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Happy Birthday James Dakin! (1806)

Early Life

On this day in 1806, James Harrison Dakin Jr., was born in the Township of Northeast, New York. His parents were James Dakin Sr. and Lucy Dakin.  After his father passed away in 1819, James was sent to his aunt’s house in Hudson New York, where he learned the trade of carpentry from her husband.

New York

In 1829 James moved to New York City to pursue architecture. As luck would have it, he managed to secure an apprenticeship with the firm of Town and Davis, two of the most renowned architects in New York in this era.  He was made full partner in 1832. It is from this position that James Dakin hired James Gallier Sr., who would also later become a prolific New Orleans architect. (For more info about James Gallier, check out his birthday post

Julia Row

Town, Davis, and Dakin’s building plans were very popular, not only in New York but also throughout the south. In New Orleans, the firm was hired by A.T. Wood to design a set of thirteen row houses on Julia Street. These buildings – now referred to as Julia Row, are sometimes attributed in design to A. T. Wood, as he was also an architect, but according to Town, Davis, and Dakin records, Dakin was paid $140.00 by A.T. Wood for use of these plans. According to the application for inclusion to the National Register, these buildings are a combination of the older Federal style and the emerging Greek revival style. The three and a half stories, with their exposed brick, 6 over 9 paned hung windows flanked by green shutters, are very reminiscent of contemporary Northeastern urban architecture, most notably of Philadelphia and Baltimore.  Balconies on the second level consists of wrought iron worked into a crisscross pattern. In the fourth floor, the most easily recognized feature of Greek revival style is the Doric entablature which is undecorated, but for tiny mutules (small peg-like embellishments found beneath a cornice). The doors are Federal in style, with wide semicircular fanlights above the door, decorated with floral bouquets made out of plaster. Flanking the door are Ionic Columns and sidelights with plaster embellishments.

While these buildings were very popular upon their completion in 1832, as people moved out of the urban core, quite a few of them were neglected and turned into boarding houses and commercial properties. An effort by the Preservation Resource Center in 1975 brought these buildings to the attention of the public and raised funds for their renovation.

New Orleans

James Dakin moved to New Orleans in 1835, to create the firm of Dakin and Dakin with his brother Charles. They quickly expanded into Mobile, with Charles running the office out there.

St. Patrick’s Church

One of the earliest bids awarded to Dakin and Dakin was St. Patrick’s Church, the first Catholic Church outside of the French Quarter. In 1838 the Dakin Brothers designed this magnificent ecclesiastical structure in the Gothic Revival style complete with pointed arched windows and crenelated tower. Sadly, we will never see this building in all its glory because James Dakin was not allowed to complete it. James Gallier was appointed to the project midway, and he made major changes to the building, including simplifying the design dramatically.

State Arsenal


In 1839, the state government, at this point still located in New Orleans, decided that they needed a new arsenal to store weapons and ammunition. The site for this new armory was 600 St. Peter Street, behind the Cabildo. Of all the plans submitted James Dakin’s were chosen, perhaps due to his role in the State Militia. Although it is designed in the Greek Revival style, it isn’t exactly the typical Greek temple that we all think of when we hear the words “Greek Revival”. Sure there are four pilasters that are deep enough to give the illusion of full columns, but there is no portico and no triangular pediment to cap the building. In the space of the pediment, there is a heavy cornice, with flag decorations. The whole building is topped with a square parapet with a relief of a pelican and exploding bombs carved into it.  Instead of a recessed portico with a porch, there are tall two story recessed windows covered with iron screens and an iron door.  With all the metal and reliefs of ammunition, it is not surprising to discover that this is an armory.

This building is very unique for New Orleans, but it has a cousin in Philadelphia. Designed in 1824 by John Haviland, the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent (formerly the Franklin Institute) is very similar in that it contains four two story tall boxy pilasters and while also lacking a triangular pediment, the building is capped by a parapet. Overall the Philadelphia structure is much simpler than the Louisiana Arsenal, as it has no decorative reliefs. Perhaps as Dakin had spent his early life in NYC, one would imagine he had traveled to Philadelphia and seen this building.

