Alexander Parris

Alexander Parris

Alexander Parris, crayon portrait c. 1887 by W.E. Chickering; The Bostonian Society, Old State House, Boston, MA.

Alexander Parris November 24, 1780 - June 16, 1852

Alexander Parris was a prominent American architect-engineer. His work transitions between Federal style architecture and later Greek Revival.

Parris was born in Halifax, Massachusetts. When aged 16, he apprenticed to a housewright in Pembroke, but talent would lead him towards architecture. Married to Silvina Bonney Stetson in 1800, he moved to Portland, Maine, then experiencing a building boom. The city had been bombarded during the Revolution by the Royal Navy, reducing three-quarters to ashes in 1775. But following the war, its trade recovered, almost challenging Boston as the busiest port in New England. Parris received numerous residential and commercial commissions, working in the Federal style to create landmarks for a community with both affluence and open land to reinvent itself. Unfortunately, some landmarks were lost in the Great Fire of 1866, but photographs and the architect's surviving drawings bespeak works of neoclassical artistry.

The boom would end, however, with Jefferson's Embargo of 1807, which lasted 14 months and devastated Portland's mercantile base. Merchants went bankrupt. The Portland Bank, its building designed by Parris, failed. By 1809, construction in the city came to a halt. Subsequently, Parris left for Richmond, Virginia, where he designed the Executive Mansion. In the War of 1812, he served in Plattsburg, New York as a "Captain of the Artificers" (engineers), gaining knowledge of military requirements for engineering.

In 1815, he moved to Boston, where he found a position in the office of architect Charles Bulfinch. Like his famous employer, from whom he learned, Parris produced refined residences, churches and commercial buildings. When in 1817 Bulfinch was called to Washington to work on the U.S. Capitol Building, Parris helped complete the Bulfinch Building at Massachusetts General Hospital. With Bulfinch's departure, Parris soon became the city's leading architect, and a proponent of what would be called "Boston Granite Style," with austere, monolithic stonework.

In 1824, however, he began a twenty year association working for the Boston Navy Yard in Charlestown. He would end his career as chief engineer at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. With the federal government as patron, Parris produced plans for numerous utilitarian structures, from storehouses to ropewalks, and was superintendent of construction at one of the nation's first drydocks, located at the Charlestown base. Today, he is fondly remembered for his stalwart stone lighthouses, commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. They are often of a tapered form termed "windswept."

Parris balanced the delicacy of his "superb draftsmanship," as it was called, with the coarseness of his building material of choice: granite. His most famous building, Quincy Market, is made of it. Parris died in Pembroke, where he is interred in the Briggs Burying Ground.