Gideon Shryock

      Perhaps the most notable of the early Shryock family was Gideon Shryock.  His fame stemmed from his architectural prowess and his accomplishments in this field.

      Gideon was not a member of the direct ancestral line of Lewis Gilbert. Gideon's father, Mathias was the brother of Adam, both the sons of Christian Shryock.  The following profile provides a brief glimpse of Gideon's family:

Gideon Shryock        Born: November 15, 1802
Died: June 19, 1880
         Louisville, Kentucky

Married: Elizabeth Pendleton Bacon
              June 30, 1829
Died: December 24, 1887
         Louisville, Kentucky


      Alethe Shryock        Born: August 1, 1830
Died: January 2, 1891

      Mary Ellen Shryock        Born: 1832

      Lucy A. Shryock        Born: February 24, 1835
Died: April 10, 1890

      William Strickland Shryock        Born: May 4, 1837
Died: 1910

      Charles Gideon Shryock        Born:
Died: December 22, 1910

      James Guthrie Shryock        Born:
Died: 1883

      Theodore Shryock        Born:

      Elizabeth ( Bettie ) Shryock        Born:
Died: at 16 yrs of age

      Laura Bacon Shryock        Born: 1846
Died: 1943

      A. Lee Shryock        Born:
Died: crca 1923

      Among Gideon's most famed architectural accomplishments are state capitol buildings in Kentucky and Arkansas, Old Morrison on the Lexington, Kentucky campus of Transylvania University, and the family home of Mary Todd Lincoln in Lexington, Kentucky.  Of these, the most widely known and most completely documented is his work on Old Morrison for Transylvania University.

      The following text s provides a general background of Gideon's architectural skills and experiences:

      The story of the early Shryocks in Kentucky is closely interwoven with the state in at least two important aspects.  First, the name Shryock is closely associated with the pillared mansion, a glorified symbol of Kentucky well-being.  John Shryock, owner of the ferry, however, had ill-luck, or so it was considered to be by most Kentuckians of his day - he had eleven daughters and no sons.  But at Lexington his uncle Mathias was luckier. Mathias became the father of ten children, and three of them were boys.  In the future the paths of the Shryock families of Lexington and Grier's Creek were to cross, and the country around Shryock's Ferry was to become an important factor in their lives.

      Mathias Shryock's second child was a boy whom he named Gideon.  As the child grew, he showed a definite love for his father's trade of builder.  Even as a student at Mr. Aldridge's "Celebrated Lancastrian Academy" in Lexington, young Gideon's mind ran to architecture.  He read his father's books on structural design, and paid close attention to the development of American architecture.  Benjamin Latrobe was the Kentucky architectural pacemaker until his death, and then William Strickiand succeeded him as pioneer in American design.

      At Philadelphia, Strickland was busily engaged in completing the Bank of the United States started by Latrobe when the young Kentuckian, Gideon Shryock, presented himself as a prospective student. Gideon wrote his parents on October 21, 1823:

       "I have seen Mr. Strickland and he says that he will do anything in his power to instruct me.  I am to go with him tomorrow to look at some of the public buildings of the city, and then he will let me know what I had better do.  I have not tried to get work at any place yet, but I have no doubt that I can get enough to pay all expenses ..."       

      His other letters tell in detail of his work with Strickland, and after a year in Philadelphia, Gideon Shryock came home, riding overland from Philadelphia to Kentucky.  In his saddlebags he brought with him both new designs and many original ideas of architectural beauty.

