Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720 - 1940

Master builder, of Belfast and Virginia, USA.  John Neilson was born in Ballycarry, Co. Antrim, circa 1770.   He was articled to JAMES HUNTER [1]  JAMES HUNTER [1] in Belfast, but no records of his work in Ireland have so far been found.   A United Irishman and friend of the family of Henry Joy McCracken, he was banished for seven years for his involvement in the rebellion of 1798.  After escaping to the United States from a British ship bound for the West Indies, he became a naturalised citizen of the United States in Philadelphia in 1804. In the same year he moved to Virginia, working with fellow Ulsterman James Dinsmore for Thomas Jefferson at Monticello and at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville(1) and for James Madison at Montpelier.  He was responsible for the drafting of the final plans and construction of Bremo, a Jefferson-inspired plantation mansion for John Hartwell Cocke, begun in 1818.(2)

Neilson died at Refuge, near Keene, Virginia, on 24 June 1827, leaving a widow, who had remained in Ireland.(3) He was buried in Maplewood Cemetery, Charlottesville.  A monument to him was erected in the cemetery on 17 April 1999.(4)


For a  more detailed account of Neison's life by Kevin Donleavy, see Dictionary of Irish Biography.

(1) K. Edward Lay, Charlottesville's architectural legacy', Magazine of Albemarle County History 46 (May, 1988), 29-95 (also published on web at http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/schwartz/cville/Lay.html, last visited Jul 2012). 
(2)   See Peter Hodson, Birth of a Virginia Plantation House:  the Design and Building of Bremo (Richmond: Center for Palladian Studies in America, 2012), 13.
(3) Death notice in Belfast Telegraph, 21 Sep 1827 (Irish Emigration Database, http://ied.dippam.ac.uk/records/51189, last visited Jul 2012).
(4) Copy of commemorative booklet, edited by Kevin Donleavy, 1999, in IAA.