Builders For A Golden Age


A man named Diamond, probably a practical contractor with a feeling for brick construction, presented a square building set about a court that harked back even further in English taste, but struck an up-to-date note by indicating locations for water closets. There were some enlarged versions of the Annapolis Statehouse. There were some intriguing experiments with oval rooms. A recently arrived Frenchman whose name was Americanized as Hallet drafted a dome over a pediment supported by Ionic columns, which presented a compromise between the ornate dome of the Invalides and the beautifully simple dome of the Ecole Mazarine in Paris. He had been talking to Jefferson, who wanted a domed building and who had made a vigorous little sketch of his recollections of the Panthéon, the great domed church on the hill above the students’ quarter on the left bank of the Seine.

When the drawings were shown to Washington, the President found only one which satisfied his sense of pomp and his desire for great scale. This was a drawing submitted by a Dr. Thornton, who boasted of being a rank amateur. Jefferson immediately concurred. Thornton had put the antique forms to modern use. The center of Thornton’s plan was a bold Roman pantheon set up on a sturdy set of rusticated arches. It had the New World flavor.

Born of a family of rich Lancashire Quakers on the tiny island of Jost Van Dyke off Tortola in the Virgin Islands, William Thornton had been educated for medicine in Scotland, and being a young man of some wealth had set out on the customary grand tour. He had been captivated by the classical revival and had spent a season in Paris subject to the fascinations of the salon of Josephine de Beauharnais, whom the clinging new tunics in Hellenic style became so exquisitely. He had turned up in Philadelphia in time to dine with Dr. Franklin before he died, had married a Pennsylvania girl, and had become a naturalized citizen of Delaware. William Dunlap, the historian of the arts of the early republic, speaks of him as “a scholar and a gentleman—full of talent and eccentricity—a quaker by profession, a painter, a poet and a horse racer, well acquainted with the mechanic arts.”

Thornton claimed that he had never thought of architecture till he saw an advertisement in a Philadelphia newspaper of a competition for a library. He bought himself some books, fudged a set of plans, and carried off the prize. Now President Washington could think of nothing but his elevation of the façade for the national capitol.

Jefferson agreed. Yet he and the commissioners had already virtually engaged Stephen Hallet and approved his project. It was a case that demanded more than a normal amount of healing oil to keep everybody happy. On February 1, 1793, Jefferson wrote Daniel Carroll, now retired from Congress and a commissioner:

Doctor Thornton’s plan of a capitol has been produced and has so captivated the eyes and judgement of all as to leave no doubt you will prefer it … It is simple, noble, beautiful, excellently distributed, and moderate in size … The Doctor will go with it to your meeting in the beginning of March. In the meantime, the interval of apparent doubt may be improved for settling the mind of poor Hallet, whose merit and distresses interest everyone for his tranquility and pecuniary relief.

The prize had no sooner been awarded to Dr. Thornton than it became apparent that it would be impossible to erect the building as planned. The columns of the portico were too far apart, there was no way indicated to support the floor of the central peristyle, there was no headroom on the stairways, and important parts of the interior totally lacked light and air. It was up to Jefferson to get the plan into shape.

Hallet had been awarded second prize. Jefferson, who recognized the Frenchman as a competent technician, promptly engaged him to work on Thornton’s drawings. He called in Dr. Thornton, Stephen Hallet, Hoban, and a practical contractor named Carstairs to a conference on ways and means. Dr. Thornton brought along a certain Colonel Williams, who claimed all difficulties could be handled by the use of “secret arches of brick” for support.

Jefferson abhorred the notion, but he kept his feelings to himself. He managed to keep all these gentlemen pulling together to the extent that, by August 15 of the same year, he had a set of workable drawings ready to send on to Washington City. Somehow, in spite of all the burnings and reconstructions and the thousandfold modifications of the original plan, the Capitol, as it stands at present, has, in the relationship of the dome to the general mass and balance of the wings, more affinity to Jefferson’s tiny sketch than it has to Thornton’s original plan.

Meanwhile a miasma of contention arose from the muddy flats of the Potomac. Though many loved him and all admired his talent, nobody could work with L’Enfant. His disregard for money was epic. He was too grand to study ways and means. For him it always had to be rule or ruin. Jefferson wrote tactful letters. Washington sent one of his personal secretaries with soothing explanations to try to induce the Major to co-operate with the commissioners. The secretary was rebuffed. Washington took the rebuff as a personal slight, closed his lips over his uncomfortable dentures, set his jaw, and retired into his implacable dignity.