Architecture Planning and Preservation Wilson Brothers
George E. Thomas
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0082


In the 1950s when Victorian architecture was still reviled by architectural historians, historian of engineering Carl Condit looked dispassionately at the 19th century through the lenses of construction and engineering. Architects who had been attacked for the flamboyance of their designs were rediscovered for their creativity in utilizing the new materials and systems of the Industrial Age. One of the designers that Condit rediscovered was Joseph M. Wilson and his future firm, Wilson Brothers & Co., whose quarter century of work for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the generating force behind Philadelphia’s applied science revolution, spread their influence across the industrialized United States. Unlike Wilson’s contemporaries, such as Frank Furness, whose records had been thrown out when his office closed in the 1930s, the work of Wilson Brothers & Co. could readily have been found through their publications, Catalog of Work Executed and Architectural Work of the Wilson Bros. & Co. They described the firm’s engineering and architectural work for the Pennsylvania Railroad through to their new form of practice, which combined architecture with civil, structural, and hydraulic engineering for the design of bridges, railroad stations, hotels, houses, and commercial and industrial buildings across the entire United States and the Caribbean. Their structural daring and originality led Condit in American Building Art: The Nineteenth Century to place Wilson and his partners in the line that led to modern architecture. He summarized their achievement in his discussion of the great train sheds that “Joseph Wilson & Brothers” had designed: “Although Wilson’s primary concern was functional, with emphasis on the validity of pure empirical form, he anticipated three cardinal doctrines of modern architectural theory—simplicity, volume rather than mass, and free-flowing space.” Despite the vast numbers of his projects, Wilson found time to be an active participant in the principal professional organizations of his day, including the Franklin Institute, the city’s leading research institution, serving as its president between 1887 and 1896; the American Institute of Architects (1870; Fellow, 1876); the American Society of Civil Engineers (1873); and the American Philosophical Society (1874). In 1876, he was voted into membership in the British Institution of Civil Engineers, beginning a cross-Atlantic conversation that lasted until his death. Futurist William Gibson tells us that the future is already here—it is just unevenly distributed. At the end of the 19th century, the industrial future had arrived early in Philadelphia’s giant industries, guided by Joseph Wilson and his fellow engineers.

General Overview

During fifteen years in the design offices of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Joseph Wilson designed dozens of railroad bridges; the Washington, DC, terminal for the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad, a Pennsylvania Railroad subsidiary; a line of suburban stations west of Philadelphia; and the principal buildings for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. In 1875, with the Centennial Exhibition buildings nearing completion, Joseph and his brothers, engineers John and Henry, together with architect Frederick Thorn, a veteran of John McArthur’s office, formed the Wilson Brothers & Co. to meet “a need for professional services, disconnected from and independent of the business of building or contracting,” to provide “professional supervision distinct from the mechanical execution of the work” (Wilson Brothers & Co. 1885). They continued under contract as the Pennsylvania Railroad’s architects and engineers until 1886. Their principal architectural project for the railroad was the Broad Street Station, (1879–1881), which was based on G. G. Scott’s Gothic-revival hotel at St. Pancras Station in London. In the 1870s they often borrowed from Frank Furness’s boldly polychromatic projects before turning in the 1880s to the monumental masonry of Henry Hobson Richardson for academic buildings at the University of Vermont. By the late 1880s, simplified classical detailing representative of the underlying iron framework was adapted for the Drexel Building (1887–1889) and the Drexel Institute (1889–1891). The firm’s innovations are most evident in their logistically based planning and engineering, beginning with the construction of one of the first true curtain-wall construction systems for the seven-story south wall of Broad Street Station, whose brick sheathing was carried on cast-iron columns and steel girders (Wilson 1897). For the ten-story Drexel Building, the firm designed a steel-and-iron frame with massive diagonals from which intermediate floors were suspended, which rivaled work in Chicago. Steel framing was also at the core of the Drexel Institute’s remarkable skylighted interior courtyard that is spanned by a steel-framed roof. Designed to create a communal space for a commuter school, it remains the school’s heart (Thomas 1991). In the 1890s, Wilson’s advocacy for single-span, three-hinged arch steel train sheds, which reduced corrosion of the steel because of the vastly greater air volume, was validated, first for the Philadelphia & Reading Terminal and a year later with the construction of the largest train shed in the world for the enlarged Broad Street Station. For two generations, Wilson and his firm kept Philadelphia at the forefront of structural innovation, spreading their practices along the Pennsylvania Railroad.

