John Appleton Wilson, a member of the fourth generation of a rich and well-connected Baltimore family, was born at 11 E. Pleasant Street and raised, from 1855 on, at “Oakley,” an Italianate villa set on thirteen acres near the present corner of Fulton and Edmondson Avenues in Baltimore.
The Wilsons were enthusiastic Baptists, and J. Appleton’s father, the Rev. Franklin Wilson, was an amateur clergyman. His mother, the former Mary Appleton, was from Portland, Maine. Wilson seems to have lived quietly, but good connections, both in Baltimore Society and in the Baptist denomination, played a considerable role in his professional life.
Wilson attended Columbian College, a Baptist college in Washington DC, from 1871 to 1873. In the year 1873-74 he studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
He seems to have entered practice in Baltimore in 1874, working first in the office of Baldwin and Price, then with E. Francis Baldwin alone, then with W. F. Weber. He had formed his own practice by 1877 and was for many years associated with his cousin, William T. Wilson, in the firm of Wilson and Wilson.
J. Appleton Wilson designed about 40 houses in Baltimore’s “Belvedere” neighborhood in the 1880s, as well as many churches (not all Baptist) and a wide range of commercial and industrial buildings. He also worked extensively in the upper South, designing buildings in Virginia and North Carolina. By the testimony of his meticulous diaries, he worked rapidly. He performed many of the functions of modern structural and mechanical engineers.
From the 1890s on, he designed many houses in the suburbs of Baltimore and in the surrounding countryside. Many of his buildings survive. In this writer’s opinion, he was at his best as an urban eclectic architect, and he was capable of very good design. Notable surviving work includes: Belvedere Terrace (east side) in the 1000 block of Calvert Street, the B.F. Newcomer house at 1211 St. Paul Street, the Charles Rous house at 104 W. Biddle Street, and the E. B. Bruce house at 1112 Calvert Street. The Georgian revival, which he adopted in the early-1890s for city work and for some suburban houses, left his muse cold.
From the evidence of his diaries and his output, he drove himself hard for about 25 years. Beginning in the late-1890s, however (probably after an inheritance), he traveled frequently in Europe, and his work load seems to have fallen off. He may have designed several small downtown buildings after the fire, but his office diaries, exact in earlier years, become vague.
From 1885 to approximately 1892, he lived in a picturesque row house of his own design on the Oakley property. Oakley was sold for development in 1892, and Wilson moved to 1013 St. Paul Street, where he lived for the rest of his life. In 1877 he married Mary Wade, a Virginian. Two sons died in infancy. A daughter, Virginia A. Wilson (1881-1955), died unmarried.
Wilson was active in the Municipal Art Society and in numerous old-family patriotic societies. Fortunately for us, he was corresponding secretary of the Maryland Historical Society, thus his daughter left his papers (and several hundred photographs) to the Society.