Monday, September 09, 2019

Who Designed the Octagon House? (continued)

Part Two:
Did William Lovering Design the Octagon House?

In 1796 Robert Morris asked for houses that "must be easy and cheap to execute and at the same time agreeable to purchasers and tenants." Lovering designed and built them. They were unlikely stepping stones to the elegant Octagon House
William Lovering is the only professional architect associated with building the Octagon house. He supervised the contractors who did the carpentry, masonry, plastering and painting. He also measured their work before the house's owner, John Tayloe, paid them.(1) However, architectural historians credit Dr. William Thornton, who won the design contest for the Capitol in 1793, with designing the house, for which ground was broken in May 1799. No contemporaneous contract, letter or memoir attributes the architecture to Thornton or anybody else, but Thornton was known to have socialized with Tayloe. In the early 20th century, historians embraced the assertion of Glenn Brown, a local restoration architect, that the architect famous for designing the first U.S. Capitol also designed the Octagon. When the authorship of a famous house is in question, a famous architect will get the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile Lovering worked in the city for three prominent land speculators, James Greenleaf, Robert Morris and John Nicholson who all wound up in debtor's prison by 1799. The speculators left a paper trail that scales the heights of urban planning and the depths of debt. A small part of it traces Lovering's roller coaster ride to the Octagon during which, by his own estimate, he had “superintended the Building of two thirds of the Houses in the city.”(2) Although no document explicitly says as much, this essay makes the case that, as well as the Octagon’s superintending architect, Lovering was also its designer.

Lovering came to Philadelphia from London in late 1793 or early 1794, where he found that his talents were needed in Washington. The only way to get an idea of the credentials Lovering brought to America is from the expertise he exhibited after he arrived. For example, he was an expert on window sashes. So while Thornton could sketch a line of columns in any order you wanted -- Doric, Ionic or Corinthian -- Lovering let the light come in, let the people see out, and let the air be waved in or shut out, all with the latest London style and efficiency. (Windows seemed to be an obsession of Georgian architects. The Octagon has 32 fronting the street.)

In 1798 the federal Commissioners asked Lovering to inspect models of window sashes for the Capitol made by three contractors including Clotworthy Stephenson who was one of two joiners who had worked on the interior of the Virginia State Capitol in 1787 and had been working in Washington since 1792 and was the city's leading Freemason. That Lovering lectured Stephenson suggests he was his senior and certainly older than Thornton, who was 39 in 1798. For the Commissioners' benefit, Lovering “particularized” how sashes should be made,(3) with Thornton being one of the Commissioners thus instructed.

Lovering soon became the city's expert on window sashes. In his letter to the Commissioners, he has no doubts about which type of sash will work best in the Capitol

Knowing window sashes inside-out does not necessarily mean you can design houses, let alone the Octagon. Lovering probably learned his skills working on the speculative developments of town houses that were the rage in late 18th century London.(4) Thanks to the three speculators that's just the type of development that soon enraged many in the get-rich-quick game now known as the development of the nation's capital.

The speculators needed to build 20 two-story brick houses a year for seven years in order to gain title to the 6,000 building lots they had contracted to buy from the federal Commissioners. The mega-deal was Greenleaf's idea. Since he had the most ready cash, he made the development plan and hired the men, including Lovering, to carry it out.

Developing a city in which there had been virtually no development sounds easy. However, government surveyors were laying out a patch work of building lots half of them owned by the federal government and the other half by the original proprietors. The proprietors had given up their farms and woods to induce the government to move the nation's capital from Philadelphia. By splitting the city's residential squares fifty-fifty all would grow rich together. The Commissioners would use the money from the lots they sold to make grand public edifices which would raise the value of every lot, or so it was thought.

So to own blocks of lots suitable for rows of townhouses, Greenleaf had to also buy lots from original proprietors. He bought what he could from several proprietors and found that Notley Young was eager to sell almost all he owned along the Potomac. After he paid the Commissioners for the lots they owned on Young's land, Greenleaf owned southwest Washington, which in retrospect was not exactly brilliant.

Greenleaf by Gilbert Stuart when the speculator was 30 years old. A wig, ruffles, sneer and a million dollars made him a commanding figure, briefly.

Greenleaf hired James Simmons in November 1793, before Lovering landed in America. By hiring him he sent a message to Philadelphia's elite. Simmons was the son-in-law of the city's foremost carriage-maker and had set up shop as a carriage-maker himself. He was also the younger brother of the Treasury Department head clerk well known to speculators who secured their deals with bonds issued by the Treasury.(5) Morris and Nicholson didn't join Greenleaf until after Simmons inked his contract. Word spread through town that Greenleaf aimed to build “a new elegant style of building.”  Simmons was not exactly to be an architect but a supervisor of the architects Greenleaf would soon hire.(6)

In April 1794, Simmons and his “people” arrived in the city. The former senator who saw them in May did not allude to how many people were in a “people,” but there were enough men on the scene to begin building several wooden buildings to house workers and supplies on what everyone began calling Greenleaf's Point. They also began building the three story brick house at what was then 6th and N Streets SW that still stands.(7)

 This photo  of the-so-called Honeymoon house is from Allen Clark's Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City published in 1901

Architectural historians credit Lovering for designing what is now called  the Thomas Law, or “Honeymoon,” house at 481 N Streets SW, but work started on it before Greenleaf hired Lovering in Philadelphia on May 8. After it was built it was known as "Simmon's house." (It became the Honeymoon house when Morris and Nicholson let Law and his bride, Eliza Custis, have it during the summer of 1796.)

Historians credit Lovering for designing every house built in the 1790s on or near Greenleaf's Point that is still standing. Four on 4th Street SW between O and N now called Wheat Row were in a group called "Clark's houses." Two were in a group called "Lovering's houses." They are now called the Duncanson-Cranch (or Barney Neighborhood) House on N Street SW between 4th and 6th Streets. There is no evidence suggesting Clark didn't design "Clark's houses," so why not merely credit Lovering for designing "Lovering's houses?"

This photo from Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City shows the Cranch half of the very inaptly named Duncanson-Cranch house (in 1798 the former publicly horsewhipped the latter). The house then was in a rawer condition and not handsomely restored as it is today.

Lovering did not move to the city until July, almost a month after Joseph Clark, another builder hired by Greenleaf on May 16, moved to the city. They were to build 10 and 12 houses respectively. Greenleaf probably hired Clark to build more because he was an established architect and builder. Clark had emigrated from England about ten years before Lovering. He settled in Annapolis whose large bricks houses hosted a season brilliant enough to attract the country's elite like John Tayloe of Virginia.

Clark made a name for himself. In 1790, endorsed by influential friends, he had angled for the job of planning the new capital. He went to Mount Vernon to promote his plans for a city with about "two thirds of the number of Houses that are in the City of London." Meanwhile, he had designed and was building a new dome for the Maryland State House.(8) That Washington in the end asked L'Enfant to plan the city was no reflection on his respect for Clark. In September 1793, as a leading Freemason in Maryland, he was asked to give the principal speech at cornerstone laying ceremonies for the new Capitol.