  • Condit, Carl. American Building Art: The Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

    Condit’s exploration of building technology provides a window into American architecture in the 19th century that was significantly different from the standard Eurocentric narrative of modern architecture. Drawing on Lewis Mumford’s Roots of Contemporary Architecture (1952), Condit argues that building systems and typologies were invented in the United States because of the individualism of American designers, the scale of the continent, and the cost of labor.

  • Thomas, George E. “Drexel University: An Architectural History of the Main Building, 1891–1991.” Drexel University, 1991.

    This history with a description of the building with photographs from its dedication; a discussion of its architect and his relation to the client, Anthony Drexel; and a possible source for the glass-roofed interiors as described in Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward (1887) was prepared to celebrate the centennial of the building’s opening.

  • Thomas, George E. “The Happy Employment of Means to Ends: Frank Furness’s Library for the University of Pennsylvania and the Industrial Culture of Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126.2 (April 2002): 249–272.

    The University of Pennsylvania’s departed from conventional classically based library design by developing its plan from a logistical understanding of modern library requirements that underlay the final design. The article offers parallels between the directions of Furness and the Wilson Brothers & Co. who were simultaneously building a power plant for the University on an adjacent site to the south.

  • Thomas, George E. Buildings of Pennsylvania: Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.

    Pennsylvania’s industrial culture supported such architects and designers as the Roebling family of bridge builders, Frank Furness, the Wilson Brothers & Co., William L. Price, George Howe, Louis Kahn, and Robert Venturi. Their works were commissioned by the interconnected web of engineers and industrialists who both ran their industries and the institutions of the state and incorporated design theories from machine designers such as William and Coleman Sellers into the architecture that they commissioned.

  • Vitiello, Domenic. “Engineering the Metropolis: William Sellers, Joseph Wilson and Industrial Philadelphia.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126.2 (April 2002): 273–303.

    The linkages between applied science, industry, and urbanism are explored in a richly detailed article that places the origin of many innovations in late-19th-century Philadelphia within the culture of industrial innovation centered on machine toolmaker William Sellers, engineer and architect Joseph Wilson, and the Pennsylvania Railroad. Their shared project for the Philadelphia celebration of the Centennial of American independence placed the city at the origins of modern design.

  • Wilson Brothers & Co. Catalog of Work Executed. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1885.

    The compilation of the firm’s first decade begins with twenty-three single-spaced, double-columned pages listing railroad bridges, private residences, public institutions, hotels, railroad stations, machine shops, and factories. Texts cover engineering work, work as architects and consulting engineers, the architectural department, and selected major projects. Illustrations show derivation from Frank Furness and Henry Hobson Richardson, but their synthesis of architecture and engineering was original and aimed the profession toward its future.

  • Wilson Brothers & Co. Architectural Work of Wilson Bros. & Co. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Armstrong & Fears, 1897.

    The firm produced a second book on their firm as the 19th century ended, with photographs of the Philadelphia & Reading Terminal as well as designs for skyscrapers, the Drexel Institute, buildings for the University of Vermont, and a full cross section of their evolving practice. Of particular interest are plans and views of their offices in the Drexel Building together with a list of firm members.

  • Wilson, Joseph. “Correspondence: Steel Skeleton Construction in Chicago.” Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers 128 (1897): 43–57.

    In 1876, Joseph Wilson was invited to become a member of the British Institution of Civil Engineers, a role that he took seriously, participating multiple times in their publications. In this instance he provided notes on his early uses of steel and iron framing a decade before the standard historical narrative and suggesting that the Pennsylvania Railroad’s engineering was transmitted west along its rails.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.