John Swift Holbrook

Biography of John Swift Holbrook

Member of an old and distinguished American family, John Swift Holbrook continued in his own career the tradition of prominence long associated with the Holbrook name. His father, Edward Holbrook, was president of the famous Gorham Manufacturing Company in the great period of its growth and development. Mr. Holbrook succeeded him in this office and carried on his policies with complete success.

The Holbrook family is of English origin, traditionally seated in Dorsetshire. It was founded in America by Thomas Holbrook, son of Sir Thomas Holbrook, of Broadway, Dorsetshire, England, who was born in 1601 and left Weymouth, England, in 1635, accompanied by his wife, Jane (Kenzman) Holbrook, and their four children. His name appears in the records of Weymouth, Massachusetts, in 1640, and apparently he was a leading citizen of that town for we find him chosen selectman in 1641, 1645, 1646, 1651, 1632, and 1654. He was one of the grantees of Rehoboth, Massachusetts, in 1645, but failing to go there and settle, he forfeited his share. In 1649 it is recorded that he was a member of the committee to lay out a highway from Weymouth to Dorchester. From him the line of descent is traced through Thomas (2), his son, Deacon Peter Holbrook, Eliphalet Holbrook, in the fourth generation of American descent, Eliphalet (2), in the fifth, Ensign Henry Holbrook, Eliab Holbrook, Eliab (2) Holbrook, to Edward Holbrook, father of John Swift Holbrook, of this record.

All members of this family were men of prominence in their generation. Ensign Henry Holbrook, born on August 27, 1756, died at Bellingham, his birthplace, on October 1, 1833, was a soldier of the American Revolution, serving in the company of Captain Jesse Holbrook on the Lexington Alarm, April 19, 1775. and later, from May 9 until August of that year in Captain Samuel Cobb’s regiment. He was also in Captain Jesse Holbrook’s company, Colonel Wheelock’s regiment, in 1776 on the Rhode Island Alarm; in Captain Samuel Fiske’s company, Colonel Ephraim Wheelock’s regiment in Rhode Island in 17771 in Captain Amos Ellis’ company, Colonel Benjamin Hawes’ regiment, in Rhode Island during 1777-78; and in Captain Nathan Thayer’s company, Colonel Ebenezer Thayer’s regiment in the Continental Army in New York in 1780.

Edward Holbrook, son of Eliab (2) and Julia Ferry (Morse) Holbrook, and member of his family in the ninth generation of American descent, was born at Bellingham, Massachusetts, on July 7, 1849, and died at his summer home at Stamford, Connecticut, on May 19, 1919. Educated in the schools of Bellingham and Hopkinton, Massachusetts, he began his active career when he was sixteen years old, entering the employ of Bigelow, Kennard and Company, dealers in watches, jewelry and silverware in Boston. For five years he continued in this position, and in 1870, the year he attained his majority, he became a salesman for the Gorham Manufacturing Company, an old established silverware manufacturing house. Mr. Holbrook soon became widely familiar with the details of its operations, and demonstrated his executive talents to such good effect that he was subsequently placed in charge of the New York agency of the firm, and in 1888 elected treasurer of the company. In 1894 he succeeded William H. Crins as executive head of the organization, being the third president of the company since its foundation. Mr. Holbrook continued to discharge the duties of treasurer and president until 1918, when he resigned from the former office. Under his able guidance the company entered upon the greatest period of development in its history. New avenues of progress were opened up, and many important reorganizations carried to completion with decisive effect for the continued success of the Gorham company. The Gorham name came to be taken as a symbol for all the highest qualities of excellence in the silversmith’s art, and this reputation Mr. Holbrook jealously guarded throughout his long executive term.

Mr. Holbrook was also one of the organizers of the Silversmith’s Company in 1905. He was elected its first president, and filled that office until his death, serving, in addition, as a director of the subsidiary organizations of that company. His business interests were wide in extent, including – many important companies. He was a director, among others, of the American Brass Company, the Hanover National Bank of New York, the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company, Spaulding & Company of Chicago, the Maiden Lane Realty Company, of New York, the Rhode Island Hospital Trust Company, of Providence, the General Fire Extinguisher Company, the Biltmore Hotel Company of New York, and others. He was a member of many clubs and civic organizations, and in recognition of his distinguished career he received the medal of the Legion of Honor from the French Government at a time when possession of this great distinction was granted to few Americans.