That Greenleaf made with Lovering virtually the same contract he made with Clark also attests to Lovering's credentials. He just lacked workers. He tapped some of Simmons' people and the news of Greenleaf's deal attracted other workers to the city. The federal Commissioners were impressed with Lovering and Clark. When they had to call a board to arbitrate their dispute with an elderly master mason they wanted to fire, they picked them(9).
Just a Simmons did, Lovering and Clark built three story brick houses. That made it clear that Greenleaf had not set out merely to satisfy the contract with the Commissioners which only required two story brick houses. Lovering's and Clark's fee would be 8% of the cost of the houses, so the bigger the better, but it's likely Lovering was puzzled about the location of the cluster of houses he and Clark would build. They were to be over a mile from the Capitol and almost three miles from the President's house, by water. In 1794 people who tried to get from 16th and Pennsylvania NW to 6th and N SW by land often got lost. (Don't you get lost. Today there is no more 6th Street and the Thomas Law house is on 481 N Street SW.)

Since he had met President Washington, the location did not puzzle Clark. Lovering needed a crash course to explain the President's expectation that the capital city was destined to be a world emporium with its hub on Greenleaf's Point. Once locks around the falls of the Potomac were finished in 1796, Washington was confident that the river would become the highway for world commerce. He made sure that the L'Enfant plan divided the city with a canal from the President's house to the Capitol and than when the canal turned south that it divided into two branches with one emptying into the Potomac, where Washington bought 6 building lots, and the other into the Eastern Branch, now called the Anacostia. So by owning southwest Washington, Greenleaf would control a good share of world's commerce. Don't laugh, a Belgian agent for Dutch bankers investigated the canal and the capital site in 1791 and didn't dismiss its commercial potential out of hand. Notley Young had built a wharf on the Potomac shore just off 6th Street SW that pointed due West. But then again that agent didn't advise investing yet.(10)

In 1794 Greenleaf decided to make Dutch bankers invest. Their loans had helped him become a millionaire. When living in Holland, he bought up depreciated American paper money that Congress eventually funded at face value. He reasoned that American land had to seem more valuable to European investors than depreciated paper money. Plus, so that the bank's investment wouldn't depend solely on Washington lots, Greenleaf would use its loans to finance his and Morris's and Nicholson's project to buy, develop and market 6 million acres of Western land, which in that day meant what we now call Appalachia (another not exactly brilliant idea.)

As Greenleaf's agent in Holland opened negotiations for the loan, Lovering and Clark came to a sleepy land of old fields and woods where talk about world commerce seemed out of place. But despite the prospect of having to rough it, Lovering, who had a wife (his second) and a young daughter, must have thought meeting Greenleaf a great stroke of luck. Clark certainly did. His wife Isabella would later describe how, "In June 1794 we Sold our House, our Store of Merchandize, Three Female Slaves, also about one half of our Household Furniture, not to pay our Debts, for we owed none of consequence, NO, but to carry the money to Greenleafs Point."(11)

Because there was no traffic in the largely empty city, the builders erected their temporary, wood-frame family homes right in the middle of whatever street they were building in. So the Clarks lived not on 4th Street SW where he built eight houses but in it, and the Loverings resided in the middle of N Street SW where he built seven houses. When they finished building on those streets, they planned to pick up their houses and move them to their next building site. This was not such a chaotic arrangement, since tenants and slaves of Notley Young still lived in wooden huts and raised crops off paths that criss-crossed the grid of newly surveyed squares.(12)

Commerce soon enlivened the rural scene, a shipload of lumber and lime came from New England and a newly invented brick machine came down from New York City. The latter attracted such a crowd Simmons had a fence built around it. Both builders shared in that largess as did Lewis Deblois, a builder Nicholson hired to build on lots that he had bought a year before he met Greenleaf that were east of the Capitol.(13) When cold weather in fall 1794 ended the building season, Lovering had built three double houses with one pair ready for habitation, and a single house that was thought might be expanded into a hotel. Clark had finished the interior work of a group of four houses and the shells of another group of four.

 A black and white version of a Skinner Auctioneer's image of a painting attributed to George Beck showing southwest Washington. It's only virtue is that everything looks to the West which while inaccurate makes the right sales pitch. Otherwise, the houses were three story but they were not on a curving country lane with trees just so.

Along with Lovering and Clark, Greenleaf also hired a supporting staff led by brothers-in-law to oversee the architects and Simmons. When he sailed from Holland to Philadelphia in 1793, Greenleaf was joined by a Frenchman who wanted to help him spend his money. Viola, by the summer of 1794 there were three Frenchmen working in Washington, a surveyor, an accountant and what we call today a management consultant. In the winter of 1794 Greenleaf was preparing to return to Holland to collect his money. So his men in Washington made building plans for the spring of 1795. They  jelled quickly. Lovering, who had had a late start, would finish his seven houses and build three more on P Street; Clark would finish his eight houses, build four more on O Street and start six on Square 166, which was close to the President's house.(14) Simmons would prepare the ground for six houses on South Capitol Street where it crossed N Street. With a bridge over St. James Creek, soon to be a canal, N Street led to the best place to build wharves on the Eastern Branch where goods would be off loaded onto canal boats in the yet to be built canal or into yet to be built warehouses.

 Detail of a map by Stephen Kuter made for my book Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington 1790-1800 (1991) showing houses clustered at the Point in 1797; "o" for brick house and "x' for wooden, based on information in Greenleaf's Papers but involving much guess work.

Then Greenleaf began getting bad news from Holland. The French army was invading, and Dutch bankers had a devil of a time figuring out how Washington lots that were scarcely selling at all could have any value. Greenleaf didn't panic. He canceled his voyage and proved that he was quite a salesmen. In November 1794, he sold 455 lots for $133,333 to Thomas Law, an Indian nabob whose family was well connected in Britain. ("Nabob" referred to men who made their fortune working in India for the British East India Company.)(15)

 In his letter to his parents William Cranch never wavered in his admiration of his brother-in-law James Greenleaf. In this November 1794 letter he was in total awe.

In their contract with the Commissioners, the speculators agreed that those who bought lots from them would have a building requirement of a brick house on every third lot. So workers on the ground in Washington looked forward to a busy spring building houses. Greenleaf and Law walked together around the Point pointing where they would build. Law fell in love with New Jersey Avenue SE which ran from a good place for a wharf on the Eastern Branch up to the Capitol. They were not exactly cheered on their walk around. A group of Clark's workers clamored that they had not been paid.

As prospects of money from Holland diminished, Greenleaf decided he had to tighten the belt on his Washington operations. The stream of money to Lovering and Clark stopped until there was an accounting of what had been spent. The French accountant was not nice about it. Clark submitted a statement showing that the speculators owed him $33,000. According to Isabella Clark “a french Mutilated Aristocrat, a french Poltroon, Miscreant Ruffian,” began a reign of terror and insisted that Clark owed Greenleaf $30,000. In her stinging letter to all three speculators she blamed Greenleaf's "Myrmydons ...for murdering my Husbands Intellect by Minutia."(16)

Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City's circa 1901 photo of Wheat Row. Given the suffering Joseph Clark and his wife went through, it should be called Weep Row
The problems seems to have been that in the sunshine of Greenleaf largess, all accounts in the city were blended. Lovering, Clark, and Deblois, who worked only for Nicholson, had all shared the building materials Greenleaf ordered from New England.(17) If we can believe Isabella Clark, her husband's personal enemies made sure he took the fall. Lovering seems to have had no role in attacking Clark, but he too suffered from Greenleaf's sudden stinginess.

