John Rochester Thomas, the Architect
One of the most prolific architects in the late nineteenth century John Rochester Thomas was born in Rochester, NY on June 18 of 1848. He was the son of William and Elizabeth Thomas. John was enrolled in the Rochester Public School system until early 1862. At that time he dropped out to help his family after his father's business failed. Later that year, John apprenticed under the Rochester architect, Merwin Austin. He also took classes at the University of Rochester. After coming back from studying the grand buildings of Europe, John Thomas entered professional practice in 1868 at the age of 20.
Among his work are three buildings in Fairport. Three of his structures have been locally designated and are on the National Register of Historic Places. They are the First Congregational United Church of Christ at 26 East Church Street, the Henry DeLand House at 1 East Church Street, and the First Baptist Church of Fairport located at 92 South Main Street. Several homes in Fairport were also designed by Mr. Thomas. They are the Charles H. Howe House at 26 Perrin Street, 113 West Church Street and 176 North Main Street.
John's designs were not only a pleasure to look at, but they also incorporated innovative ideas into his work as well . In his Sibley Hall (circa 1877) design on the University of Rochester campus, John incorporated steel beams and iron staircases into the stone structure to make it the first fireproof building in Rochester.
Thomas was the first to introduce the mansard roof in residential buildings in Rochester. Previously, this roof style was only used for large edifices and public buildings. His finest example of this type of design can be seen today adorning the Green Lantern Inn, circa 1875 - 1876 at 1 East Church Street.
In designing the First Baptist Church of Fairport, Thomas included an entrance to the church, parts of which can be slid back to allow exit in an emergency. This concept was developed because of a gruesome fire in a Rochester church where several people were trampled to death in a panic when a fire was discovered in the nave of the church.
In 1874, John was still working in Rochester at 53-55 Reynolds Arcade and was appointed state architect by then New York State Governor Dix. Through this appointment, he designed the State Reformatory at Elmira, which was considered a model of prison design at the time (drawings of which are in the collections of the Rochester Historical Society). John married Julia Hortense in Rochester in 1877. They had 4 daughters and a son together. Five years later in 1882 the family moved to New York City.
From his office on Broadway, John R. Thomas designed over 100 churches, numerous state prisons and public buildings in New York City and along the east coast of the United States. He was known as a leader in prison and church design. In 1891 he read a paper on "Church Architecture" before the conference of clergymen in Boston and in 1893 he appeared before the National Prison Association in Pittsburgh, PA to read another paper on the "History of Prison Architecture." Mr. Thomas was a member of the New York Chamber of Commerce, New York Yacht Club, the Sculpture Society, National Arts Club, Architecture League and was on the executive committee of the New York Prison Association.
John Thomas died of heart disease in August of 1901. He was at his summer home in Westminster Park in the Thousand Islands at the time. His remains were brought back to Rochester and he is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.
John Rochester Thomas ranks as one of the most famous architects that Rochester has ever produced. For more information visit the First Congregational United Church of Christ at 26 East Church Street, Henry DeLand House, First Baptist Church of Fairport and the Charles H. Howe House.
Partial List of Structures Designed by Thomas:
- First Congregational United Church of Christ, 26 East Church Street, Fairport, NY. Village of Fairport Historic Landmark in 2009 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018
- Henry DeLand House (Green Lantern Inn), Fairport, NY. Designed around 1872 and executed in 1875-76. Village of Fairport Historic Landmark in 2008 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980
- First Baptist Church of Fairport, Fairport, NY 1876. Village of Fairport Historic Landmark in 2008 and on the National Register of Historical Places in 2006
- Charles H. Howe House, 26 Perrin Street, Fairport, NY 1882
- Trevor Hall, Rochester Theological Seminary, Rochester NY
- Natural History Building (Brooks Museum), University of Virginia, VA
- New York Presbyterian Church (Metropolitan Baptist Church) West 12th St., Harlem, NYC 1884
- St. John's Episcopal Church, 139th Street, St. John's Place, NYC 1885
- Hays Building, 21 Maiden Lane, NYC, National Register of Historic Places in 1982
- Eastern New York Reformatory, Ellenville, NY 1899
- Willard Asylum, Seneca Lake, NY
- 8th Regiment, Squadron “A” Armory, Madison Ave., NYC
- NYC Hall of Records (Surrogate's Court Building) Chamber Street, NYC
- Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist Church, 101 West 123rd St. Lennox, NYC
- First Baptist Church, Lynchburg, VA
- First Baptist Church, 871 Main Street, Danville, VA
- State Reformatory, Elmira NY 1874
- Bentley House, 7 Prince St., Rochester, NY 1878
- Sibley Hall Library, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY
- Grand Opera House, South Clinton Ave., Rochester, NY. 1871, Burned 1891
- H. H. Warner House and Warner Observatory, 269 East Ave., Rochester NY
- Calvary Baptist Church, 123 West 57th Street, NYC 1883
- New York Stock Exchange, NYC 1886
- 18th Regiment of the National Guard of NY, NYC 1889
- 71st Regiment and 2nd Battery Building, NYC 1893, Burned 1902
- New Jersey State Reformatory at Rahway, NJ 1899 (Jersey State Prison)
- Second Reformed Church, Lennox Ave., NYC