Carpenter/Builder: Owen Biddle Jr. (1774—1806)
Before there were architects, buildings were designed and built by the same person, usually known as a master carpenter or carpenter builder. The carpenter builder of the Arch Street Meeting House was Owen Biddle Jr. The career of Owen Biddle Jr. was cut short by his death in 1806 at the age of 32. He is buried on the property.
Owen Biddle Jr. was born in 1774, a Quaker, and one of ten children. He was trained as a carpenter and partnered with fellow carpenter Joseph Cowgill from 1799 to 1801, before setting off to work on his own. He was a member of the Carpenters Company, which is a group formed in 1724 and most of the well-known builders of the day were members.
We know that Biddle designed the meetinghouse because his name is on the plans for the proposed building but it was not until 1968 that it was confirmed that he was responsible for construction. During a restoration and construction project, his initials were found scratched into the roof trusses.
Little is known about Owen Biddle, Jr.’s work. He had a hand in creating the first covered bridge in America, the Schuylkill Permanent Bridge, which was designed by Timothy Palmer. Biddle is also credited with the construction of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts building (1805-06). He built a handful of homes in Philadelphia, some still stand in the Society Hill neighborhood.
Biddle Jr. as an Author and Teacher
Biddle’s book, The Young Carpenter’s Assistant, was a rare and valuable reference book in early nineteenth century America.
The first architectural school was founded in 1865 and before that most building design and construction was undertaken not by “architects,” but by carpenters or builders like Owen Biddle, who learned the trade through apprenticeship.
Biddle’s book was used as a textbook to teach others how to build. The Young Carpenter’s Assistant, includes illustrations to teach others innovative building techniques, including the trusses used in the construction of the Arch Street Meeting House.