Builders For A Golden Age


For years L’Enfant, with his mighty imaginings unrealized, haunted the unfinished city, the first of a long train of injured men waiting for redress. When ElIicott resigned in a huff as surveyor, Jefferson wrote begging him to keep his complaints out of the newspapers. In the end Thornton, too, in spite of the sudden establishment of his reputation as America’s leading architect, joined the ranks of the disappointed. The federal city seemed to devour men of talent.

As Jefferson’s collaboration with Washington’s administration became more and more uneasy, his personal influence diminished at the federal city. The project was beset by every difficulty conceivable. Flocks of speculators rode in, bought lots on borrowed money, took fright in the panic that followed the inflation of the stock in Hamilton’s Bank of the United States, sold at a loss, and were ruined. The streets were a morass. At high tide the creeks backed up into the low-lying lots. Clumps of unfinished buildings moldered in the scrubby undergrowth. There was never enough money to pay the workmen. There were never enough workmen to do the work. When workmen arrived they found no houses to live in.

Washington and Jefferson were both stubborn men. Each in his own way pushed the work on the government buildings on through inconceivable disappointments. It was not till the triumph at the polls in 1800 of the western settlers and the farmers, planters, mechanics, and tradesmen who made up the Republican party that Washington’s survival was assured.

Jefferson as President in the fresh air of the new century was able to take full charge of the work in progress. He appointed Benjamin Latrobe as surveyor of the public buildings. Latrobe was a really great architect, a man of true originality who was able to reconcile Jefferson’s meticulous taste with the grandiose plans inherited from L’Enfant and Thornton. His artistic education had been steeped in the classical revival. In Charles Cockerell’s office in London he had learned to prefer an Attic plainness to the spindling elegances of the Adam style. He was” a competent engineer versed in the mechanical inventions which were transforming European society. Jefferson found Latrobe’s inventive mind stimulating and congenial; together they were able, pulling down the bad workmanship and shoring up the good, to complete the White House and the Capitol’s two wings and to set the print of their fresh republican style on the government buildings so that Washington City became the center of this first great period in American architecture.

After his own retirement Jefferson was to write Latrobe, when at last he too resigned, like the others, disappointed, underpaid, and resentful after having devoted years of his life to the Capitol: “I shall live in the hope that the day will come when an opportunity will be given you of finishing the middle building in a style worthy of the two wings, and worthy of the first temple dedicated to the sovereignty of the people, embellishing with Athenian taste the course of a nation looking far beyond the range of Athenian destinies.”