Edward Holbrook married, on February 18, 1874, in Boston, Massachusetts, Frances Swift, daughter of John J. and Mary (Hichborn) Swift, her father president of the Boston & Fitchburg Railroad Company, her mother a member of the Boston Hichborn family to which Admiral Hichborn belongs. Mr. and Mrs. Holbrook became the parents of two children: 1. John Swift, subject of this record. 2. Lilian, born on March 7, 1878, married on January 3, 1906, Count Guillaume de Balincourt, and resides at Neuilly-sur-Seine, France.

John Swift Holbrook, son of Edward and Frances (Swift) Holbrook, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on March 4, 1875. In the year following his birth, the family home was established in New York City, and in private schools of this city he received his preliminary educational training. Later he entered Harvard University, from which he was graduated with the Bachelor of Arts degree in 1896, and subsequently completed a two-years graduate course in architecture at Columbia University. In the fall of the year, 1898, he went to Paris to continue his architectural studies under M. Henry Duray, and soon afterwards was appointed attache of the United States Government to the service of parks and gardens at the Paris Exposition. From November, 1898, to November, 1900, he served in all capacities in that department, gaining much valuable experience in association with the masters of landscape architecture. After the completion of his work in Paris, Mr. Holbrook traveled for a period of almost a year in Italy, Sicily, Egypt, Germany, and England, in further preparation for his chosen career as a landscape architect.

In the autumn of 1901 he returned to the United States, and established himself in business in New York City, where he organized the firm of Brinley and Holbrook, landscape engineers and architects, continuing until May, 1906, when Mr. Holbrook discontinued the association. This firm is still actively engaged in professional work in and about New York City with conspicuous success. In the year 1905, Mr. Holbrook was elected to the directorate of the Gorham Manufacturing Company, and in May, 1906, he was chosen vice-president, with offices at the New York headquarters.

From this time on, the affairs of the Gorham Company occupied his chief attention, and on October 15, 1908, he removed to Providence, which was to be his home thereafter until his death. Mr. Holbrook ably seconded his father’s efforts in building up the great enterprise with which they were both now connected. In responsible position, and in charge of much important work, he repeatedly demonstrated a capacity for the executive control of large affairs which was of the greatest benefit to the company. After his father’s death, he was elected president on May 28, 1919, to succeed the elder man. Mr. Holbrook immediately assumed complete control of the Gorham Manufacturing Company, and as its executive head he continued the policies so long associated with the company and the Holbrook name, guiding its affairs with sure hand along the pathway of success. Mr. Holbrook was also president and a director of the Silversmiths Company; a director and a member of the executive committee of the Industrial Trust Company of Providence; treasurer and director of the National Protection Company; treasurer and director of the Maiden Lane Realty Company of New York; and president and director of W. B. Durgin and Company, of Concord, New Hampshire. He was a director for some years of the Providence Chamber of Commerce, and was president of that organization in 1915 and 1916.

Mr. Holbrook was a consistent Republican in politics, and although he never actively entered political or public life, he nevertheless rendered valuable service to the State on several occasions. In 1914 he was appointed a member of the State House Commission of Rhode Island, and was reappointed in 1917 for a term expiring in 1923. During the period of American participation in the World War, Mr. Holbrook was chairman of the District Board of Division No. 1 of the State of Rhode Island Selective Service, holding that important position from July 4, 1917, until the completion of the work of the board subsequent to the signing of the Armistice. At his death the General Assembly of the State passed resolutions of tribute, which said, in part: The honorable John Swift Holbrook long active in the financial, commercial, and social life of the city of Providence, has served his government abroad as attache at the Paris Exposition, and his State as chairman and member for many years of the State House Commission, applying this valuable training of this profession of landscape engineer and architect to the manifold problems of the work of the State house commissions and the additional duties entailed in the construction of the new State office building.

Mr. Holbrook attended the Unitarian Church. He was a member of many clubs including the Hope Club, the University Club, the Agawam Hunt Club, and Squantum Club, all of Providence; the Harvard Club of Boston, and the University Club, Harvard Club, and University Glee clubs of New York City.

On April 11, 1908, John Swift Holbrook married Grace Morgan Sinclair, daughter of John Johnston and Mary Jane (Sloane) Sinclair, of New York City. Mrs. Holbrook survives her husband, continuing her residence in Providence.

Mr. Holbrook’s death, on February 27, 1928, following that of his father within a few years, was a severe loss to the State in whose life he had come to occupy such an important place. His career was one of useful service, reflecting credit upon himself personally, and upon those institutions which he so ably directed.

Source: Carroll, Charles. Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, vol 3 of 4. New York: Lewis historical Pub. Co., 1932.

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