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Author Biography

Peter Joel Harrison, a designer of interiors and landscapes, has dedicated himself to documenting architectural details of the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.

His drawings have been published in numerous magazines including Old House Journal, This Old House, Bob Vila's American Home, American Home Style & Gardening, House Beautiful, Cape Cod Life, Early American Life, Garden Design, and Landscape Architecture. (more...)

Additional Info


Peter Joel Harrison
American Doors

The process of writing

December 30, 2012

People tend to think only of the pilgrims and their early wood dwellings when we consider this period of time, but there are a number of fine 17th-century brick houses still standing. Two brick houses that I saw in Massachusetts were the Peter Tufts House in Medford (1677), one of the earliest examples, and the Dustin Garrison House (1697) in Haverhill. A photo of the Tufts House is not included here as a porch and storm door have been added. Originally the house had a paneled door as seen in a watercolor, similar to others from this period.

Dustin Garrison House
Dustin Garrison House (1697)

December 12, 2012

The focus of my house tour was doors since this year I am finishing up the book AMERICAN DOORS. In Albany, New York I visited The Albany Institute of History and Art. There I came across the work of James Eights whose detailed watercolors of early streetscapes show the town (Albany) before many of the old buildings were destroyed. I found something unusual in one of his paintings--a 17th-century Dutch door with decorative iron hinges on the face. I have never seen anything like that before and it will be included in the book.

While I was in the area I crossed the river to Rensselaer and looked at Fort Carlo, a very early "first period" house. I went inside, something I almost never do as it tends to slow me up (I get entangled in conversations that sometimes don’t lead anywhere), but this time I hit the jackpot. There on display was a rear 17th-century Dutch window that was configured much like those you see in paintings of artists like Adriaen Van Ostade. This demonstrates that the people of Albany had more than just the typical diamond pane windows we see frequently in early restorations.

The Albany Institute of History and Art also had an early window on display. This window had a multi-colored medallion in the center, much like those you see in Tudor buildings in England. These finds indicate that very fine things were imported and life was not as plain as we might sometimes think.

Day Mansion
James Eights Watercolor of a 17th-century streetscape of Albany

September 17, 2012

Here are a number of experiences and observations I made during my two week 2012 House Tour. I visited locations in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and finished at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I looked at over 135 buildings and visited 70 different cities and towns and took more than 2,450 photographs.

It took me almost eight months to gather information to help me create an itinerary for the trip. The internet was very valuable.

I prefer traveling by car rather than using an airplane as I enjoy stopping at historic sites as I go. When I made out my itinerary I looked for places of interest in each state to help break up my trip.

The Georgian style Dey Mansion, built in 1740 in Wayne, New Jersey is one of those places.

Day Mansion
Here is a photo of the handle of the Dey Mansion front door.
Day Mansion
Dey Mansion
window detail
Dey Mansion window detail

May 22, 2012

The time for my annual “House Tour” is coming up and I can hardly wait. Each year for two weeks I visit as many historic sites and neighborhoods as I can, searching for unusual architectural details.

This year my focus is on the Hudson River Valley. I have not been to this part of the country for many years. I believe it will yield some very interesting elements to add to my upcoming book American Doors.

The area’s strong Dutch influence is what attracts me and makes it different than any other area in the country.

I plan to look at 145 different houses—that means getting up at 5:00 a.m. and working continually until 6:00 p.m. when most sites close. I won’t stop for lunch, but instead will feast on Snapple and packs of Lance crackers while driving between towns.

I need to return to Deerfield, Massachusetts, as all the photographs I took there last year didn’t print because of a defective chip. The Sheldon House is the primary reason for my return. It has three exterior doors—all with a different arrangement of nailhead trim that I have not seen repeated in any other place.

As I travel back home I hope to stop in East Windsor Hills, Connecticut to photograph a Federal style privy that was featured in the magazine Early American Life five years ago. Even though I completed the book Garden Houses and Privies in 2002, that doesn’t mean I have lost my interest… I am always looking.

I’m sure I will have much more to say when I return.

January 5, 2012

As I fan through the pages I have completed to date, I think what a boon this book will be to teachers and professors involved in instructing students in architecture! I have drawn 267 different examples to date. German, French, Spanish, Dutch and English colonial styles are all included.

September 21, 2011

June’s trip to New England was very fruitful.  I saw forty-five 17th-century houses along with five first period churches. Nailhead trim on doors of that time is seen frequently. The most common application is that of a diamond pattern, but I did find at least six other examples that were completely different, which you will see in the book.

picture of door

Germantown, Philadelphia, PA

drawing of door

Buttolph Williams House, Wethersfield, CT
(First Period 1620-1720)

picture of door

Iron Masters House, Saugus, MA
(17th Century)

drawing of door

Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, VA
(18th Century)

May 10th, 2011

Today I am working on a plate of very early fan lights. They are most simple in style, but very necessary to the project illustrating the development of more ambitious forms later in the 18th century.

January 7th, 2011

It has been very surprising to me to discover that there is so little known of 17th century doors in America. Even in large cities there appears to be little record. However, a few months ago, I learned of a Dutch house in upstate NY that appears to have its original two-part front door from that period. This would be a very rare find indeed. The house is called the 1690s House, and is privately owned. It will be no surprise to you that I have already included it in my work.

picture of door       drawing of door

Another wonderful find was a little known house in Virginia called Criss Cross or Christ Cross, built in 1690. The original owner was a successful shipping agent who imported goods from England to the early colonists. The brick, decorative moldings, windows and doors for his new house were all imported. I contacted one of his ancestors who sent pictures of the original front doors!

Both of these were thrilling to come across since much of what we see are reproductions that are somewhat more primitive than necessary.

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