1.   Historical note

2.   Scope and content

3.   Provenance

4.   Processing note

5.   Inventory

6.   Subjects

    List of finding aids

    R.I.H.S. Library page

    R.I.H.S. home page

 Norman Morrison Isham Papers

 Architect, Providence, R.I.

 Papers, c. 1888-1950. Bulk dates 1899-1943.

 Size: 3.5 lin. ft.

 Catalog number: MSS 508

 Processed by: Robin P. Flynn, May 1997

©Rhode Island Historical Society

Manuscripts Division


Historical note:

            Norman Morrison Isham (1864-1943), an important Rhode Island architect considered a foremost authority in the field of early American architecture and furniture, was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the son of Henry and Frances Elizabeth (Smyth) Isham. His father died when Isham was young. Isham was adopted when in his teens and at that point, moved to Rhode Island. He attended preparatory school in Providence, and went on to receive both his undergraduate and Master's degrees in art from Brown University in 1886 and 1890, respectively. Though his name is primarily associated with his historical restoration work, he was also a designer of contemporary buildings.

            His professional life as an architect began while he was still working on his education, for the firm Stone, Carpenter, & Wilson in 1886. He left there in 1892 to work for a brief time independently. From 1894-1896, he was head draftsman for the office of Martin & Hall; then, from 1899-1903, he went into practice with a partner, Benjamin Wright (1871-1962). Isham worked independently as an architect from 1903 on. However, throughout his career he was also teaching in his field: at Brown University (1894-1898) and at the Rhode Island School of Design (1920-1923, and after 1933). From the years 1912 to 1920, and 1923 to 1933, Isham was director of the department of architecture at RISD.

            Isham published several books during his lifetime. His first, one he co-wrote with Albert Brown, was Early Rhode Island Houses, published in 1895. The book was the first serious attempt to study 17th century colonial architecture in the state, and was instantly successful. Isham's reputation as an authority on early American architecture began at this time. The correspondence, notebooks, and newspaper articles in this collection are indications of the extent to which Isham was consultant or director for restoration works in Rhode Island, New England, and states outside the New England area. His Rhode Island work includes the Stephen Hopkins House in Providence, the Redwood Library, Trinity Church, and Old Colony House in Newport, the Eleazer Arnold House in Lincoln, and the Gilbert Stuart birthplace in North Kingstown. In addition to his several books, Isham wrote many papers (some of the manuscripts are in this collection), and lectured extensively.

            Concerning his personal life, Isham married Elizabeth Barbour Ormsbee of Providence in 1895. He lived for much of his life in Wickford, Rhode Island, to which he moved around 1918 (he built his own home). His wife died shortly after the move to Wickford. Isham continued to live there until his death in 1943. He did not have any children.


Jordy, William H.; and Monkhouse, Christopher P. Buildings on Paper: Rhode Island Architectural Drawings 1825-1945 (Providence, R.I.: Brown University, 1982)

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Scope and content:

            The collection contains correspondence, diaries, notebooks, manuscripts for some of Isham's papers and book projects, research notes, newspaper clippings, and indexes and inventories originally intended as guides to Isham's papers. Most material dates between 1899 and 1943; some correspondence ranges up to 1950.

Note concerning the indexes and inventories:

            Most of the indexes and inventories (series 1) are outdated and not useful as guides to this collection. They were compiled before the papers became the property of the Rhode Island Historical Society. However, they can be perused to get an idea of the scope of Isham's activities and his impact on architecture in both R.I. and areas outside the state. The "Isham inventory" (folder 2), compiled by John Hutchins Cady, includes some of the materials in this collection, but also lists items from the Isham estate that wound up in the possession of other parties or organizations. Only the "Norman M. Isham notebooks" index is thoroughly relevant to researching this collection.

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            Most of the collection was gifted to the RI Historical Society in 1962 by architect John Hutchins Cady (1881-1967), who studied under Isham. Mrs. Royal W. Leith, Isham's nearest relation at the time of his death in 1943, donated twenty-five memoranda diaries in 1969. In 1980, she gifted a patent certificate belonging to Isham's uncle (who shared Isham's name), and Isham's RIHS membership certificate (located in the Manuscript Division's oversize collection); in 1981, she donated several more miscellaneous items including the 1846 passport, newspaper clippings and some papers of Isham's stepfather, Willard L. Wellman. A letter from Isham to Daniel Goodwin, dated Feb. 12, 1903, was donated by Nino D. Scotti in 1974, and an undated report by Isham on the Esek Hopkins House was donated by Hope Phillips in 1977.

