The High Art Of George Hadfield

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George Hadfield was one of the most distinguished architects ever to practice in this country, yet he is so little known that no book has been written about him and very little has been published in architectural journals. Born in Florence in 1763, the son of an English innkeeper, he arrived in America in 1795 and made Washington his home for the remaining thirty-one years of his life. Among other buildings he designed is Arlington House, now a museum overlooking Arlington National Cemetery. He also contributed substantially to one of the finest complexes of buildings ever erected in the capital: the first offices of the Departments of State, Treasury, Navy, and War, four separate edifices connected with the White House so that they seemed wings of the presidential mansion. Like so many of Hadfield’s Washington buildings, they have disappeared. But his most important achievement still remains: the old City Hall, which inspired its much larger neighbor, the original National Gallery of Art, dedicated in 1941. A century after Hadfield’s death, the gallery’s architect, John Russell Pope, told me his principal model had been Hadfield’s neoclassical facade, which some architects consider to be the finest in America.

George Hadfield’s history is puzzling, and his personality complex. He was immensely gifted; as a young man, he won every architecture prize the Royal Academy offered, including one which provided a stipend for four years of study in Italy. It was generally agreed he was the most promising young architect of his generation.

But suddenly, back from Italy, he renounced his career in London and decided to emigrate to America. Nobody knows why, though the cause may have been an unhappy romance with the Countess of Chesterfield. No correspondence between them survives, but the countess did leave Hadfield fifteen hundred pounds in her will. Their brief love affair probably took place just before his departure for America.

The inspiration for Hadfield’s precipitate decision is not known. But when his close friend in London, John Trumbull, the American historical painter, recommended him for a job on the capitol building then being erected in Washington, he was responsive. Trumbull wrote Tobias Lear, secretary to General Washington, that he understood that Stephen Hallet, the superintendent of the work, had “fail’d to meet with that approbation which was expected,” and suggesting that Hallet be replaced by Hadfield. “Mr. [Benjamin] West, now President of the Royal Academy, [feels] that no young man in England possesses more perfectly the Theory of Civil Architecture than He does.” Trumbull concluded his letter: “I have taken the liberty to write this to you, because I have no acquaintance with either of the Commissioners [who were in charge of building the capital]… I will thankyou to mention the Subject to them… the Terms on which [Hadfield] is to be employ’d, & which I am authorised on his part to say, are not expected to be very high. …”

Lear was delighted to receive Trumbull’s recommendation and not only transmitted the letter to the commissioners but sent a copy to General Washington. Trumbull, though a painter, was also an experienced politician, and he sent a second letter to his brother, who was in Congress. This letter likewise was forwarded to the commissioners and Washington. Trumbull knew the President would be pleased to do a favor for a congressman, especially one that cost him nothing.

At first the commissioners tabled the matter; they were occupied with other problems—securing funds, lot sales, and procuring building materials. When the President told them to answer Trumbull’s letters at once, the reply, written on December 18, 1794, said that there was not “an opening sufficient to encourage Mr. Hatfield [sic] to come to the City.…” Washington, annoyed, took further steps, and two weeks later the commissioners let Trumbull know that they had decided to hire his protégé.

Hadfield sailed for America in April 1795. His travel vouchers indicate that he arrived on October 22 and immediately took up his duties as superintendent. He settled in with Dr. William Thornton, who had designed the new Capitol.

A friend of General Washington who was raised in the West Indies, Thornton boasted that he had learned to be an architect during two weeks in the Philadelphia library. Nevertheless, he won the competition for the Capitol. Hadfield took little time deciding the choice had been a poor one, and five days after arriving in Washington, the young architect presented his astonished host with a well-reasoned and utterly destructive criticism of Thornton’s plan for the Capitol. Hadfield pointed out faults that he felt made his work as supervisor impossible: the building, he said, would be a disaster.

His criticism may have been just—a few years later the architect Benjamin Latrobe wrote President Jefferson, “I judged very ill in going to Dr. Thornton. …”—but it was scarcely politic. Thornton was the most powerful commissioner and he was a man who bore a grudge.