When the newly invented brick-making machine Greenleaf bought did not make enough bricks, the builders got some, on credit, from Daniel Carroll of Duddington, the city’s principal land owner. Original proprietors of the land had no building requirement, so they made money selling building materials to speculators who did. The contractors thought Greenleaf, having promised an unlimited supply of bricks, should pay the $1,500 bill. He didn't. Carroll was not amused. He wrote to Greenleaf: "I wish you to consider that my bricks are in your houses...." Then he sued the builders.(18)

In June 1795, despite the sale of 455 lots of Law, and large sales to another nabob, William Mayne Duncanson, and James Barry, a merchant fresh from Bombay, Greenleaf walked away from the whole project. He blamed two newly appointed Commissioners, Gustavus Scott and Thornton, for not giving Law title to the lots he bought. They wanted Pennsylvania Avenue NW developed before New Jersey Avenue SE. The Commissioners pointed out that despite the money Greenleaf got from the nabobs, he stopped paying the required installments of money to the Commissioners.(19)

Morris and Nicholson gladly took over the Washington property which they fancied had not prospered because they had let Greenleaf run the show. As Financier, Morris ran the finances of the country during the Revolution. As Comptroller, Nicholson ran the finances of Pennsylvania, until after surviving an impeachment trial, he resigned in early 1794. In parting, Greenleaf made a point of keeping all the money he made off Law, Duncanson and Barry.

Lovering dropped his work and went to Philadelphia where he charmed Morris who hired him for $1500 a year to continue building and supervise all other builders. Nicholson seconded the motion though he continued to rely on his man Deblois. Then he got his copy of Isabella Clark's letter which accused Deblois of commandeering lumber and lime and extorting the other builders. Nicholson dropped Deblois and used another Englishman, William Prentiss, as his builder, but told him to let Lovering supervise all his architectural work. (Nicholson was a wheeler dealer who often had more goods than cash. He supplied both Deblois and Prentiss with products, “wet goods” especially, that they could retail in stores for their workers and others in the nascent city that had few stores.) The partners fired Clark and directed him to give “lumber, building materials, tools and other articles of our property” to Lovering.(20)

Robert Morris trying to look stern. He was the most congenial Founder and there should be many more books about him but the complexities of the financial deals made by the old Monopolist defy the modern imagination
Lovering landed on his feet but it was on shaky ground. Morris also hired Greenleaf's brother-in-law William Cranch who was then overseeing operations at Greenleaf's Point. He was also the nephew of Morris's old friend Vice President John Adams. In a letter to Cranch, Morris discussed the money due to Lovering from Greenleaf: As for "Mr. Lovering's debts and the balance due to him [just over $3000]... you should gain as much time as you can...." Neither Lovering nor anyone else Greenleaf hired ever received any more money under the contracts they made with Greenleaf. Morris promptly sent $50 to Cranch to give to Lovering. That done, Morris told Cranch that "it seems almost time for the City of Washington to support itself."(21) Only their salaries should be sent down from Philadelphia. House rents and lot sales should raise the money to carry on the work. That didn't work out. Only the wooden houses could be rented. Most of the brick houses were not quite habitable. The less opulent future prompted Simmons to leave. He sold his elegant furniture at his house, and "two milch cows," as a last hurrah.(22)

Throughout the winter of 1795-96, Morris sent Cranch a total of $1,000 to dispense to Lovering as needed to finish the houses. Nicholson sent an additional $300, but the check bounced. Lovering managed to finish at least one house to put on the market. On June 13, 1796, Cranch placed an ad in the newspaper for a four-story brick house with coach house and stables: “the house is just finished, and has two convenient kitchens, two parlors and six lodging chambers – a brick pavement in front, and the yard and area are paved with brick.” Morris also had Lovering scout for roofing slate that he needed for his unfinished mansion in Philadelphia. So presumably Lovering was busy.(23)

Architectural historians have him even busier crediting him for designing and building another house that still stands, the William Mayne Duncanson house called The Maples, now at 630 South Carolina Avenue SE. It was built between the fall of 1795 and the summer of 1796. However, no documents or letters even allude to Lovering’s having designed or built it. There were other architects in the city. James Berry built a wharf and "a large double brick building" at the east end of N Street SE along the Eastern Branch.(24) If still standing, it would doubtless be attributed to Lovering. However, in his account book for 1795, Barry entered an October payment of $400 to James Hoban. That was the typical architect’s fee for drawings and estimating costs. Hoban was the architect and builder of the President's house.(25)

Although he was poorly funded, Lovering did not give up on the speculators. He went to Philadelphia in the spring of 1796 to spur them on. If by September 26, 1796, the speculators did not built twenty houses on lots that Greenleaf in 1793 had contracted to buy from Carroll, Carroll would repossess the lots and the speculators would owe him a penalty. Lovering did not care for Carroll, who had sued him because "my bricks are in your houses."

Morris's first inclination was to negotiate a new agreement with Carroll. Lovering was skeptical and warned that Carroll had "a most rigid disposition and will be glad to take any advantage." Lovering wanted to build those houses. Cranch approached Carroll, who proving Lovering correct, refused to negotiate. Vowing that “Mr. Carroll shall not have the forfeiture,” Morris raised $22,000, Nicholson raised $21,000, and building began in late June. Lovering designed the houses with only this advice from Morris: They "must be easy and cheap to execute and at the same time agreeable to purchasers and tenants."(26)

From Morris's letterbook, the upper letter is to Cranch whom Morris used to give money to Lovering
The shells of twenty, two-story brick houses, some with large openings for store windows, were built in three months on the square northwest of the intersection of South Capitol and N Streets SW. The unprecedented achievement rather excited the community; a barbecue for 200 helped fuel the excitement. Plans were made to temporarily rent the houses to carpenters and plasterers in return for their finishing the interiors. Morris and Nicholson both came to the city eager to build more and save their investment. Initially even Carroll was satisfied.(27) (That he soon changed his mind led to lawsuits over who owned the Twenty Buildings not settled until 1814 by the U.S. Supreme Court, with Chief Justice Marshall writing the opinion against Carroll. The legal system in that day was a wonder. In March 30, 1798, Lovering crowed in a letter to Nicholson that he finally freed himself from the “clutches” of Carroll. Then in August he wrote that Carroll was about to win another court judgment against him.)(28)

Perhaps because none of the twenty houses survived, architectural historians look askance at the whole endeavor and give Lovering no credit as their designer.(29) While drawings for the houses have not been found, letters among Morris, Nicholson, Cranch, Lovering and William Prentiss, all mention Lovering's designs. He even had to change the designs after Carroll insisted all the houses be on one square. So Lovering turned five brick houses into ten.(30) He did make one mistake: to pay for building materials he wrote checks on the speculators' accounts after they assured that they would be covered. They weren't. Carpenters and plasterers would work to pay the rent, but they wouldn't buy what they needed to do that work. In early 1797 all three speculators assigned their property to seven trustees, a ploy to avoid debtor' prison. That didn't protect Lovering and the inevitable suits for payment that followed.(31)

