STEPHEN DECATUR BUTTON was born on June 15, 1813 in Preston CT to Roswell and Lydia Avery Button. He apprenticed for five years to his Uncle Samuel Button, a carpenter, at the age of sixteen. Button moved to New York City after gaining his freedom where he became an assistant to the architect George Purvis, with whom he remained for about two years. Striking out on his own, Button worked independently for a decade in the Hoboken, NJ, area. In the mid-1840s he moved south, working in Florida and Georgia in 1845-46.
In the latter year he entered and won the competition for the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery with a Roman Revival design. Relocating to the Philadelphia area, he formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, Joseph C. Hoxie, in 1848. This formal relationship continued until about 1852 when it was dissolved by mutual agreement. The earliest known Hoxie & Button design is the Egyptianesque Odd Fellows’ Cemetery Entrance, built around 1849 in Philadelphia. By the 1850s, however, Button appears to have fully embraced the picturesque, eclectic, and flexible Italianate style that would characterize most of his important commissions, such as the Spring Garden Institute, from around 1851-1852, and the Romanesque First Baptist Church, built between 1853 and 1856. In 1854 Button entered the competition for the Academy of Music and secured the second premium after the winning design of Lebrun and Runge. In 1858 he designed the more conservative Colestown Cemetery gatehouse, which still stands at the corner of Church Road and Kings Highway.
A successful contemporary of Thomas Ustick Walter and Samuel Sloan, Button was one of the organizers of the Pennsylvania Institute of Architects in 1861 which later became the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. His practice was largely confined to Philadelphia, Camden, NJ, where he designed the City Hall and several schools and churches, and New Jersey shore communities.
In Camden, Stephen Decatur Button’s most lasting work has been the Richard Fetters School on the southwest corner of South 3rd Street at Walnut Street. Erected in 1875 along with two identical twin structures, the Isaac S. Mulford School which was diagonally across the street, and the John W. Mickle School at 6th and Van Hook Streets, Fetters remains in use in use in 2007, long after many schools built subsequently were abandoned. The design in Camden that he was most recognized for in his day was of course Camden’s City Hall, which stood on Haddon Avenue, and remained in use until its replacement in 1930. He also designed the First Presbyterian Church, and the Second Presbyterian Church.
Besides his work in Camden and Philadelphia, Stephen Decatur Button also designed at least 30 buildings in Cape May and Sea Isle City, may of which remain in use today. Among his works were the Chalfont, Congress Hall, and Stockton Hotels.
Stephen D. Button has been characterized by his biographer as “a capable, financially successful architect much in demand in the Philadelphia area” in the mid-nineteenth century.”
Stephen Decatur Button had moved to Camden by October of 1854 when his wife Hannah Mariah, bore him a son, William Goodwill Button. A daughter, Maria Lydia, known as Lydia, came two years later. The Buttons made there home at 330 Mickle Street. They still lived there at the time of the 1880 Census, although William had wed and moved out on his own.
Stephen Decatur Button would remain at that address though the rest of his life. By 1887 his neighbor at 328 Mickle just happened to be the famous poet Walt Whitman. One can only speculate on whether these two creative individuals influenced any of the other’s work. As an old man, he didn’t wear glasses to do his work.. When he was eighty, in June 1893, Mr. Button was presented with an illuminated testimonial to which were appended the names of forty architects of various parts of the country. A sketch of his life was published in the Philadelphia papers, and on his anniversary he was deluged by telegrams of congratulations from friends throughout the country.
Mr. Button died on January 17, 1897. He gave his valuable architectural library to the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Stephen Button was also a one of the most learned mineralogists in South Jersey, and had a private collection of rare and beautiful specimens. This collection was given to the South Jersey Institute.
Stephen Decatur Bunting was succeeded in his office at 430 Walnut Street in Philadelphia by Schermerhorn & Reinhold. During his life he was a member of the following organizations, the American Institute of Architects (the AIA), the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA, and the Pennsylvania Institute of Architects. He also was affiliated with the Spring Garden Institute.