- 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
It is especially strange that Jefferson, who wrote Maria that he considered Hadfield “as standing foremost in the correct principles” of architecture, never offered the architect any work on the University of Virginia. Both Hadfield’s friend Latrobe and his enemy Thornton designed pavilions there and were in constant touch with Jefferson, but this honor was denied to Maria’s brother. There is every reason why the two men should have shared a close friendship, but this never happened. Possibly Hadfield resented Jefferson’s having been his sister’s lover; possibly Jefferson felt guilty about his constant pleas for Maria to come to America and his failure to offer her support or marriage. Whatever the cause, the two men remained at arm’s length. The President was prepared to be a patron but not to be a friend.
With the years, Hadfield’s position in Washington society improved. In 1802 he stood for election as a city councilman. He lost by only one vote, and the next year succeeded in getting elected to the council.
In 1800 he had patented the first brick- and tile-making machine. It was not at first lucrative, but Latrobe encouraged him in this project as he did in all others. “Six years ago …,” Latrobe wrote in 1808, “I believe you would have made a tolerable income out of the thing [his tile manufactory]. Now,—I, that is the public are so much in want of such a covering, that I should be willing to risk as much upon the scheme as I could possibly spare. I want a roof that after I have resigned, or been turned out, or am dead, shall not disgrace me by being neglected by my successor. … If you can possibly get a good quality of tile ready this season, I will employ them entirely on the public buildings. …”
Presumably Hadfield took advantage of this offer. Nevertheless, he seems to have remained, if not poverty-stricken, certainly impecunious. In 1814 he had to borrow the modest sum of $132 from a William Rhodes. Ten years later he had not repaid it. He was twice able to produce $5 toward the interest, but that was all. In 1824 he was sued, pleading in his defense the statute of limitations; but the court held against him and decreed that he must pay. Where he found the money we do not know.
In an 1822 letter to Jefferson, he asked the ex-President to tell his sister that “I am in good health and doing well; the former thanks to providence, as to the latter I cannot say much. There is a stagnation in the building line owing to a scarcity of money, that is very injurious both to architects and mechanics. I have for the two preceding seasons been occupied in the building of the City Hall. …”
The City Hall still stands. Although not completed until 1849, it remains essentially as Hadfield designed it. There is no more beautiful building in the District of Columbia and few in America. Hadfield had at last received a commission worthy of his talents. Unsurpassed in its delicate elegance, the building proves that architectural beauty does not depend on ornament.
Hadfield’s architecture was wholly original. In his design for the City Hall, he used ten unfluted Ionic columns, six bearing the central portico and two on each projecting wing. Those at either end, standing in front of portals, seem enframed, as though exhibited as works of art. The critic Harry F. Cunningham wrote in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects : “There are very few buildings in the world … whose proportions are so agreeable and whose details are so refined and correct. I personally have never known another building from which I learned so much of the high art of architecture as I did from the study of the old Court House [the City Hall] in those far away days when I could still climb about a building with a tape line and measure its perfection.”
One last masterpiece remains to be mentioned. The loveliest of Hadfield’s designs, though now falling into disrepair, still survives. It is the Van Ness Mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. A circular building of brick and stone, it was inspired by the Temple of Vesta, which Hadfield had seen and sketched during his Roman sojourn. Like the Old Courthouse, the mausoleum is a jewel of proportion and refinement, now moldering away in its isolated but lovely setting.
The Van Ness Mausoleum was completed in 1826, the year of Hadfield’s death. Perhaps with some intuition of his coming dissolution—he was ill of dropsy—he bought four sites in the Congressional Cemetery. He was close friends with a family named Elliot and seems to have given two of his burial sites to them. The fourth plot remains vacant. The gravestone marking William Elliot’s tomb is a beautiful broken column on a high base. It towers over Hadfield’s grave, which is only a small stone with the lettering George Hadfield Architect 1826 . The solitary expatriate—brilliant and unhappy—was modest to the end.