Lovering's achievement won him valuable contacts. James Hoban measured the work done to determine what was owed to the carpenters and masons. Subsequently, Hoban used Lovering to measure the work done on the public buildings. This meant that Lovering gained some familiarity with oval and elliptical rooms that were central features in the President's house and Capitol. He also met one of the seven trustees, serving as the trustee's guide as he inspected all the speculators' property. Lovering also met the trustees’ agent on the scene. William Hammond Dorsey was a Georgetown merchant who would also handle financial arrangements for Tayloe during construction of the Octagon, where an oval room would help solve the problem of fitting a house into a lot that was not rectangular.(32)

As for what he made for designing and building the Twenty Buildings, judging from what he wrote in a morose New Year's Day 1797 letter, it amounted to very little. With bankruptcy staring him in the face, Morris lost interest in the Washington property. Nicholson was only 40 years old and had a wife and seven children. He couldn't give up so Lovering wrote to him. Lovering proposed "a final settlement,” taking it to arbitration if necessary. He told Nicholson, "I conceive myself of so little use or consequence that must hardly be worth your notice... It will be impossible for me to continue in this City with such perturbations of mind and embarrassed circumstances." Nicholson was still in the city wary that creditors wouldn't let him leave and appreciated Lovering's circumspection. Nicholson rated any man who did not sue him a friend. He promptly gave him $45.

John Nicholson was almost modern with a knack for juggling other people's money for the general good that never quite came to be. He was indefatigable with a misplaced sense that if the game never ended he could never lose.
Then, on January 16, Lovering's ill wife died, as announced in the local newspaper. Nicholson loaned his carriage for the ride to Rock Creek cemetery. They became friends and shared their ideas about the city. Lovering proposed building 166 three-story houses with dormer windows, which would rent or sell for 25% more than two-story houses. That dream bound Lovering to Nicholson for another two years as they both waited for Nicholson to land money from Europe to continue their building. (33)
Nicholson asked Lovering to estimate the value of all the building done with the speculators' money. Lovering put the value of the brick houses at $100,839 and the wooden houses and shops at $11,821. Before leaving Washington, Nicholson drew up an agreement with William Prentiss to build more houses and, much to Prentiss's chagrin, put him under Lovering’s supervision. That meant Nicholson would send money via Lovering. But since Nicholson sent little money, Prentiss strained to finish the five double houses he’d contracted to build.(34)

Lovering meanwhile sought out new opportunities. In October 1797 he published a notice in Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria newspapers advertising his skills as “Architect, Surveyor and Builder and c." Knowing that securing other clients might even further disincline Nicholson to pay him, Lovering didn't mention the work he got, which probably included a houses in nearby Maryland and Alexandria.(35)

Nor did he tell Nicholson when he hit the big time, a chance to design a public building. In November, the Commissioners asked Lovering to estimate how much it would cost to build George Hadfield's design for an executive office building. The young architect had come to America from England, with the highest recommendations, and was hired to superintend construction of the Capitol. He characterized his own design for the office building as “slightly ornamented” on the outside with interiors “in the plainest style.” He thought the building he designed would cost $40,000 to build. Lovering's estimate was $48,300.(36)

In his November 26, 1797, letter to the Commissioners, Lovering offered to conduct a more “minute” examination of Hadfield's design, implying he could redesign and build it more cheaply. The Commissioners had at this point been without money for two months and couldn't pay their workers. They were therefore delighted when Lovering delivered a design that would cost $42,000 to build. They planned to build at least two and possibly four executive office buildings to house the departments of the Treasury, State, War and Navy so saving $6300 on each was significant.

"Building contractor William Lovering’s 1798 drawing shows revisions to George Hadfield’s design for the Treasury Office and served as the contract document.
Massachusetts Historical Society." From link in paragraph below

Hadfield was not pleased. He vowed to acquaint the Commissioners with the rights of architects and demanded of President John Adams not only that his design be used but that he be hired to build it. Lovering also asked to be hired to build his design. Instead, the Commissioners satisfied neither of them, putting Lovering's design out to bid. Lovering’s bid was the third lowest. (Three years later, the winning bidder would tell the Commissioners he’d underestimated the building’s height by 7 ½ feet and would need more money.)(37)

Though he was shut out of constructing it, with Lovering’s involvement in this major public project, we might say he broke into the big leagues. One architectural historian rues that thanks to the Commissioners, and Thornton was one of them, and Lovering, instead of ''Hadfield’s sophisticated, up-to-date neoclassical building," the city got "a traditional, rather old-fashioned Georgian one." But in 1798, with inflation running rampant, Lovering’s knack for designing an economical building on a large scale must have attracted favorable attention. (The building housed the Treasury Department until President Andrew Jackson had its present home built along 15th Street NW.)

Meanwhile in January 1798, creditors had Lovering arrested for nonpayment of debts. The judge denied bail because Lovering owned no property. The sheriff posted bail for him, however, which allowed him to dun Lovering for petty cash on demand. The creditors had timed the arrest to the Maryland assembly’s annual adjournment, preventing his applying for protection under the new bankruptcy law until the legislature reassembled in December. Lovering worried that, if arrested again, he might have to abandon his five-year-old daughter and a son from his first marriage who had just joined him in Washington. He began to plan a return to England. A friend of Nicholson's in the city warned the speculator of the possible loss of “a man of abilities."(38)

Genealogists have Lovering abandoning his daughter and going to England after his wife died but a letter written over a year later reports that a son from his first marriage joined him in Washington, and, according to another letter, his daughter was still with him.  

Lovering faced two dilemmas: How to make money without losing it all to Nicholson's and his creditors, and how to acquire land without capital to pay for it. He decided to do what he did best, and in lieu of money, take most of his future pay in property. The Commissioners had paid Lovering $300 for his estimate and redesign of the Treasury building. On July 10, 1798, Lovering asked them to apply it as down payment on lot 12 in Square 691, on the southwest corner of the intersection of New Jersey Avenue and C Streets SE. He asked that future payments for his design be used to cover two more annual payments on it. He wanted that square because he knew that Thomas Law was going to build on the lot across the street, indeed according to the Commissioners' records he was Law's agent when the Commissioners' surveyor laid out Law's lot.(39)

Architectural historians suggest that on that lot on Square 689, Lovering built a house that Thornton designed for Law. It had a curving front and oval rooms just as the Octagon design did. Both solved the problem of maximizing space on a lot constricted by an angled intersection.(40) In fact, neither Law's papers nor Thornton's reveal who may have designed or built what is now known as Law's third house. (It was demolished to make way for a House of Representatives Office Building.)
Unfortunately for Lovering, the Commissioners refused to pay for his executive office design. Fortunately for us, his letter back to them complaining about their treatment provides clues to the design of Law’s house. Lovering wrote: “I devoted Chearfully my time and Attention to the Office and have saved you at least 10,000 [for two office buildings] in particularizing the Building design and tho it would be natural for you Gentlemen unacquainted with the trouble of architectural details to under estimate my Services...”

Over the years in the give and take with superintending architects and builders at the Capitol, Commissioner Thornton had confessed that he was incapable of rendering his designs into drawings that builder's could use. So in one sense by accusing all the gentlemen commissioners of being “unacquainted with the trouble of architectural details,” Lovering was being kind to Thornton. However, would he dare make that insinuation if he had just laid out a lot for a Law's building which would accommodate Thornton's design which had the most complex interior of any house yet built in the city?

