Builders For A Golden Age

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L’Enfant was so impressed by the grandeur of the work and with his own importance as the founder of the city that he quite lost his head. He wouldn’t cooperate with the commissioners. He wouldn’t explain his plans. He suddenly and without warning ordered his men to tear down a house one of the Carrolls had started to build in what L’Enfant decided was the middle of one of his favorite avenues. Before long, to the horror of Jefferson and Washington, who wanted to have the city an accomplished fact before there was too much talk about it, he had managed to flush every local vested interest so that the Georgetown people and the speculators who had laid out lots at Hamburgh on the Eastern Branch and the great tribe of Carrolls were all at sixes and sevens. There appeared a L’Enfant faction and an anti-L’Enfant faction.

He became so embroiled that although Jefferson had sent him Clérisseau’s drawings for the Richmond capitol from which to study details, he never found time to prepare plans for the federal buildings. He had them in his head, he told Jefferson. “I rest satisfied the President will consider,” he wrote, 
 
that erecting houses for the accommodation of Government is not the only object, nay, not so important a one, as the encouragement to prepare buildings at those principal points, on the speedy settlement of which depends the rapid increase of the city … to change a wilderness into a city, to erect beautiful buildings etc. to that degree of perfection necessary to receive the seat of Government of a vast empire in the short period of time that remains to effect these objects is an undertaking vast as it is novel.

Houses for the accommodation of government Jefferson and Washington were determined to have. The foundations must be laid before some faction reared up in Congress and squelched the whole grandiose scheme. After some further urging that L’Enfant present the plans he kept talking about but never divulged, they decided to hold a competition. In March, 1792, Jefferson drew up an announcement that the commissioners would offer !500 for a suitable plan for the President’s house.

When few architects appeared to take part in the competition, Jefferson submitted a drawing of his own, in which he set a skylighted dome, similar to the dome that had so intrigued him on the Paris grain market, on a version of his favorite Villa Rotonda. He signed it with the initials A.Z. and kept the secret of his authorship so close that for years the sketch, which remained among the papers of his friend Latrobe, was attributed to an Alexandria builder, Abraham Faws.

The prize was awarded to James Hoban, a young Irish immigrant who had won a fine arts medal in Dublin and been induced to come out to Charleston to design the first South Carolina statehouse. The drawing he presented was eminently practical and had a pleasing modesty which immediately attracted Washington, and Jefferson too. Jefferson was not the man to push his own project. It was part of his gentleman’s code, already quaintly archaic in his lifetime, that a gentleman didn’t claim authorship of designs for a building any more than he used his own name when he wrote in the newspapers or published books. But neither was Jefferson a man to neglect making his influence felt. Much of the architectural character of the White House as it stands today depends on those later additions such as the terraces and the curved south portico which Jefferson either designed or had built under his direction.

When the time came to open the competition for the Capitol, Jefferson wrote the commissioners, as usual putting his own ideas in another man’s mouth, that the President felt that instead of facing the buildings with stone of different colors as had been suggested, he would prefer them faced with brick, possibly above a stone water-table, and using stone for ornament and trim.

“The remains of antiquity in Europe,” he added, “prove brick more durable than stone.” He gave the exact dimensions of the flat Roman bricks. He had measured them himself. “The grain is as fine as our best earthenware.” The prospectus he drafted called for a brick building, gave dimensions for a Senate chamber and a House chamber, and left about everything else to the ingenuity of the architect.

By this time news of the competition had spread through the states. The projects submitted for the Capitol showed an unexpectedly high order of invention. A great period in American building was about to begin. In all the seaport towns, merchants and shipowners and successful sea captains were rummaging in their strongboxes for funds to pay for mansions and public buildings of frame and brick which would express the new dignity of Americans as citizens of an independent republic.

Samuel Dobie, who had helped in the building of Jefferson’s Virginia statehouse and may have known that Jefferson had a fancy for this work of Palladio’s, sent in a monumental Villa Rotonda.

Samuel McIntire, already busy ornamenting sea captains’ houses at Salem and Newburyport with his New England version of the style of the Adelphi, worked out a highly accomplished design in the full tradition of the late eighteenth century in England, which some architects still consider his most interesting project.