Thomas Alexander Tefft (1826-1859) was a major nineteenth century American architect. He was born in Richmond, Rhode Island in humble surroundings. The names of his parents are unknown, and details of his early years are obscure. Yet he is probably the town of Richmond’s most famous native son.
His talent for drawing was discovered by Henry Barnard, perhaps while the noted educational reformer was conducting his survey of Rhode Island’s educational system in 1843. Acting on Barnard’s advice, the young Tefft left his rural home for Providence in 1845 and enrolled in Brown University in 1847. While a freshman student, Tefft designed (under the supervision of James C. Bucklin) the building for which he became nationally famous–the Union Depot in Providence (1847). Built for the Providence and Worcester Railroad, this massive structure embodied the two principal architectural interests that occupied Tefft until his death–the introduction of ornamental brick architecture to the United States and the employment of a style based upon the tenth-and eleventh-century Romanesque architecture of Italy and Germany.
Tefft during his abbreviated career worked on a wide range of building types–railroad stations, churches, schools, libraries, banks, commercial structures, mills, and residences. His most notable surviving works are Central Congregational Church, Providence (1850-52) and Lawrence Hall at Williams College (1847).
In December 1856, Tefft embarked on a very lengthy tour of Europe in order to study the buildings and work of architects there and to learn European methods of architectural education. After visiting several countries and meeting their leading architects (and even devising an international gold-based monetary theory of uniform currency) he contracted a fever in Florence, Italy and died at the home of his friend, neoclassical sculptor Hiram Powers, on December 12, 1859. At the time of his death, this prodigy was only thirty-three.
As his biographer has stated: “One can only speculate as to the nature of Tefft’s achievement in the field of architectural pedagogy had he survived his European journey.”