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Processing note:

            Most notebooks, diaries, and letter books have been left as they were originally arranged upon their receipt at the library. However, many of the loose papers, especially those in the John Hutchins Cady accession of 1962, needed organization and/or serialization. Careful attention was paid to the provenance of any papers that were re-organized. Any purely visual material, such as sketchbooks, photos, or architectural drawings, was transferred to graphics. Photocopies of the transferred material and/or photocopies of the transfer documents have been left in place of the originals. In cases where supplementary sketches, such as those in the diaries and notebooks, accompany Isham's written observations and contribute to an understanding of the research, the visual renderings have remained in the manuscripts collection. For a specific list of transferred items, please see transfer list below.

            The alphabetically-arranged research notes in series 4 (folders 1-6) were kept as originally found, but put into new folders. The small amount of manuscript material present among the data was left there, as it was determined that removing it to another series would detract from the comprehensibility of the notes.

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Series 1. Notebooks, diaries, and sketchbooks. (See "Norman M. Isham note books" index for everything except the contents of box 6.)

The notebooks in boxes 1 and 2 are dated from the 1890s to the 1930s.

Box 1. Connecticut nos. 1, 2.

             Rhode Island nos. 1-5.

Box 2. Massachusetts nos. 3 and 6.

             N.H., N.Y., Massachusetts, Maryland.



             Record extracts nos. 1-3.

Box 3. Wright & Isham office notebooks

             No. 1: 1899-1905.

             No. 2: 1905-1911.

             No. 3: 1911-1914.

             No. 4: 1913-1915.

             No. 5: circa 1915-1927.

             Notebook, circa 1901.

Box 4. Wright & Isham office account books (2), undated.

             Architect's record book, circa 1902 (date range unknown).

             Architect's notebooks (2), undated.

             NMI's Brown University lecture notes, 1894-1895.

Box 5. Trinity Church notebook (Newport), nos. 17 and 18, 1922-1928.

             Redwood Library (Newport), 1914.

             Old House Memoranda/notebook no. 9, 1895.

             Notebook no. 15, 1900-1903.

             Historical notes/notebook no. 20, circa 1899/1900.

             Sketchbooks, nos. 4 (c. 1904) and 13 (c. 1925).

Box 6. Diaries, 1899, 1909, 1911, 1913-1920, 1922-1923, 1925-1931, 1933-1936, 1938

             Account book, 1909-1939.

Box 7. Isham genealogy notebook. Compiled by NMI.

Series 2. Indexes and inventories.

Box 8, folder 1. Norman M. Isham notebooks, edited and indexed by John Hutchins Cady.

Box 8, folder 2. Isham inventory (with duplicate fragment).

Box 8, folder 3. "Supplement", sections 1-8.

Box 8, folder 4. "Massachusetts photograph file list."

Box 8, folder 5. "Album no. 2: fireplaces and mantels."

Box 8, folder 6. "R.I. index of architectural details."

Box 8, folder 7. "Magazine index, colonial."

Box 8, folder 8. "Isham's indexes including magazine index (non-colonial)."

Box 8, folder 9. "Isham's Rhode Island index." (Despite the note below the title, there is no             corresponding card index.)

Box 8, folder 10. "Isham's Providence index." (Like the above, there is no corresponding card             index.)

Box 8, folder 11. "Miscellaneous list."

Series 3. Correspondence.

Loose volume, Wright & Isham business letterbook, 1892-1900.

Loose volume, Wright & Isham business letterbook, 1900-1905.

Box 8, folder 12. General correspondence, 1899-1945.

Box 8, folder 13. Correspondence with Samuel Batchelder re: Peter Harrison (architect, 1716-            1775), 1897-1920.

Box 8, folder 14. Letter from NMI to Daniel Goodwin, Feb. 12, 1903.

Box 8, folder 15. Correspondence with Eben Putnam (publisher and genealogist), 1904-1908.

Box 8, folder 16. Correspondence concerning Isham genealogy, circa 1906-1936.

Box 8, folder 17. Correspondence re: John Holden Greene (architect, 1777-1850),             1910-1946.

Box 8, folder 18. Copies and drafts of letters by NMI re: architectural and restoration work,             circa 1913-1933.

Box 8, folder 19. Correspondence with William Sumner Appleton (New England Society for the             Preservation of Antiquities), 1914-1940.

Box 8, folder 20. Correspondence re: renovation of old barracks, Trenton, NJ, 1915.

Box 8, folder 21. Correspondence re: restoration of Dutch Room of van Courtland House, New             York, 1916.

