Though born in New York City in 1804, architect John Norris found his calling—and his source of fame—in the South. He began his career as a stonemason in New York and later worked as a builder (general contractor) before billing himself as an architect and concentrating on the design of buildings rather than their actual construction. One of his first commissions of note was the customs house in Wilmington, North Carolina, which brought his work and style to the attention of Savannah’s authorities who were seeking a new customs house in that crucial port as well.
Savannah offered Norris the commission, and his customs house there—still in active use as a customs house today—is a fine example of his approach to architecture. In addition, this customs house is steeped in local history: for example, Colonel John H. Deveaux, the first African-American director of a Customs Service office, served here following the Civil War. Such is the case with most of Norris’s built works, especially three of his houses, the Andrew Low House, the Green-Meldrim House, and the Mercer House.
Norris’s path from the vocation of stonemason to the profession of architect was not especially rare in his time. There were few professional schools of architecture in the United States and little regulation compared to today’s highly-regulatory climate. One of the most certain means of learning about buildings and their design was to work in the various trades which built them, and many ambitious men who started as skilled laborers found mechanisms to become builders or contractors. Some even progressed to the title of “architect” as Norris did.
That said, Norris’s origins as a stonemason are very evident in his work. The Savannah Customs House especially displays the attentions of a man versed in stone-craft with its heavy use of grey granite. The Greek Revival building’s use of granite while stately and appropriate for its role as a Federal building and seat of law enforcement was not simply an aesthetic choice. Norris was a leading proponent of fireproofing of his time, and as Savannah had by 1848 (when the customs house was constructed) already suffered several severe fires, the local authorities fully agreed with Norris on the merits of a fireproof building.
The design and material construction of the customs house produced both an impressive and lasting edifice: the building today functions much as it did over a hundred years ago. The granite used in its construction—including its exterior and interior stairs and its imposing columns—was quarried in Massachusetts and shipped by sailing ships to the port of Savannah. No expense was spared, and at its completion in 1852 it certainly would have been one of the most impressive buildings in Savannah, if not in all of the coastal South.
The intricate and stately architecture did not go unnoticed by men of means, and several commissioned Norris to design their homes. Hugh Weedon Mercer—who would rise to fame as a Confederate general and was the grandfather of acclaimed songwriter Johnny Mercer—commissioned the home now known as the Mercer House and made famous in the book and film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as the home of antiques dealer and preservationist Jim Williams. Two other wealthy local men, Andrew Low and Charles Green, also commissioned Norris to design their palatial homes.
Andrew Low was a wealthy Savannah merchant who had begun his career as a lowly immigrant boy from Scotland, working in a store which he eventually bought and turned into a leading mercantile and shipping company, and the Andrew Low house represents that affluence in its Italianate stucco architecture. At one point, Low was the wealthiest man in all of Savannah, and his house certainly had the trappings of his wealth, with a prime location on Lafayette Square, a regal interior, an expansive carriage house, and most of all, the elite status of a well-known architect having designed it. Great men such as William Makepeace Thackerey and General Robert E. Lee would be guests at this home, and the founder of the Girl Scouts of America, Juliette Gordon Low, was a member of the family—the first meetings of the Girl Scouts were hosted in the Andrew Low House’s carriage house.
The Green-Meldrim House has plenty of history of its own. It is one of the best examples of Gothic Revival architecture in the South, displaying Norris’s vast creative abilities to go from the Greek Revival stylings of the customs house with its pomp and grandeur appropriate for its federal mission to the Italianate Low House to a fanciful take on European Gothic for the Green-Meldrim House, plus many other projects where he was just as varied in his stylistic approaches. The Green home was, prior to the Civil War, one of the finest homes in Savannah and occupied a prime location on Madison Square on Bull Street, making it close to important homes, churches, and businesses.
When General William Sherman marched to Savannah and captured the city—famously sparing it from burning and pillaging as he had treated other cities in South Carolina and Georgia—Sherman decided to make his headquarters in the Green House. The house was large enough and its yards and wrought-iron fence provided the type of set-back and opportunity for sentries that would appeal to an invading general in a city hostile to his presence. It was from the house indeed that Sherman wrote the telegram to Lincoln declaring Savannah a “Christmas present,” and noted Civil-War artist and war correspondent William Waud visited the home and sketched Sherman and his troops while they were there.
Judge Peter Meldrim bought the house in 1892, and he and his family lived there until his heirs sold it to the Saint John’s Episcopal Church next door, which uses it now as a museum (it is open for tours, as are the Low and Mercer houses) and event space. The continuity of owners who have cared for the home and tended to it with appropriate stewardship has resulted in refined and accurate preservation of its lavish interior.
John Norris continued to design noteworthy buildings in the South, but eventually returned to his native New York state where he purchased a farm in Rockland County, which at the time was still fairly rural despite its proximity to New York City, and lived there until his death. Norris’s architecture came along at a crucial time in the pre-war development of style, affluence, and power in the South. His works, such as the Savannah customs house, used architecture to convey economic might built upon cotton and other commodities in Southern port cities of the time. Charles Green was a cotton merchant and Andrew Low made his fortune in wholesale, retail, and shipping businesses which would not have been possible anywhere other than a leading port. The growth and wealth of the coastal South prior to the outbreak of war was the mortar which held every brick and expensive piece of granite together in Norris’s fine architecture, and the South is richer for it, and richer still to have so many of his buildings preserved for history.
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