Lovering’s letter also suggests he did more for Law than just lay out his lot. The Commissioners suggested that to avoid the cost of future installments, Lovering should surrender his interest in the lot he had contracted for in Square 691. Lovering shot back, “I should not be Justified in relinquishing a purchase which is become advantageous by Mr. Law's Building on the opposite lot and to improve which I have made some sacrifices in Contracting with Mr. Law." At the same time he wrote to Nicholson that he had “some prospect of doing business the next Spring."(41) That prospect was probably Law's house.

Lovering likely knew in July, when he had asked for the lot in Square 691, that Law was preparing to build on Square 689. He likely knew because he himself was working on the innovative and intricate design of Law’s house. As for Lovering's self-referenced “sacrifices,” since he was awaiting the Maryland legislature’s return in order to take advantage of the state bankruptcy law, and had advertised those intentions in the newspaper, he had postponed accepting payments that might only have gone to his creditors.(42) Presumably, that means Lovering had asked Law to defer payment for his design.
Maryland’s bankruptcy laws were, for Lovering at least, an ordeal. He had advertised his intentions, as the law required, but that only excited his creditors, who then leaned on the sheriff to arrest him. On December 4, Lovering bemoaned to Nicholson that “the advertisement of my intentions has been a great injury to me for I should have had several buildings...."

In December, Lovering went to Annapolis and secured the pledges of several legislators to support his bill for bankruptcy protection. Some other legislators questioned whether he was a citizen, a requisite for getting protection. Just before adjourning in January, the legislature passed a bill granting him protection, provided he could prove his citizenship. When he appeared before the Chancellor for a final decision, creditors complained about the inadequacy of his bookkeeping, and his case was put off until February.(43)

Lovering viewed the snag as a mere formality. On January 22, 1799, he appealed to Nicholson and Morris on their honor not to use his bankruptcy petition as a pretext for withholding what they owed him. Lovering understood they were short of cash so he asked for Tennessee lands as compensation. He would get the land surveyed, and then to go to London, where, he predicted, he could easily sell it. Evidently, as soon as the ordeal of getting relieved of his debts was over, he wanted to leave Washington.

 Lovering's January 22, 1799, letter to Nicholson on "Honor."

Meanwhile, George Washington was corresponding with John Tayloe about jackasses. On January 23, 1799, Washington wrote that if Tayloe used “ready money” to buy the animals he had expressed interest in during his last visit to Mount Vernon, that “would be very convenient to me, as my buildings in the City call for it....” Washington was trying to convert some of his many assets (but not his slaves) into cash to pay for deliveries of building materials for the two houses he was building side-by-side near the Capitol that would do for boarding congressmen. From the Mt. Airy mansion, near Richmond, that his father had built, Tayloe explained, in a letter of February 10, that he wouldn't buy the jackasses because “I am anxious to appropriate every shilling I can raise – towards the improvements I contemplate putting up in F. [Federal] City.”

Even Virginia’s richest man was feeling pinched for cash. So not surprisingly, he or his agent looked up Lovering, the Washington architect noted for economical designs and ability to finish buildings on time -- even when given just three months to do it. For this, Lovering evidently gave up his plan to go to London. But there was a snag.

On March 9, Lovering wrote Nicholson, “I shall not be able to get any business at this place owing to being insolvent. I could have had a Building to do upon a contract close to fifteen thousand dollars for a Gentleman in [or “of”] Virginia but could get no security therefore have lost it and I hope and trust you will do something for me.” George Blagden, who had just signed a contract to build George Washington's Capitol Hill houses for $11,000, had to put up $4,000 as security, which he would have been obliged to pay Washington if he didn't fulfill the contract. Poor Lovering, by his own calculations, Nicholson owed him $4,000.(44)

George Washington's contract with Blagden was for two three story houses. So the contract Lovering lost could only have been for Tayloe's house which, other than Thomas Law's house, was the only grand house built in or around the city in the coming year. More interesting than Lovering's being unable to get security is that Tayloe evidently didn't have a set design for the house. Lovering was the local expert in coming up with cost estimates for designs, down to the last dollar, but in this case the building was “close to fifteeen thousand dollars.” The contract Tayloe finally made in April was for $13,000, which implies that in March he had not settled on what he wanted in the house, or what he could do without. (According to Dorsey's account book by 1802 the project would eventually cost $28,476.82.)(45)

So sometime in late February or early March, Lovering first became involved with the Octagon. As far as documentary evidence goes, Thornton's first mention of the project is in his April 19, 1799, letter to George Washington in which he wrote simply that Tayloe made a contract to build the house.

It is possible that, any time after Tayloe bought his lot in April 1797, Thornton could have given him a plan for a house to fit it. That's what the author of Building the Octagon thinks. Orlando Ridout V suggests that Tayloe first received a plan for a house from Benjamin Latrobe, who in 1796 was making a career designing buildings in Virginia. Latrobe’s papers contain undated plans for a house for Tayloe on a right-angle corner lot. Ridout thinks that when Tayloe bought the angled corner lot in 1797, he lost interest in Latrobe, who was very busy anyway and had not yet visited Washington. So, Ridout reasons, Tayloe worked with Thornton who had the advantage of being in the city.(46)

But no evidence supports Ridout's timeline. Latrobe's plans are undated. Tayloe and Latrobe would become business associates in a Washington steamship company Latrobe formed in 1813.(47) Maybe Latrobe's plans were for the post-War of 1812 building boom that inspired mansions much like the one Latrobe drew for Tayloe. It also makes little sense that, upon buying a corner lot on an angled avenue that presented a greater challenge to an architect, Tayloe would have stopped dealing with a professional architect and sought a design from Dr. Thornton, a self-professed amateur architect.

Ridout quotes Mrs. Thornton's 1800 diary to show how Tayloe might have solicited a design from Thornton in 1797, 1798 or early 1799, years when Mrs. Thornton didn't keep a diary. In early 1800, after Thornton discussed houses with Daniel Carroll, one of that gentleman's slaves knocked on his door with a note asking Thornton to design a house suitable for Capitol Hill boarders. In two days, the design was done.(48) Carroll's brother built the house and sold it as soon as it was built. Ridout speculates that Thornton did the same for Tayloe between 1797 and 1799, only in this case he designed not an anonymous, quickie boarding house but an architectural treasure. (In Did Thornton Really Design the Octagon house, I discuss Carroll's motivation for asking Thornton for a design.)

In his book Ridout describes a better documented episode showing how a person building a major house found the right architect. In 1801, Belgian emigre Henri Joseph Stier broke off negotiations with Latrobe for a country mansion in nearby Maryland. Latrobe struck him as “one of those who do not finish their work."(49) He sought out Lovering instead. In his April 9, 1800, letter to Greenleaf lauding his new house, Thomas Law mentioned that “Steer” was staying in one of his other houses. Perhaps Law told Stier about Lovering who had designed and built his new house.(50)

Lovering came, Stier wrote to his son, “expressly to show me three different plans, rather ingenious but complicated, and with unattractive facades.... He has proposed to direct my construction with such a plan as I will give him, to attend to the progress and the designs in detail, to come twice each week, and that if I want to hire enough workmen to finish it in twelve months, he will do it for $600....” Ridout uses that quote in Building the Octagon but cuts the words “ingenious” and “complicated."(51) Ridout casts Lovering as a mere builder incapable of designing anything as ingenious and complicated as the Octagon. Cutting those words saves Ridout from having to speculate that Lovering did the Octagon design for Tayloe.