Box 8, folder 22. Correspondence re: restoration of Eleazer Arnold House, Lincoln, RI, 1916-            1950.

Box 8, folder 23. Correspondence re: Goddard and Townsend furniture, 1918-1937 and undated.

Box 8, folder 24. Correspondence re: restoration of Stephen Hopkins House, Providence, RI,             circa 1925-1935.

Series 4. Manuscripts to papers and books written by NMI.

Box 8, folder 25. "Colonial Architecture at the Revolution"

Box 8, folder 26. " Wingate House in Wethersfield"

Box 8, folder 27. "The New England Church Spire and its Forerunners", with illustrations.

Box 8, folder 28. "The Development of the Colonial House"

Box 8, folder 29. Miscellaneous manuscripts. The folder contains -

            "Colonial Architecture in Rhode Island"

            "Old Colonial and New"

            "Doors, Windows, and Porches - 18th Century"

            "The Carrington House"

            "The House in America"

            "Colonial Architecture: Our Heritage"

Box 8, folder 30. John Holden Greene: Architect. 1777-1850.

Box 8, folder 31. Address: "George Waterman Cady, F.A.I.A.", given before the R.I. Chapter             of the A.I.A., Dec. 11, 1906.

Box 8, folder 32. "Report on the Esek Hopkins House", for the Park Commission of the City             of Providence (undated).

Series 5. Research notes.

Box 8, folders 33 and 34. Isham genealogy (circa 1906-1936?).

Box 8, folder 35. Notes on Adam Ferguson, tobacconist, Newport, RI, covering time period             1771-1790. Related to Isham genealogy?

Box 8, folders 36-38. Research, John Holden Greene biography.

Box 8, folder 39. Research, John Holden Greene biography, Carrington House (Providence).

Box 8, folder 40. Research, John Holden Greene biography, St. John's Church (Providence).

Box 8, folder 41. Research data, Stephen Hopkins House restoration, circa 1925-1935.

Box 9, folders 1-6. Alphabetically arranged research data concerning various restoration projects             directed by or involving NMI.

Box 9, folder 7. References regarding brickwork.

Box 9, folder 8. Miscellaneous pamphlets.

Box 9, folder 9. Annual report of Boston Schoolhouse Dept., 1906-1907.

Box 9, folder 10. Research notes on Goddard and Townsend families (furniture makers).

Series 6. Newspaper clippings.

Box 9, folder 11. NMI obituaries, January, 1943.

Box 9, folder 12. Articles on Isham, his projects, general architectural restoration, etc., circa             1890-1949.

Box 9, folder 13. Undated newspaper clippings concerning Isham projects, John Hutchins Cady,             and general restoration issues.

Box 9, folder 14. Clippings regarding Goddard and Townsend furniture.

Series 7. Miscellaneous.

Box 9, folder 15. Miscellaneous items. The folder contains -

            French passport for Norman M. Isham, almost certainly NMI's uncle (1822-1853), dated                         October,1849.

            NMI's wedding invitation.

            Diagram for Isham cemetery lot, Hartford, Ct., dated Oct. 3, 1913.

            Military furlough pass for Willard L. Wellman, NMI's stepfather, dated Sept. 8, 1862.

            Notice of discharge from Independent Boston Cadets for Willard L. Wellman, dated July                         2, 1862.

            Notice of discharge from Co. D, 45th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry Volunteers,                         for Willard L. Wellman, dated July 7, 1863.

            College newsletter (undated), handwritten draft by "Isham & Goff, edtrs."

            Notes by Mrs. Royal Leith, Isham's cousin.

Box 9, folder 16. Publications relating to Goddard and Townsend furniture.

Oversize collection -

            Patent for steel manufacture, belonging to Norman Morrison Isham (1822-1853), uncle                          of Norman Morrison Isham, architect (1864-1943).

            Rhode Island Historical Society membership for NMI (architect, 1864-1943).

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Architecture - R.I.

Arnold, Eleazer (dates unknown)

Cady, George Waterman (1825-1906)

Cady, John Hutchins (1881-1967)

Diaries, 1899-1938

Ferguson, Adam (dates unknown)

Furniture, Early American

Goddard Family

Greene, John Holden (1777-1850)

Harrison, Peter (1716-1775)

Historic buildings - R.I. - Conservation and preservation

Hopkins, Esek (1718-1802)

Hopkins, Stephen (1707-1785)

Isham, Norman Morrison (1864-1943)

Isham family

Student newspapers and periodicals - R.I. - Providence

Townsend Family

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