Louisiana State Capitol

In 1845, a provision in the new Louisiana State Constitution demanded that the state government be moved out of New Orleans, so they moved upriver to Baton Rouge. A capitol design contest was issued and Dakin’s plan was chosen. The building was dedicated December 1, 1849, and fully completed in 1852. This would become James Dakin’s most important buildings, certainly his most talked about.

At the time people had mixed reviews about this new capitol. In his book, Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain describes it as, “pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things….should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place.”

Even with these harsh criticisms, preservationists should be interested in this building because as according to Talbot Hamlin, this building is special because, “It shares with the old Georgia capitol at Milledgeville the honor of being the only Gothic state capitol from before the Civil War.”

It should be pointed out that the Capitol building isn’t just a Gothic Revival building, it exemplifies the style.  This building was brick in construction covered with a marble façade. The front of the building contained no less than 4 crenelated towers, two square and two octagonal, flanking the main section. Pointed arch windows were abundant on all towers, with a large Ogee arched window placed in the second story above a similarly shaped front door. Decorative features include marble mouldings above the windows, carved quatrefoils, iron tracery on the larger windows, and crenellation at the roof. It is a castle, after all.

In 1862, Louisiana state government moved out of Baton Rouge once it was occupied by the Union, who took over the capitol building for use as a prison. Within in a month of the takeover, a large fire engulfed the building, destroying the interior. Renovations were overseen by William Freret who added some of his own flourishes to the building (For more info about William Freret, be sure to check out our William Freret post With the construction of a new Louisiana a State Capitol in 1932, Dakin’s masterpiece was no longer used to host government actions. Today it is a museum.

Custom House

As he was up in Baton Rouge working on the State Capitol, James Dakin’s attentions were still on New Orleans’ architectural activities. As early as 1846, Dakin had been interested in designing the new Custom House on Canal Street. He submitted three different plans, but was passed over in favor of A. T. Wood. (One of these plans was strikingly similar to his Gothic Revival capitol – with crenelated towers and pointed arched windows.) When A. T. Wood was dismissed from the project over a contract issue, Dakin appointed 2nd Architect to the Custom House August 12, 1850. While he was required to follow Wood’s design, he had serious misgivings with the plans as they were written.

After about a year on the project, James Dakin resigned. His reason being that he would have to stick to Wood’s plans, and have no chance to amend them as necessary.  Lewis Reynolds was appointed to the position, then was recalled. Thomas K. Wharton, G. P. T Beauregard, and John Roy were also superintendents of the construction of this building – which took a painstaking 40 years to complete. In the end many of Dakin’s recommendations were actually used including installation of iron supports.


James Dakin died on May 13th, 1852 at the age of 46. It is unclear what he died from – the Times Picayune claimed it was a “long and painful illness” but according to Scully, it is possible that he picked up an intestinal issue during his earlier stint in the military.  James was probably buried in Baton Rouge although he may have been reburied in Girod Cemetery in New Orleans, which has since been demolished and replaced with a parking structure.

Sources Consulted:

  • Christovich, Mary Louise., Roulhac Toledano, Betsy Swanson, Pat Holden, Samuel Wilson, and Bernard Lemann. New Orleans Architecture, Volume II: The American Sector (Faubourg St. Mary) ; Howard Avenue to Iberville Street, Mississippi River to Claiborne Avenue. Gretna, LA: Pelican Pub., 1972.
  • Ferguson, John C. “Charles and James Dakin.” In org Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published January 6, 2011.
  • Goeldner, Paul. “Old Capitol (Veterans Memorial Building)”. National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form. Historic Sites Survey Division of Historic and Architectural Surveys, National Park Service, Washington D.C., January 18, 1974.
  • Hamlin, Talbot. Greek Revival Architecture in America. New York: Dover, 1964.
  • Schmidt, Larry. “Julia Street Row or Thirteen Buildings.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form. Preservation Resource Center, New Orleans, January 31, 1977.
  • “St. Patrick’s Church.” St Patricks Church RSS. Accessed July 22, 2016.
  • Various Times Picayune articles.