      From the very beginning of his practice Gideon Shryock was a successful architect.  He introduced to Kentucky the architectural style, the Greek revival houses and classical public buildings, which was to symbolize the state of the future.  It was Shryock's Greek revival architecture which put the Virginia-Georgian influence definitely in the background in the West.  Before the end of his second year of practice, Kentucky was in need of a new statehouse.  Such an important assignment as planning a statehouse was a task for an experienced architect, and young Gideon was too timid to seek the job until he was urged to do so by his friends.  The plans which he submitted to the committee in charge of the erection of the new structure were selected, and in 1829 the building was ready for occupancy by officers of the state government.  Its architect, just turned twenty-seven, had built a handsome monument to himself, and a symbol of the grand order of early nineteenth century Kentucky.  He had caught the spirit of classicism on an upswing.  Kentucky had been very much wrought up over the Greek Revolution, and both newspapers and public speakers had done much to stimulate an appreciation of Grecian lines of architecture and culture.  The Old Capitol is an Ionic temple of Minerva with a front elevation of hexastyle, or six Ionic columns.  Inside is its builder's pride and joy:  the circular stairway which is a thing of beauty and captivating symmetry.  So graceful is this winding double stairway that even the army of indiscriminating sightseers who blunder through the fine old building each year to stare at the gun and relic displays of the State Historical Society is impressed with Shryock's masterpiece of internal planning.

      No artist, however, could have suffered a more unfortunate turn of fate with his masterful achievement than did the young Lexington architect.  Some heartless romanticist started the unkind story that a convict at the state penitentiary designed and built the stairway.  The story is absurd, as a sensible examination of the famous stairway and its keystone will prove, yet it is difficult in Kentucky to destroy a legend once it gets under way.  Soon it becomes a sort of religion in which the righteous must believe.

      Designing and building the Kentucky capitol was a dignified task for a young man, and Gideon Shryock approached the job with a sensitiveness that was to make his work outstanding.  He brought to Kentucky a dignity of architecture that was to influence the taste of all future designers in the state.  Next to his appealing design, his structural material was attractive.  He used native stone quarried from near the Shryock's Ferry at Tyrone.  This grayish Kentucky limestone, or "marble", was taken from the steep ledge which towers above the Kentucky River and drifted down to Frankfort on barges.  In the walls of a building this stone presents a clear creamy-white face, and yearly it sloughs off just enough of its surface to free it of soot and smoke grime.  Through more than a century, Gideon Shryock's honest building has stood as a gracious symbol of governmental authority in Kentucky.  Its young successor of federal-classic design over across the river has not displayed such a degree of rugged integrity and of competent workmanship.

      Five years after Shryock had completed his work in Frankfort, he was asked to design the statehouse of Arkansas.  In 1833 his representative built for that new southern state a temple "of Minerva Polies at Priene, in Ionia."  At the same time he designed and built the Doric temple, Morrison Chapel, on the Transylvania University campus.  Later at Frankfort he was architect in charge of building a county courthouse and the Orlando Brown house.

      Above Frankfort the river makes a wide sweeping bend and, after it passes the heart of the town, swings back gently to assume its general course.  At this point there is a broad alluvium shelf, and here in 1796 John Brown built his Georgian house, Liberty Hall.  As time passed and his son Orlando was married, the old Virginian followed the custom of men of affluence in his mother state, built a beautiful Greek Revival house for his home.  And it is Greek Revival architecture at its best in a private home.  Shryock was able to give it the proper small scale balance and to add a graceful touch so necessary to make of it a building of noble distinction.  This house, built on a beautiful lot where the garden slopes down to the river, rivals its Georgian colonial neighbor, Liberty Hall, as an object of admiration.

      Cincinnatus Shryock, young brother of Gideon, likewise turned to the study and practice of architecture.  His first building experience was in the structural work on Morrison Chapel.  He rounded out his apprenticeship at Frankfort, where he assisted in constructing the courthouse and the Orlando Brown house.  Gideon moved on to Louisville when these building were completed, but Cincinnatus returned to his home in Lexington, and he worked here as an employee of John McMurtry.  Where Gideon had emphasized the classic Greek Revival, John McMurtry's taste ran to the ornate Tudor Gothic.  During the forties and fifties he catered to influential Bluegrass landlords who had considerable money and even more imagination.  They wished to become the exciting romantic figures of Sir Walter Scott's Waverly novels.  They wished to play at being knights fighting such dragons as they could conjure up locally.  John McMurtry was sent off to England by Joseph Bruen to learn how to build ornate American castles.

