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The High Art Of George Hadfield

July 2024
14min read

Some of our finest public buildings were designed by a tormented young English architect whom the world has forgotten

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.

Hadfield and Thornton presented their conflicting ideas to General Washington. The President had his own problems, but he took the time to write a long letter to the commissioners. In the first paragraph he seems definitely on the side of Hadfield, but he then says: “I have not sufficient knowledge of the subject to judge with precision. … You can decide with more safety than I am enabled to do, on the measures proper to be persued under the embarrassment which has arisen from the diversity of opinion.”

The commissioners replied that Dr. Thornton and James Hoban, the architect who designed the White House, both felt strongly that Hadfield’s plan could not be executed “so as to secure stability to the building.” These two witnesses were prejudiced, one because he didn’t want his design supplanted, the other because he hoped to supplant Hadfield. Thornton then tried to ruin his superintendent’s reputation. He wrote Washington a malicious letter pointing out Hadfield’s supposed mistakes and got the commission to try to bully the President once more into agreeing that Hadfield was incompetent. Washington replied:

“In the decision on the case which has been referred to me, much will depend on the real abilities of Mr. Hadfield—of which I can form no adequate knowledge.—If he is the man of science he is represented to be, and merits the character he brings; If his proposed alterations can be accomplished without enhancing the expense, or involving delay;—If he will oblige himself to carry on the building to its final completion … I should have no hesitation in giving it as my opinion that his plan ought to be adopted—otherwise his mortification must be great, and it would in a manner, be defeating the purpose of his coming hither.—On the other hand if there be any cause to suspect him of ignorance, or misrepresentation, the case may be altered and caution become necessary, before he should be indulged.”

All the if clauses in Washington’s letter could be answered affirmatively, and the buildings Hadfield designed after his dismissal prove his “real ability.” But Thornton wanted Hadfield’s “mortification,” and he persuaded the commission to reject his superintendent’s plans out-of-hand. Hadfield’s chagrin was great, as President Washington predicted; but he accepted the more menial role that limited him to superintending another’s designs. Years later he said he had relatively little to do with the appearance of the Capitol.

His modesty in this respect is the more remarkable, for Latrobe had urged him to claim more credit and thus diminish Thornton’s pretensions. As Latrobe wrote him in 1804: “I am now at open war with Dr. Thornton. He has written to me a letter in which he asserts my report to the Commissioners on the public buildings to be false in terms of which according to the fashion ought to produce a rencountre with a brace of pistols.…” He went on to extol Hadfield’s talents, taste, and knowledge as “more easily admired by me, than rivaled.…”

This was high praise from a great architect, but Hadfield’s capabilities were handicapped by a complicated personality that brought him close to a nervous breakdown. His character was a curious mixture of diffidence, modesty, self-confidence, moodiness, irascibility, and contentiousness. He was too creative to be the perfect supervisor and executant of another’s designs. When he was on his own, he showed taste, a personal style, and elements of genius; under the orders of a commission he despised, he was frustrated and unhappy. He stayed on, but he fought a running battle with Thornton, and he complained of his treatment to three Presidents. In his Journal , Latrobe summarized his friend’s unhappy career with great sympathy: “George Hadfield, once a promising young artist sent hither by the English Society of the Dilettanti at the requisition of General Washington, and employed to direct the public buildings, was too young to possess experience and education. Proficient more in the room of design than in the practical execution of great work, he was no match for the rogues then employed in the construction of public buildings, or for the charlatans in architecture who had designed them. All that he proposed, however, proved him a man of correct tastes, of perfect theoretic knowledge, and of bold integrity. He waged a long war against the ignorance and dishonesty of the commissioners and of the workmen. But the latter prevailed, for General Washington, led by his feelings and possessing no knowledge of the subject, sided against him. Thus has Hadfield lost the most precious period of his life, that of the practical study of his profession in the first works he might have executed. …”

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.”

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.

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.

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