In her introduction to a collection of Stier's daughter's letters, Margaret Callcott writes that Lovering “was eager to make himself agreeable to the wealthy Belgian, and all during March he met regularly with the Stiers and gave them tours around completed houses around Washington.” They signed a contract on March 24, 1801, a month after first discussing the project. Yet architectural historians give Lovering little credit for the design of what was built, concluding that Stier based the design on his house in Belgium.(52)

Stier's adventure in house building does not exactly parallel Tayloe's. The young Virginian bought the lot he built on two years before he broke ground. So he had time to think and rethink what he might build there. Unlike Stier, he also was interested in the investment potential of Washington lots. The first gossip about his interest in the city popped up in late 1796, when rumor had Tayloe building on Square 688, near the Capitol.(53) In the end, he didn't buy lots there. (Latrobe's design was for the southeast corner of a square; if that was Square 688, it would have afforded an unappealing view of the intersection of B and First Streets SE, rather than of the Capitol.)

By the fall of 1798, Tayloe had bought lots elsewhere in the city.(54) So yes, he had two years to think about the lot where he eventually built the Octagon but he bought lots elsewhere in the city. So we can't assume that his purchase of an angled lot in April 1797 started a two year process of deciding what to build there. Indeed there is evidence that he didn't decide to build there until 1799.

Tayloe's letter to Washington about not buying the asses contained just one sentence about the Federal City. The rest of it was devoted mainly to seeking Washington’s advice on a momentous career decision. Should he accept the appointment, arranged for him by Washington, as an officer in the army Washington was raising at President Adams’s request to respond to the threat of French aggression? Or should he run for Congress as a Federalist to stop Jefferson and his pro-French Republican party from gaining power? The newly formed American navy was already at war with France.

Washington recognized the importance of the question and responded two days later without a word about asses or houses. Since opposition to good government was at that moment a greater threat than the French, Washington strongly encouraged the political career. Tayloe already represented his district in the Virginia state senate, so he thought he could easily be elected to represent it in congress. So he needed to start building a house in Washington. If Washington had wanted him as an officer and member of his personal staff, while Tayloe went where war might take him, his family could continue to live in Mt. Airy or with his wife's family in Annapolis.

So Tayloe had two months to find a builder before the traditional start of the building season. He did not live in the city. He needed an established architect and builder. But how would Tayloe have known about Lovering? Unlike Thornton, Lovering was not a man with whom Tayloe would have socialized. But Tayloe's agent in the city, William Hammond Dorsey, did know Lovering. In early December 1798, they conferred about the business of the trustees who trying to extract money from Nicholson.(55) Dorsey was also Georgetown’s senator in the Maryland legislature; Lovering mentioned to Nicholson that several legislators were helping him get bankruptcy protection, possibly including Dorsey.

Lovering's December 4, 1798, letter to Nicholson:
conferring with Dorsey to help out the man who owed Lovering $4,000

Since Tayloe didn't live in the city in 1799, it was likely Dorsey who gave Lovering the bad news that Tayloe required monetary security. Worse news was to come. On April 10, the new sheriff notified Lovering that his creditors had writs that would force the sheriff to seize all of Lovering's property the following day, along with a notice in the newspaper in effect warning people not to do business with Lovering. Because court was in session at the county seat in Upper Marlborough, there were no lawyers in town to help Lovering on short notice. Someone, my guess is Dorsey, who was a merchant not a lawyer, advised him to hurry to Annapolis and see the Chancellor.

Lovering lacked money for the trip. He sought it from Thomas Law, for whom, he said, he had made “some sacrifices.” Law gave him what he needed. In Annapolis, Lovering saw the Chancellor, who quashed the sheriff's writs. This is such a fairy tale ending to Lovering's crisis that one has to suspect the fine hand of a superior power. Indeed, in November, the legislature had elected Benjamin Ogle governor. He was Tayloe's father-in-law. Lovering had the joy of writing to Nicholson about the reaction of their creditors when Lovering gave them the Chancellor's order: “You would have been pleased to see their chagrin."(56)

With the building season about to begin, Thornton wrote to Washington on April 19, “Mr. J. Tayloe of Virga has contracted to build a house in the city near the President's square of $13,000 value.” As Tayloe had just spent the night of April 17 at Mount Vernon, Washington probably already knew all about it. Had Thornton been the Octagon’s designer, then, you might expect a shout out from the former president, yet in his April 21 reply to Thornton's letter, Washington wrote only of his own houses, not Tayloe's.

Unfortunately, Thornton's letter to Washington didn't include the builder's name. Judging from a letter he wrote to Nicholson on April 22, Lovering had not worked out the problem with security yet. While he eventually was superintending architect building the Octagon for a fee of $900, he didn't sign the contract Thornton mentioned. In his letter, Lovering began with his usual update on how Nicholson's creditors had reacted to offers of settlement relayed to them by Lovering.

Then he addressed his own problems: “I have nothing to do here and shall be soon be on my way to Philadelphia, as I now am down to the last shilling without any hope of getting any relief, I am extremely sorry you should be driven to extremity you mention and could I serve you in any thing I should be happy.”

Even though he was begging for money, that is a startling juxtaposition of sentiments: his own sense of worthlessness and his continued devotion to the man who was much the cause of it. Then his letters to Nicholson stopped.

 "...down to the last shilling, without any hopes of getting any relief..."
Lovering April 22, 1799, letter to Nicholson

On April 25 Thomas Law wrote to Washington that “your corner stone is to be laid today and I am to attend” and that same day Law was signing a building contract. Law's April letter to Washington was undated, but marked received April 5. However, the modern editors of Washington's papers cite internal evidence for dating the letter as sent on April 25, in which case Lovering could have signed the contract to build Law’s third house just three days after his morose letter to Nicholson. That Law would suddenly spring the contract on Lovering, renewing negotiations begun the prior fall, is well within the spectrum of Law's excitable character. However, Law's contract has not been found but since Lovering wrote of having made “sacrifices in contracting” with Law back in his October letter to the Commissioners, why not give him the benefit of the doubt and credit him working on both the Octagon and Law's third house? He life certainly turned around. In December 1799 he married his third wife.

That Lovering became the superintending architect at the Octagon despite all his financial woes doesn't prove that he designed it. Yet why, even after the embarrassment of Lovering's being unable to post security, did Tayloe continue to want him as the house's superintending architect? That is to say, why after not hiring Lovering in March did he still wind up hiring him as the man telling the foremen of the workers how to translate plans, the like of which they had probably never seen before, into a reality? The likely answer is that Tayloe needed Lovering because he decided to use Lovering's design for his house. Lovering's lack of security was not an insurmountable obstacle. Someone else could put up the money. For example, James Hoban joined Blagden in putting up security for Washington's houses.

That said, a year later Lovering offered designs to Stier but told him that if Stier didn't like them, he would build what he wanted. Stier hired him and he and Lovering evidently bickered through the building process.(57) However, Tayloe was not on the scene. He divided his time between Mt. Airy and Annapolis. He had to trust Dorsey who handled the money and Lovering who handled the workers. He could not bicker over design details.