      Shryock's experience of working as an employee of John McMurtry was to leave its impression upon the young architect.  He was able in his later years of practice to adapt the best features of the Greek Revival and those of the Tudor Gothic and to use them in many of the buildings he designed.  His taste for the classic form was the influence of his brother, and it tended to soften the lines of his post-bellum houses.

      Just prior to the Civil War, the architectural business in Lexington dwindled to nothing.  McMurtry and Shryock broke off their business relationship, and the latter moved down to the Kentucky River to teach school and to operate Shryock's Ferry during the war years.  When the war ended, Cincinnatus Shryock moved his family back to Lexington and began once again the practice of architecture.  During the next twenty years he was actively engaged in building in the town the newer type of houses which were lining the streets in all American cities.  Many of his houses with mansard roofs, eaves trimmed with gingerbread scrollwork, and bay windows indicative of a certain pomposity of the age are to be seen up and down the streets of the town.  Yet in all these house of the latter half of the century there is a quiet dignity which distinguishes them from their gaudy neighbors which were planned by men who knew nothing of the earlier age of classicism.

      One of the most notable and bold memorials to Gideon's skills was the construction of Morrison Chapel on the campus of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky.  This building, still standing, but now called Old Morrison was built in the 1830's as a tribute to Col. James Morrison, a benefactor of the University that left a gift to the University upon his death in excess of $50,000.   Morrison's attorney, the famous Henry Clay pursued and played a major role in securing an appropriate legacy for Col. Morrison.

      The following story of Gideon's role in this project was well documented through the records of Transylvania Universityt.

      " ... In the summer of 1830 the Board appointed a committee to confer with Henry Clay about securing the Morrison legacy.  The trustees also arranged to enlarge the campus by acquiring the Castleman lot just north of the old College Lot across Third Street, and requested town authorities to close off this section of the street so the campus would not be bisected by it.  In this latter detail the college was only temporarily successful.  Third Street proved to be too important a thoroughfare to keep closed for long

      Search for an architect and suitable plans for the new building started.  By January 1831, the trustees had found their man.  He was Gideon Shryock, only twenty-nine years old.  Son of Mathias Shryock, who came to Kentucky from Maryland in 1800, he grew up in a family of builders, carpenters, and architects.  He was educated in the common schools of Lexington but never attended college.  Instructed in the fundamentals of building by his father, Gideon received special training from William Strickland of Philadelphia in 1823. Strickland, one of America's leading architects in this period, had studied with Benjamin Latrobe and had become a disciple of the Greek Revival style, which the latter had introduced in 1798 in his Bank of Philadelphia.  It was little wonder, then, that Gideon Shryock should have become so enthusiastic about Greek Revival architecture.  A few years after returning to Lexington Shryock secured his first major commission in 1827, winning a competition for the design of the new state Capitol.  This building, completed in 1830, was one of the earliest state capital buildings designed in the Greek Revival style, although Jefferson's design for the capitol in Richmond, Virginia, showed how influential the classical was becoming.  Shryock's success with the state Capitol no doubt influenced the trustees in their decision to employ him for the design and construction of Transylvania's new main college building.

      The original contract was for $12,500 with the structure to be located on the ruins of the old college building.  With the acquisition of higher land north of the college lot, the trustees wisely negotiated a new contract with Shryock in June 1831, moving to this new site overlooking downtown Lexington.  This seemed a more appropriate location for the impressive structure.  The dimensions were likewise enlarged under the new contract, increasing the estimated cost to over $30,000.  It was proposed that the center section of the building be forty-eight feet wide with a depth of fifty-eight feet and a height of thirty feet, with a portico in front dominated by four Doric columns, later changed to six.  The main section contained the college chapel and was to be flanked by two wings. Prominent antipodia were set before the first and second columns on either end.

      Though work had begun on the building in the spring of 1831 on the old site, some delay was involved as the site was changed and a new contract negotiated.  The deep excavation for the new cellar was probably done in the fall of that year, but it is doubtful that serious work began before the spring of 1832. The trustees had hoped to see it completed in 1832, but construction dragged into 1833.  Shryock had rented a house on the corner of Market and Mechanic Streets and moved his family into it, so that he might keep a constant eye on the project.  Delay was not always the contractor's fault as Shryock made very clear in a note to the trustees on August 10, 1832, after the third payment to him of $5,000 had not been made by the Board.

