Architect. Known for his Gothic-revival designs and knowledge of Greek and Roman architecture, White was the preeminent Charleston architect of the 1840s and 1850s. He was born on January 29, 1806, to John Blake White, a planter, artist, and playwright, and his first wife, Elizabeth Allston White, at Chapel Hill plantation in St. John’s Berkeley Parish. He studied engineering at the United States Military Academy at West Point and, after graduating in 1826, served in the army as an artillery officer. On April 18, 1832, he married Delia Adams in her hometown of New London, Connecticut. He left military service in 1836 to survey routes for several proposed railroads, including the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston. By 1839 White had settled in Charleston and was working as a civil engineer, architect, and surveyor. During the following decade, he became one of the most successful architects in South Carolina.
White’s first major commission was Market Hall (1840–1841), a monumental building erected to serve as the center of Charleston’s public markets, which had been devastated by fire in 1838. White designed the building in the form of a Roman temple, possibly using the Temple of Fortuna Virilis as a model, and symbolized its purpose with an entablature ornamented with bucrania and rams’ skulls. Behind the hall he erected a series of sheds to provide space for vendors. The project showed White to be a careful student of Roman architecture and added significantly to his reputation.
White’s early projects included several ecclesiastical buildings that demonstrated the breadth of his stylistic vocabulary. His designs for St. Johannes Lutheran Church (1841–1842) and the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church (1842) displayed his mastery of the Greek-revival style. He introduced the Gothic-revival style to Charleston with the Huguenot Church (1844–1845) and also used the same style for Grace Church (1847–1848), Trinity Episcopal Church (1847) in Columbia, and the Chapel of the Cross (1854–1857) in Bluffton. White’s other major projects of the era included the Charleston High School (1840–1842), the James Louis Petigru law office (1848), and a steeple for St. Philip’s Church (1848–1850). In 1849 he designed wings and a third story for the South Carolina Military College, and the following year he added wings and a portico to the main building at the College of Charleston.
White’s general approach to architecture was eclectic. Neither impulsive nor dogmatic in his stylistic choices, he believed that each commission warranted a design specifically crafted to suit its particular circumstances. Indeed, White’s greatest talent was his flexibility as a designer. Because he was at ease with classicism and the rising tide of romanticism, he was able to accommodate both Charleston’s traditional conservatism and its taste for the flamboyant new architecture from Europe. In addition, his background in engineering provided an advantage that many of his competitors lacked, and he excelled at creating successful designs on limited budgets.
About 1850 White was selected as the superintending architect of the new Custom House. The plans for this monumental building, furnished by the Boston architect Ammi Burnham Young, called for an imposing edifice with a dome and four porticos. Construction progressed slowly and was plagued by cost overruns. Amid the escalating sectional crisis, many northern congressmen questioned the need for such an opulent customhouse in a city known for its distaste of federal authority. In 1859 Congress refused to appropriate additional funding for the project, which left White with no choice but to halt construction. The total cost of the building, originally estimated at $370,000, eventually reached $3 million. It was finally completed in 1879 without the dome and side porticos and with a somewhat diminished interior plan.
As the Civil War approached, White suspended his architectural practice and devoted himself to the Confederate cause. He had been active in the state militia since leaving military service in 1836 and, with war nearing, helped organize the Palmetto Battalion. He served initially at the rank of major and was later promoted to lieutenant colonel. During the war he saw action on James Island and also in North Carolina. At the end of hostilities in 1865, White returned to Charleston and resumed his practice, but obtaining commissions in the war-devastated city proved difficult. In 1866 he oversaw repairs to St. Michael’s Church, which had sustained damage during the siege of Charleston, and he later designed a small office building for the Charleston Gas and Light Company (1876–1878). By 1879 he had moved to New York, where he died on May 10, 1882. He was buried in St. Michael’s Churchyard in Charleston.
Lane, Mills. Architecture of the Old South: South Carolina. Savannah, Ga.: Beehive, 1984.
Poston, Jonathan H. The Buildings of Charleston: A Guide to the City’s Architecture. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Ravenel, Beatrice St. Julien. Architects of Charleston. 1945. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.
Severens, Kenneth. Charleston Antebellum Architecture and Civic Destiny. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1988.