- Historic Sites
The High Art Of George Hadfield
Some of our finest public buildings were designed by a tormented young English architect whom the world has forgotten
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
Hadfield’s career, however, was not as permanently harmed as Latrobe suggested. His first opportunity for original work came while he was still superintendent of the Capitol. On his own he submitted plans for the Executive Offices, which had to be ready for the arrival of the government in 1800. Washington wanted them grouped near the White House, and in spite of the opposition of President Adams, who desired them near the Capitol, his wishes prevailed. Hadfield’s plot plan and his stylish rendering for the Treasury Building delighted everyone. To Thornton’s chagrin, his enemy’s design received Washington’s enthusiastic support, and eventually it was decided to repeat the elevation of Hadfield’s Treasury Building three times, to house the Departments of State, Navy, and War.
Hadfield was offered no compensation for his work. The commissioners looked on it as part of his supervisory job. He asked at least to be made superintendent during the construction of the buildings he had designed, pointing out that Hoban had been superintendent of the erection of the White House, of which he was the architect. His request, certainly legitimate and reasonable, was refused.
Hadfield fought back. To get working drawings for estimates, the commissioners needed detailed elevations. Hadfield had made them, and now he took the drawings home and refused to return them. He had designed the buildings, he contended, and the renderings were his. The commissioners said they were the property of the United States government; but Hadfield remained adamant, and the commissioners fired him. The buildings were finally erected, from duplicate plans in the the commissioners’ possession. The complex was later burned by the British and rebuilt after the War of 1812, only to burn once again.
Unemployed, Hadfield was soon poverty-stricken. To increase his difficulties, a former subordinate, Redmond Purcell, with whom he had quarreled, Hadfield having threatened to tie up and whip him, now charged Hadfield with embezzlement of public materials. Even his old enemies, the Board of Commissioners, were outraged by such an accusation and in April 1799 wrote Hadfield: “You have acted with the strictest honesty and with great attention to your public duties.”
In spite of such unexpected support, these were bleak years for Hadfield. He became so destitute that he had to pawn the gold medal awarded to him by the Royal Academy many years before. Later, Latrobe, settling his own accounts with the city superintendent, discovered that the medal was being held as security for a loan made to Hadfield. Latrobe bought it back and sent it to Hadfield with a note, saying, “In losing the prospect of an independence arising from your professional talents, it would be too much were you also to part with the honors you have so deservedly obtained.”
In March 1801 Hadfield, in desperation, wrote President Jefferson describing his abrupt dismissal by the commissioners after three years spent superintending the building of the Capitol. He concluded: “I have taken the liberty thus to lay my case before you, with no other view, Sir, than to endeavor to make myself useful, and thereby obtain subsistance in a country which I have chosen to spend the rest of my life in.”
In his petition he had a surprising ally: his sister. Fifteen years earlier Maria Hadfield Cosway, the wife of the miniaturist Richard Cosway, had fallen in love with Thomas Jefferson when he was the American minister in Paris. They were together only a few months during the summers and autumns of 1786 and 1787, but they remained devoted to each other all their lives. In the middle of Hadfield’s darkest summer, Maria Cosway wrote her old love, having perhaps been told of George’s sad state. “My brother Hadfield… looks up to you for protection and Trusts in your justice.” The two letters must have moved the President, for he took immediate action. A new jail was to be built, which Jefferson hoped would prove his theory that solitary confinement would be beneficial to felons. He gave the commission to design the building and to supervise its construction to Hadfield. This job offered the dejected architect a fresh start and was the turning point in his life.
Under the orders of a commission he despised, Hadfield stayed on, but he complained of his treatment to three Presidents.
Overjoyed, Hadfield soon erected on Judiciary Square the first building for which he was paid—a simple, rectangular, brick structure with a hipped roof and a projecting central pavilion. It was so well built that it continued to be used as a jail until 1844, when it was converted into an infirmary and finally destroyed by fire in 1861. Jefferson wrote Maria that her brother had completed the jail “with entire approbation.”