The firm's founders were Joseph Miller Wilson (1838–1902), architect and civil engineer, John Allston Wilson (1837–96), civil engineer, and Frederick Godfrey Thorn (c. 1837–1911), architect and civil engineer. Youngest brother Henry W. Wilson (1844–1910), civil engineer, joined the firm in 1886, and was promoted to partner in 1899. All three Wilson brothers attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. Joseph also studied metallurgy at the University of Pennsylvania.
Joseph worked in the construction department of the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) from 1860 to 1876, designing bridges and railroad structures, including several commuter stations on the Main Line. For a PRR subsidiary, he designed the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Passenger Terminal in Washington, DC (1873–77, demolished 1908), the station in which U.S. President James A. Garfield was assassinated in 1881. The National Gallery of Art now occupies its site at 6th Street & Constitution Avenue on the National Mall.
John did engineering work for several railroads, including the PRR and the Reading Railroad. Wilson Brothers & Company was founded on January 1, 1876.
For the 1876 Centennial Exposition, Henry Petit and Joseph M. Wilson co-designed the Main Exhibition Building—the largest building in the world, 1,876 feet (572 m) in length and enclosing 21-1/2 acres. The pair also designed Machinery Hall, and oversaw construction of the other principal buildings. Joseph co-authored a 3-volume history of the Philadelphia World's Fair.
Joseph's commission for Philadelphia's Presbyterian Hospital (1874), may be related to later work on Presbyterian churches, nursing homes and an orphanage. The firm's extensive work for financer Anthony J. Drexel, the city's wealthiest citizen and a Roman Catholic, may have led to subsequent commissions for convents and Catholic hospitals. In Philadelphia, the firm designed the headquarters for the Baldwin Locomotive Works (pre-1885, demolished); and, in Beach Haven, NJ, the Baldwin Hotel (1883, burned 1960), Holy Innocents Episcopal Church (1881–82), and a number of summer homes for company executives.
In 1881, the PRR hired the firm to design its main passenger terminal at Broad & Filbert Streets in Center City Philadelphia, directly west of City Hall. This was one of the first steel-framed buildings in America to use masonry not as structure, but as a curtain wall (as skyscrapers do). The station was widely admired; 15% of the architects in an 1885 poll voted it one of "The Best Ten Buildings in the United States." Eleven years later, the Wilson Brothers' Gothic Revival station was incorporated into Frank Furness's far larger Broad Street Station. The Wilsons designed its new train shed, at the time (1892), the largest single-span train shed in the world.
In 1885, the Wilsons designed a high-ceilinged, 2-story banking house for Drexel & Company, on the southeast corner of 5th & Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia. Four years later, Drexel wished to expand, but Independence National Bank next door refused to sell. In response, Joseph Wilson designed the Drexel Building, a 10-story, H-shaped addition that surrounded Independence National Bank on the east, west and south sides, permanently depriving the neighbor of sunlight. The iron-skeletoned addition was built atop Drexel's banking house, and was one of the first examples of X-bracing. One of the buildings demolished for this was Library Hall, the Library Company of Philadelphia's headquarters, that had been design by William Thornton (1789–91). In an ironic turn of events, the Drexel Building itself was demolished in 1959, and a replica of Library Hall was built on its original site by the American Philosophical Society.
Following the deaths of the two older brothers, the firm continued as Wilson, Harris and Richards.
^Wilson Bros. & Co.'s 1885 Catalogue lists 432 railroad bridges, 42 highway bridges, 141 railroad stations, and almost 200 industrial buildings. Wilson Brothers & Company, Catalogue, pp. 9–29.
^George E. Thomas, "Design for the Main Exhibition Building, Philadelphia Centennial Exposition," in James F. O'Gorman, et al., Drawing Toward Building: Philadelphia Architectural Graphics, 1732–1986 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986), pp. 140–42.
^Earl Shinn, Walter Smith & Joseph M. Wilson, Masterpieces of the Centennial International Exhibition Illustrated (Philadelphia: Gebbie & Barrie, 1876–78).
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