The firm Niernsee & Neilson was the first thoroughly professional architectural office in Baltimore having professionally-educated partners with specific responsibilities, apprentices and draftsmen. It combined the best constructional knowledge with thoughtful design and a respect for the clients’ concerns with prompt, complete service.
John Rudolph Niernsee (1814-1885) and James Crawford Neilson (1816-1900) opened their partnership practice in 1848.
John R. Niernsee was born in Vienna, Austria, and educated in engineering and architecture at the University of Prague. He immigrated to America in 1836; in 1839 he became a member of the engineering staff of the B&O Railroad under its chief engineer, Benjamin H. Latrobe, son of the nationally-famous architect. In 1842 he married Emily Bradenbaugh of Baltimore.
With their B&O Railroad work in common, Niernsee and Neilson met in 1839 and formed their architectural partnership nine years later.
The years 1848-1856 were excellent years for the partnership, Niernsee & Neilson. Many of their landmark structures date from this period including the Chapel of Green Mount Cemetery.
In 1854, Niernsee was called to Columbia, South Carolina to investigate defects in a new State House begun by others a few years earlier. With tact and vigorous politicking, Niernsee won the State House commission there and remained in Columbia for about ten years which included the Civil War years when he served in the Confederate Army. Work on the unfinished State House was deferred in the Reconstruction Period.
In 1865, Niernsee returned to his partnership with Neilson who had successfully continued the practice in Baltimore. John R. Niernsee was a founding member of the national American Institute of Architects in 1854. J. Crawford Neilson joined the AIA later and both became charter members of the newly formed Baltimore Chapter of the AIA upon its organization in December 1870.
The Niernsee & Neilson partnership continued until 1874. Niernsee formed a partnership with his son Frank. From 1877-1889, Niernsee and Dr. John Shaw Billings collaborated on the new Johns Hopkins Hospital under the coordination of Cabot & Chandler of Boston. In 1885, he returned to Columbia, SC to complete the Statehouse, but died soon after his arrival. He is buried there and his family returned to Baltimore. His former partner, and later his son, supervised the continuation of the State House.
Many other architects owe their training to Niernsee & Neilson including R. Snowden Andrews, Eben Faxon, August Forsberg, Bruce Price, E. Francis Baldwin, and T. Buckler Ghequier.
Together and separately, John R. Niernsee and J. Crawford Neilson advanced the architectural profession in its formative years by their dedication, competence and professionalism. With over 165 projects documented by the late Randolph W. Chalfant and the Baltimore Architecture Foundation, from Maryland, Washington, DC and Virginia to the Carolinas and Georgia, their names are synonymous with excellence of design, originality and advancement in both design and technology throughout the second half of the 19th century.