There is no clinching argument to prove Lovering designed the Octagon. If he had gone on to design similar houses in the city, that would have come close. But a newspaper ad he ran on May 1, 1800, suggests familiarity with Octagon and similar projects:

William Lovering, Architect and General Builder – Begs leave to inform his friends and the public, that he has removed from the City of Washington to Gay Street, the next street above the Union Tavern in Georgetown, where he plans to estimate all manner of building, either with materials and labor, or labor only. Specimens of buildings suitable for the obtuse or acute angles of the streets of the City of Washington, may be seen at his home.(58)

Ridout suggests that the ad shows Lovering's attempt “to capitalize on his experience with the unorthodox plan of the Octagon.” More likely, he was attempting to capitalize on designs he had made for Law and Tayloe.

Lovering remained in the city at least through 1802. He supervised the construction of a temporary meeting hall for the House of Representatives. Once the Federal government settled in the city, the boom in residential building in the city fizzled. President Jefferson summoned Latrobe to the city to continue work on the public buildings, but Latrobe did not use Lovering's services. Lovering eventually moved to Philadelphia where in 1809 he advertised lessons in architecture and carpentry. He likely died soon after. 

If Thornton did design the Octagon and Law's third house, it certainly didn't inspire him to become a working architect. He offered designs to friends and one, Tudor Place in Georgetown, is as treasured as the Octagon. However, as long as the Capitol grew year by year, his contemporaries never lost sight of Thornton's role in its design. President Washington appointed him as one of the federal Commissioners charged with getting the Capitol built. Architectural historians point to his well documented service as a Commissioner beginning in October 1794 as the perfect prologue to his designing the Octagon. 

In the third part of this essay, I'll show that his work as a Commissioner diminished his reputation as an architect especially at the time when his friends George Washington, Thomas Law and John Tayloe needed one.

1. Orlando Ridout V, Building the Octagon pp. 76, 82, 155-6. James Hoban also measured the work with Lovering but represented the contractors.
2. Lovering to Commissioners, October 4, 1798, Letters to Commissioners, RG 42, National Archives (microfilm)
3. Lovering to Commissioners, January 8, 1798.
6.Greenleaf's letterbook in the Historical Society of Pennsylvania has copies of contracts he made; Simmons' genealogy; Blodget to Commissioners, Dec. 5, 1793.
7,. Dalton to Greenleaf, May 20, 1794 HSP; Letters from Appleton to Greenleaf in the HSP describes the early activity at the Point.
9. Commissioners to Lovering, Clark and Henderson,
10. Cazenovia to Willinks, June 16, 1791 Holland Land Company papers.
11. Isabella Clark to Greenleaf, Morris and Nicholson, November 28, 1795, Nicholson microfilm. For a copy and ms of letter see
12. Appleton to Cranch February 2, 1795 HSP; Lovering to Nicholson, December 7, 1796.
13. Deblois to Nicholson, April 14, 1794; to see two 1795 letters from Deblois to Nicholson see 
14. Appleton to Henry, February 3 & 9, 1795
15. Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City, p. 106.
16. op. cit.
17. Deblois to Nicholson, December 11, 1795.
18. Greenleaf to Carroll, June 8, 1795, Carroll Papers, LC; Carroll to Greenleaf June 9, 1795, HSP. Morris to Cranch, March 6, 1796, the bill was for the nice round sum of 500 Maryland Pounds.
19. Greenleaf and Law in FC pp. 153ff.
20. Nicholson to Clark, August 18, 1795, Nicholson letterbook HSP.
21. Morris to Cranch, August 17, 1795
22. Greenleaf and Law in FC, p.51; Simmons' ad July 3, 1795.
23. Morris to to Lovering Sept 12, 1795, to Nicholson, April 29, 1796, to Cranch October 1, 1795, February 16, May 22, 1796; Washington Gazette, June 22, 1796.
24. Greenleaf and Law, p. 257.
25. Barry Papers Hist. Soc. Of Washington; Barry to Commissioners, April 19, 1796
26. Law to Commissioners, February 2, 1797; Lovering to Nicholson, June 27, 1796; Morris to Cranch April 12 and May 30, 1796
27. Greenleaf and Law in F.C., p. 129
28. Washington Gazette June 25, 1796; Barry to Law, August 4, 1796; Law to LaGarrene, August 22, 1796: Carroll to Morris, May 14, 1797; Lovering to Nicholson, March 30, and August 27, 1798. Carroll last attempt to jail Lovering was over $24 unpaid for bricks for which Lovering was security.
29. Creating Capitol Hill, pp. 79-82, ignores Lovering's role in designing the houses. Bryan in A History of the National Capital gives Lovering credit, p.278.
30. Lovering to Nicholson,[five houses into ten]
31. Prentiss to Nicholson, {check bounce],
32. Lovering to Nicholson Dec. 19, 1796; E.g., Hoban to Commissioners, September 20, 1798; Lovering to Nicholson, March 27, 1797
33. Nicholson to Morris, Dec.1796 and Jan. 1797. Nicholson diary, LC(?) 
34. Lovering to Nicholson [houses]; Prentiss to Nicholson, April 17, 1797; Lovering to Nicholson, May 19, 1797
35. Ad dated October 7, 1797; Rideout, Building the Octagon, p. 29 ; W. H. Bryan  has Lovering moving to Alexandria in 1797 for which there is no other evidence so he probably moved their temporarily while building a house.
36. Lovering to Commissioners, November 26, 1797.
37. Lovering to commissioners, June 21, 1798; Commissioners Proceedings June 20, 1798
38. Ibid. January 14, 1798; Samuel Ward to Nicholson, August 31, 1798. 
39. Bryan, A History of the National Capital, p. 311. Bryan adds that, "If Mr. Lovering was the principal in this enterprise and not merely the architect, he did not carry it out, as a house was built in the latter part of 1799 by Thomas Law who occupied it as his residence in the following year." Bryan was aware of Glenn Brown's rediscovery of Thornton as an architectural genius. Bryan credits Thornton for designing the Octagon. But evidently no one then knew of any reason to credit Thornton for designing Law's house.
40. Creating Capitol Hill, pp. 128-9.
41. Lovering to Commissioners, October 4, 1798; Lovering to Nicholson, October 10, 1798.
42. Commissioners to Lovering, September 22, 1798
43. Lovering to Nicholson, December 4, 1798 and December 27, 1798
44. ibid.
45. Ridout, p. 153.
46. Ridout, pp. 37-49
49. Margaret Callcott, editor, Mistress of Riverdale, p 28.
50. Law to Greenleaf, April 9, 1800, Adams Papers. For some reason in the Founders-on-line edition of this letter William Smith Shaw is listed as the author and he obviously wasn't. He was likely used by his cousin William Cranch to forward the letter to their aunt, Abigail Adams.
51. Ridout, pp. 28 and 76.
52. Ibid. p. 29;
53. Law to Commissioners, Feb. 6, 1797.
55. Lovering to Nicholson, December 4, 1798.
56. Lovering to Nicholson, April 17, 1799
57. Callcott, p. 29.
58. Quoted in Ridout, p. 123

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Two letters from Deblois to Nicholson 1795

Lewis Deblois came from Boston to Washington in late 1794 to build and run a store on the lots of the Philadelphia speculator John Nicholson. Deblois expected Nicholson to help him establish and maintain his credit until his operations could take off. A combination of bad luck and bad bills of exchange ruined Deblois. He wrote to Nicholson frequently. There are many more letters like these in the Nicholson Papers at the Historical Museum of Pennsylvania. The collection is available on microfilm. At the end of their relationship Nicholson tried to wiggle out of his obligations by insisting that Deblois had not maintained a proper accounts of his operations.

