- 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
Simultaneously Hadfield was offered the job of designing the Marine Barracks in the southeast section of Washington. This, too, he owed to Jefferson. It was more congenial work than designing jails; he planned the commandant’s house and a long row of one-story colonnaded quarters for the men, with a simple two-story residence for officers in the middle. There was some urgency to finish the barracks, as the men were living in tents. When the civilian workmen dawdled, the Marines themselves were called upon to help build their own quarters. This worked well, for their speed was quickened by the approach of winter and also by a doubling of their rum ration. Nothing remains of the original barracks: in 1900 all the Hadfield buildings were razed except the house of the commandant, and it was greatly changed. But despite these alterations, the windows, the pilasters, and the oval rooms retain much of the original elegance.
Another building generally credited to Hadfield was the 1803 Arsenal on Greenleaf Point, the southernmost extremity of the District. This, too, must have come to him through Jefferson’s patronage. Though there is no documentary evidence that Hadfield was the architect, the symmetry of the plan and the arched windows, as shown in a Mathew Brady photograph of the building, point to his authorship.
Hadfield did not have to depend on Jefferson’s patronage once he was freed of Thornton’s animosity. He received the commission to build two hotels, one of which (the Willard) is still standing, though entirely altered; the other (the National Hotel) has been torn down. Having grown up in his father’s inn in Florence, Hadfield was well-equipped to judge the requirements of public lodging. In these, as in his other buildings, elegant details such as widely spaced windows and doors surmounted by arches are virtually his autograph.
Custis, George Washington’s stepgrandson, wanted a house that was a stage set. Hadfield built a superb one.
Though so many of his buildings have been torn down, his lasting fame depends on what has been spared—two buildings and a mausoleum: Arlington House, the City Hall (at one time the district courthouse), and the Van Ness Mausoleum. Today they stand much as he designed them.
Arlington House was built by George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson of General Washington. He was by far the greatest landowner in the vicinity of the District of Columbia, and he wanted a mansion that would house the relics of his grandfather that he had collected—a kind of Washington museum. He wished his home to be impressive, and Hadfield gave him what he wanted. The architect designed a huge portico with Doric columns five feet thick at the base, and covered the facade and these hollow Greek columns with “hydraulic cement,” scored to look like stone, which in turn was marbleized to enhance the effect of magnificence. The steps could not be seen at a distance, and thus were merely of wood, while the back of the house was, originally, exposed brick. Custis, who was a playwright and deeply interested in the theater, wanted a stage set; Hadfield provided a superb one. In Greek architecture everything is kept in scale, but Hadfield, desiring his portico to be seen from a great distance, amplified his columns until Custis’s living quarters seem to huddle behind a gigantic colonnade.
Unsurpassed in its delicate elegance, George Hadfield’s architecture was wholly original.
Arlington House was one of the first American residences to be inspired by Greek, rather than Roman or Palladian, architecture. From his magnificent portico Custis could look down on the miserable squalor of the capital, so different from the splendid city his step-grandfather had envisaged. Had he been in charge, he would have built it differently. With his passion for Greece, it might have resembled Athens; but according to Latrobe, Jefferson “abominated” Greek architecture. Custis, who hated the third President as vehemently as his grandmother had, believed, as she did, that Jefferson had betrayed General Washington. Custis may have felt that Arlington House, with its Doric colonnade, offered a challenge to a city handed over to speculators and to Jeffersonian taste. Hadfield, though dependent for his architectural resuscitation on his sister’s lover, may also have disliked him. It is significant that he never visited Monticello.