       "In several instances where I had contracted for materials, and agreed to make payments at periods subsequent to 1st of July; the persons after having brought the articles to the place of delivery ( and being informed of my inability to comply on my part ) have disposed at; and delivered the materials to other persons.  Besides this the number of hands in my employment at times requires that I should be enabled to pay them their wages, whenever due, and demanded of me; or else surrender their services which at this time is essentially necessary to enable me to comply with my contract."       

      Winter always slowed up the work, but Shryock was certainly expecting to finish the building in the summer of 1833 in time for the opening of school in the fall.  But a catastrophe hit Lexington which neither he nor anyone else could have prepared for - and against which all were helpless.  This was the terrible scourge of the cholera epidemic.

      The spread of cholera from Asia and Europe to America can be traced in the newspaper accounts of its arrival at major ports throughout the world, for international commerce not only provided for the exchange of goods from one part of the world to another, but diseases as well. Ineffective quarantine measures did little to prevent its spread.  Cholera was reported in Montreal in the spring of 1832, and by fall it had reached Cincinnati, Louisville, and Frankfort.  Wintertime acted as a damper on its spread, but in June 1833, cholera arrived in Lexington.  An estimated one third of the population fled the town.  The rest waited, among them Henry Clay who weathered the trial that summer with his fellow citizens.  Doctors, including members of the Medical Department of Transylvania, were as ignorant of the cause and cure of cholera as the layman, and offered only the most general and speculative advice which proved to be sadly ineffective.  The disease proved to be democratic, for it struck both rich and poor, literate and illiterate alike.

      During July and August the local Lexington press reported that over five hundred Lexingtonians died out of a population of six thousand.  The doctors were overworked, and three of them died.  Gravediggers were in short supply, and some of them left town.  Only the famous town vagrant "King Solomon" rose to the occasion to help bury the dead and was later immortalized for his efforts in a short story by James Lane Allen.  Mathias Shryock died, and it was reported that Gideon, finding no one to help him, had to bury his father himself.

      Work on Morrison College - for this was the official name attached to the new structure ¬was naturally delayed by the epidemic.  Not until September 1833, did Lexington return to normal and workmen hurry to finish their task.  A building committee of the Board found much left to be done as of November 1, but the trustees were determined to make use of the new facility.  On November 4 by arrangement with Shryock, the building was allowed to be used for official dedication.  A special procession, formed at the court house to march to Morrison College for the occasion, included the governor of Kentucky, state officials, faculty, students, city officials, and clergy.  The next day special commencement exercises, delayed by the cholera, were held in the chapel.  The day after, a convention of teachers was held, highlighted by a speech by Dr. Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, on the "Dignity and Importance of the Profession of Teaching."  Thus was Morrison College launched.

      Plasterers and carpenters were still finishing work in May 1834, but the building had been sufficiently completed to be of use that winter.  For all the pride he must have felt in designing and building Morrison College, young Shryock must have aged considerable in the nearly three years it took to build it.  As late as 1835, Shryock was still seeking payment, and in a pathetic plea to the trustees, he wrote:

       "In relation to the balance which is yet owing me on account of the contract;  I hope the trustees will make arrangements to pay it to me immediately, as I am in great need of it.  Since the Trustees have had possession of the building, and free use of it for their college purposes; - the law suits, perplexities and other difficulties I have been involved in on account of it; have been the means of alienating me from my friends; destroying my credit; agitating my mind, and disqualifying me for all the purposes for which my genius and talents had fitted me."       

      The turbulence surrounding the building of Morrison College has long since been forgotten.  The building remains a lasting tribute to this Kentucky architect.  It was one of the most significant achievements of Transylvania in the decade of the 1830's. "

Old Morison Hall, Transylvania University
Lexington, Kentucky

This page was last updated: June 17, 2020
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