broughton Street, currently SCAD’s Norris Hall. This large, Greek Revival structure served as a care home for elderly women for more than a century.
1858 – Charles W Rogers Houses, 423-425 Bull Street. These paired houses were built for the Reverend Charles Rogers, a Presbyterian clergyman, in the Greek Revival style. Their exterior cast iron detail is especially notable.
1858 – Charles B King House, 11 West Gordon Street. Built for Presbyterian minister Charles King, and attributed to John Norris.
1858 – John B Gallie House, 201-203 East Charlton Street. This house on the south side of Lafayette Square is attributed to John Norris on account of its similarities to the Andrew Low House, a few yards west. John Gallie, its owner, was killed only a few years later in the 1863 Battle of Fort McAllister.
c1858-1860 – Addition to the Screven House Hotel, formerly on Johnson Square. The Screven House hotel was originally a nondescript, two-story structure, constructed in the early 1850s; two more stories were added in 1857. Norris’s addition was an adjacent, four-story Italianate building. It has since been demolished.
1858-59 – Stoddard’s Lower Range, 220-230 East Bay Street. Both this and the slightly later Upper Range were constructed in the Italianate style for businessman and planter John Stoddard. They were originally used as warehouses.
1859 – Stoddard’s Upper Range, 12-42 East Bay Street. The second warehouse built for John Stoddard.
c1859-1866 – Mercer-Williams House, 429 Bull Street (open to visitors). This Italianate mansion was designed for General Hugh Mercer. Construction was halted by the Civil War, and Mercer sold the house before it was complete. The house is best known today as the scene of the real-life shooting depicted in the book and movie, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Mary Lane Morrison, John S. Norris: Architect in Savannah, 1846-1860 (New York: Beehive Press, 1980).
J Marshall Bullock with Janet K Seapker and Catherine W Bishir, Norris, John S (1804-1876), North Carolina Architects & Builders: A Biographical Dictionary, 2009.