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Born: 1759, Died: 8/24/1821

John Dorsey was a merchant, entrepreneur,and amateur architect who is chiefly remembered as designer of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1805-1806; burned 1845; restored and enlarged 1846-1847; demolished 1870) and the "Gothic Mansion" on the north side of Chestnut between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets (1809-1810; remodeled 1853; demolished 1911) where it was proposed to manufacture floor cloths and carpets. Dorsey's architectural work enraged Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who wrote in 1806, "John Dorsey has now no less than 15 plans now in progress of execution, because he charges nothing for them. The public affront put upon me as a professional man, in the erection of the Academy of Art from the design of John Dorsey,--would have driven any Artist from it, but one held by the strongest family ties and affections...." Latrobe had an additional reason to be bitter; Dorsey's few known designs are highly derivative of Latrobe's Bank of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Waterworks Pump House.

How Dorsey became interested in architecture or whether he had any formal training is unknown. In the 1780s he appears in Philadelphia as a grocer and by 1793 he styles himself a "sugar refiner" and "silver and plated-ware merchant," the same year he applied to Governor Mifflin for appointment as a auctioneer.

Active in public affairs, Dorsey was a manager of the Pennsylvania Hospital (1797-1804), treasurer of the Library Company (1798-1804), member of the committee for a new Philadelphia prison (1804), treasurer of the Permanent Bridge Company (1805), and a founder of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts which he served as a member of the board (1806-1807). In 1805 he was elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate, a seat he held until 1809. In November 1809 he received his commission as an auctioneer; in 1810 he was appointed to the commission to determine a site and procure plans for the new capitol at Harrisburg; and, in 1818, he was appointed "keeper of the standard of weights and measures" in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, too little is known of Dorsey's architectural work during these years. He may have designed the Orphan Asylum at the northeast corner of Cherry and Eighteenth Streets (1817;burned 1822) and he may have had a hand in the design of the wooden cover of the Permanent Bridge over the Schuykill (built by Owen Biddle, 1805-1806, the same builder/architect who executed Dorsey's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts design). An elevation and plan for a house sent by Dorsey in 1809 to the Philadelphia lawyer and banker William Meredith survives at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, but it is not known if the design was executed.

Clubs and Membership Organizations

  • Library Co.
  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
  • Athenaeum of Philadelphia

School Affiliations

  • Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts


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