Print / View Finding Aid as Single Page

New-York Historical Society logo

Guide to the John McComb Architectural Drawings Collection
1766-1829
 PR 40

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Jenny Gotwals and Susan Kriete

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on October 18, 2018
Finding aid written in English.

Biographical/Historical Note

John McComb (Oct. 17, 1763-May 25, 1853) was the principal architect in New York City between 1800 and his retirement in the 1820s. He also became one of the most important architects of the Federal period in the United States. Most of McComb's designs show a heavy reliance on English forms, especially that of Robert Adam. His style has been described as late colonial-neoclassical. McComb's father, John McComb Sr. (1734-1811) was also an architect, builder, and surveyor in colonial and post-Revolutionary New York City. McComb began his career as a bricklayer. He first made a reputation as a churchbuilder in the 1760s. After the Revolutionary War McComb Sr. helped organize the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. McComb Sr. worked as a city surveyor for a number of years and was commissioned to repair the Bridewell Asylum, among other New York buildings damaged in the War.

John McComb Jr., the eldest of three children, was born in New York City, and became his father's assistant in 1783. His independent work began around 1790, when he was commissioned to build the Government House, an intended home for the new United States president. The building was not finished before the federal government moved to Pennsylvania, but New York governors used the house until 1797 when the state capitol was moved to Albany. Another major activity of McComb Jr. during the 1790s was building lighthouses. McComb's lighthouses at Montauk Point (1795) and Eaton's Neck (1797-8), New York and at Cape Henry, Virginia (1791-2) are all still standing.

McComb's early work also included townhouses, double houses, and more opulent country houses. He built a stately town house for John B. Coles, lawyer and politician, at 1 State Street (1797-9) and another for U.S. Senator Rufus King (1795). McComb designed Rev. Benjamin Moore's house on 9th Avenue and 20th Street (1794) and The Grange, Alexander Hamilton's country estate in Harlem (1801-2). McComb's unorthodox interest in unusual room shapes is evident in his many untitled residential drawings.

In 1800 the New York City Common Council held a design competition for a new City Hall. The joint entry by Joseph Francois Mangin (who purportedly drew most of the original designs) and John McComb was awarded the top prize of $350 in 1802. Subsequently, McComb was named as chief architect and superintendent of construction. The design combines McComb's Federal style with a French Neoclassicism that was undoubtedly Mangin's contribution. Construction took a decade; the exterior construction was finished in 1811, interiors were completed the following year. While supervising City Hall construction, McComb was concurrently involved in many other projects. He designed the building of the Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen on Park Place (1802-3), the New York Free School House (1808), and the Hubert Street Fort (1808). He designed plans for the Washington Benevolent Society headquarters, Washington Hall (1809-14), and the Queen's Building at Rutgers University in New Jersey (1808-11).

McComb followed in his father's footsteps by designing many churches. He and his younger brother Isaac McComb (1776-1810) designed St. John's Episcopal Chapel (1803-7). McComb worked alone on the Cedar Street Presbyterian Church (1807-8) and the Murray Street Presbyterian Church (1811-12).

He also worked on another city building, the Fort at the Battery (known as Castle Clinton since the War of 1812.) Although the entire design was once thought to have been McComb's idea, it is now considered the work of Colonel John Williams. McComb may actually have only designed the entranceway. He did serve as the building contractor between 1807-1811.

Once City Hall was completed, McComb continued to work as an architect and builder, although his most productive years were drawing to a close. McComb was made a Street Commissioner and a City Surveyor of New York in 1813, and served in that capacity until 1821. Under this aegis, McComb planned streets, sewers, canals, and piers. His interest in canals and sea travel made him an early advocate of the Erie Canal, and he was remembered in his obituary (Illustrated News, June 11, 1853) as a supporter of Fulton's steamboat career.

McComb designed and built Alexander Hall at Princeton Theological Seminary (1815-17) and the American Bible Society Building on Nassau Street (1822-23). In 1817 he was considered as a possible architect for the United States Capitol building. John McComb Jr. was awarded many honors during his career. He was named an Academician of the American Academy of Fine Arts in 1816, and served on the board of that organization from 1817-28. McComb was a member of the General Society of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen from 1787, and served as its president in 1818. He was also a member of the Masonic Order.

McComb journeyed to Philadelphia in May 1822, where he visited and sketched the works of other architects, especially William Strickland, Robert Mills, and John Haviland. Philadelphia architecture was then beginning to be heavily Greek influenced; moving away from the English influence of the colonial style. As is evidenced in a sketchbook from that trip, McComb paid special attention to churches, mainly to facades and interior plans of sanctuaries. The few buildings he designed after 1822 show evidence of his interest in the changing styles. The Bleecker Street Presbyterian Church (1823-26), one of McComb's last works before his retirement, is notable for its Doric columns, elements not found on earlier McComb churches.

In 1822 McComb renovated and added a new steeple to the Brick Presbyterian Church, which had been designed by his father. He then designed the Youle shot tower (1822-23) at East River and 53rd Street, the first such structure in New York, and the building for the American Tract Society (1825-26).

After his retirement, McComb devoted his time to his family life. John McComb, Jr. married Elizabeth Glean in 1792. They had three children, Mary ([1795]-1848), John III (1798-1858), and Matilda. Elizabeth died in 1817; McComb married widow Rebecca Rockwell in 1821. John McComb III became an attorney, although he did some drafts work for his father at a young age. Mary was an accomplished artist who painted many of her father's structures.

McComb was civic minded and served public and private institutions throughout the city in many capacities. In many cases these were organizations whose buildings he had designed or built. He was a trustee of the Brick Presbyterian Church from 1816 to 1825, and a deacon from 1827 until his death. In 1923 he became a lifetime member of the American Bible Society. In 1818 he was named a Governor of New York Hospital and served in that capacity until at least 1832. He was a director of the Mechanics Bank in 1820. After leaving the world of architecture, John McComb entered into some mercantile ventures in the interest of his property investments. In 1829-30 he was president of the La Fayette Insurance Company.

The last twenty years of McComb's life were spent almost totally out of the public eye. He died in New York at age 90. He is buried at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Sources: Gilchrist, Agnes Addison, "John McComb, Sr. and Jr., in New York, 1784-1799," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 31 (Mar. 1972.)

O'Gorman, James F. "A New York Architect Visits Philadelphia in 1822," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Bibliography, 117 (July 1993).