Town, Ithiel (1784-1844)
Ithiel Town (1784-1844)
Architect. As a boy growing up in rural Connecticut, Ithiel Town excelled at doing the intricate carpentry necessary to build the massive timber-frame houses common still in the New England landscape. Moving to Boston as a young adult, Town continued to pursue building design under the tutelage of one of the nation’s best-known authors of architectural books, Asher Benjamin. Town launched his professional career as an architect by designing and building the Center Church on the town green in New Haven, Connecticut. He managed to build the spire of the church inside the tower and then lift it into place in less than three hours using a special windlass. His reputation established, Town won commissions to design several important public buildings across the country, including the Wall Street Customshouse, state buildings in New Haven and Indianapolis, and Christ Church in Hartford, Connecticut. Town eventually became one of the first two architects selected for membership in the National Academy of Design.
Bridge Builder. America was known throughout the Western world for its innovative bridge designs, especially in wood. As the nation expanded rapidly westward, the roads, railroads, and canals built to link West and East required hundreds of new bridges. Yet, unlike Europe, America had neither the manpower nor the engineering skill to cross all of these streams with stone. What the nation needed were safe bridge designs that could be executed by unskilled workers and that utilized cheap, readily available building materials such as wood. Not surprisingly, the men who came up with those designs, Thomas Wernwag, Theodore Burr, and Town foremost among them, started their careers as builders and carpenters, acquiring a thorough knowledge of the load-bearing properties of various woods. Of this group Town became the most famous and the wealthiest because of his Town lattice-truss bridge.
Truss Design. Since the days of the Roman Empire, bridge designers had relied on arches to support the weight of bridges and their traffic. Instead of an arch, the truss bridge used “a structural assemblage of many relatively small members [pieces of wood, iron, and cable] joined together in a series of triangles that interconnect to form the bridge.” The idea for the truss design went back at least to Andrea Palladio, a sixteenth-century Italian architect. American designers found the truss design particularly attractive because it did not require the wide stream-obstructing piers needed to support stone arches, and the “small members” could be made from wood and assembled by any competent carpenter. Town’s design was the simplest of all. Instead of heavy timber pieces, his truss used an interlocking web or lattice of wooden boards drilled and pegged together to form a long rigid structure, usually covered by a wooden roof and sides to protect the lattice from the weather. Safe and easy to build, the Town truss was probably the most popular wooden-bridge design in antebellum America. Town charged royalties of one to two dollars per linear foot for his designs and made a fortune in just a few decades. A few Town truss bridges still survive, but the longest ever constructed—the twenty-nine-hundred-foot James River bridge at Richmond, Virginia—was destroyed by the Confederate army as it retreated from the city in 1865. Income from his bridge designs gave Town the freedom to travel, including a tour of Europe with Samuel F. B. Morse in 1829–1830, and to amass the country’s “finest collection of choice books relating to architecture and the fine arts.” Town died in his adopted home of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1844.
Llewellyn N. Edwards, A Record of History and Evolution of Early American Bridges (Orono: Maine University Press, 1959).
Hitchcock & and Seale (1976);
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, xiii/3 (Oct. 1954), 27–8;
J. Kelly (1948);
R. Kennedy (1989);
Placzek (ed.) (1982);
Jane Turner (1996);
Town (1835, 1842);
van Vynckt (ed.) (1993)