Lewis Deblois to John Nicholson
September 25, 1795
I have recd. Your several favors for eight days past, but I have been so deranged and harrassed out of my life for want of money that I much fear I shall loose my senses. I would not for the whole City of Washington go on as I have done for the last three months, I cannot look at a single man on my works, but what looks back on me with a dunning eye and some use very unpleasant language to me. Mr. Duncanson put his cash into my hands as his Cashier, say 1000 dolls and has drawn it all out but about 100 Dolls. and the last fifty he drew for, I was oblig'd to send an express to Georgetown to borrow it of Mr. Dalton [his father-in-law] and if he should draw for the balance god only knows how I shall get it. I could take 100 dollars a day in the Store if I had goods; I was to be supplied with 5000 Ds for my Store by you, in lieu of which, my dear sir, I have supplied my Store chiefly with my own Credit and now my debts remain unpaid and my Credit so much Injured that I cannot obtain a new Credit, which is doubly mortifying having got my store in such Credit as to have several Customers from Georgetown and all from the Point, Presidents house and Capitol and pay off my old debts, (I don't owe 500 dolls in the world but for this concern) Get the Store well supplied and then I can go on finely having the conveniences of Storage and c. and the Millers want me to purchase wheat for them on Commission which I could do with half goods and half cash but I have neither - My Brother wants to come on here from Boston. I cannot help him. I have a Clerk at near 300 Ds a year to tend Store. I must dismiss him if I am not immediately supplied - It is agreed on by every one that I have done more good for the city than any other man, and indeed more then the Co. has done. (?) For the convenience(?) Of my people and the neighbourhood ; a needle, an egg 1/4, butter, hogs lard, 1 pt soap, 1/4 soap, pint of milk, gingerbread, /2 peck potatoes & in short not the meanest thing that I have not condescended to do for the good of the place, I shall raise near one hundred bushels of potatoes and all my fencing is my cord wood for Brick Kilns. I must soon take up my crop as the are burning up my fences at the Brick yard. I have supplied the neighborhood with Beans and potatoes and out of my garden all summer and have exerted myself to the utmost and can go thro' any thing in this world but the want of money, The want of that unfits for all business. I dream in the night that people are at the door dunning me - I have drawn on you in favor of Messrs Dubs and Mar-----ant for 1200 Dollars and I had rather give up the business than that you should not pay this bill punctually as they have used me like a Brother, their money was due them 6 months since for mercy sake pay it - perhaps you could get Messrs Whelen and Miller to ship me 2 or 3000 Dollars worth on your account....

Lewis Deblois to John Nicholson
December 11, 1795
I take up my pen in hopes of answering your several favors in a few lines, as I do not feel calm enough to sit long at my pen - Mr. Greenleaf and Co's accts. I applied long since to Mr. Cranch for, and last week renewed my call; he told me there were people about bringing them to a close and as soon as they were finished you should be furnished with transcript -

All the accounts have been so blended together that it would save much time in settlement of them if they went together, the Board Yard and Brick Yard they have endeavored to keep separate, but they have not been kept entirely so, many charges on each have been carried to a Genl Charge acct with the other charges - the Board Yard was rather a profitable business, the Brick Yard I think must have been a loosing one, if the Brick Machine is not taken into the Brick yard business, the loss on the latter will not be (I think) much more than the Gain on the Boardyard - Mr. Prentiss is going on but how I do not know. I feel so mortified that he has a Large Shop of goods, and driving on when I who have beaten the Bush should be forsaken and suffered to sink and dwindle away, my exertion and attention to the business have deserved it. Mr. Law told me this day that he, Prentiss, was throwing away money in carting Bricks at 5/ from Carrollsburgh when they ought to have been had at the Point. I have once before wrote you that I had found it impossible to keep accounts here that I had thrown everything into the Genl Concern in order to facilitate the business it would have taken ½ doz. Clerks to have kept Regular accounts, such has been the borrowing and lending, buying and selling and shifts oblg to be made for want of Money that it was impossible to attend to regular accts. The accts of the numerous workman and shop accounts are as much as I have had in my power to attend to....

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Did Thornton Really Design the Octagon House?

Part Two: Did William Lovering Design the Octagon House?

No one alive at the time it was built ever noted who designed the Octagon. Maybe it was too hard to keep score. Between 1795 and 1800, the number of brick houses built in the city roughly doubled from 55 to 109. Then in the next year the number almost doubled again to 207. That said, the Octagon did stick out and in 1803 had the fourth highest assessed house value in the city, $15,000. Evidently people back then didn't care about architects.

So why does everyone know now what no one back then ever wrote about? We can thank the architect Glenn Brown. Thanks to him the American Institute of Architects bought the Octagon in 1898 to serve as its headquarters. Now it is a museum with the AIA headquarters in a modern building right behind it, and, as we all know, it was designed by Dr. William Thornton.

Brown who was raised in Alexandria had a passion for Federal Period architecture. In 1888 he made drawings of the Octagon's mantels, cornices, roof truss and floor plan for American Architect and Builder News ( ).

Brown fell in love with the house, and with its original owner Col. John Tayloe. Brown's grandfather was a senator from North Carolina and his father a doctor who served in the Confederate army for four years. Brown was raised to admire men like Tayloe who was known as the richest Virginian. Brown wrote that Tayloe, "was unrivalled for the splendor of his household and equipages, and his establishment was renowned throughout the country for its entertainments, which were given in a most generous manner to all persons of distinction who visited Washington in those days...." (He and his family lived in the Octagon only from November to May. In other months they lived on their plantation Mt. Airy outside Richmond where Tayloe worked his slaves and bred America's best race horses.) At the end of his short article, Brown said Thornton was the architect and "was a very interesting character and is deserving of a separate article."

That 1888 article failed to link Thornton's name to Tayloe and the Octagon. An 1893 article "Historic Houses of Washington" in the widely read Scribner's Magazine extols the Octagon and Tayloe with his "five hundred slaves" and "his guests the most eminent men of his times" but makes no mention of Thornton. The one architect mentioned in the Scribner's article is Benjamin Latrobe, "the mastermind of our unequaled Capitol", for designing the Van Ness Mansion and Decatur House, the former on the slope below the Octagon and the latter on the future Lafayette Square .

The Van Ness Mansion

Throughout the 19th century historians credited Thornton as an architect of the first version of the Capitol completed in 1828 with its noble Rotunda but modest dome. But they also credited Stephen Hallet, George Hadfield, James Hoban, Benjamin Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch. William Dunlap, a friend of Thornton’s, wrote that “He was a scholar and gentleman – full of talent and eccentricity, a Quaker by profession, painter, poet, and a horse-racer well acquainted with mechanic’s art . . . – His company was a complete antidote to dullness.” But in a three volume history of American design he published in 1830, Dunlap failed to mention Thornton's designing any private houses.

When he eulogized Thornton after his death in 1828, President John Quincy Adams noted that he, as secretary of state, had supervised Thornton for 8 of the 26 years he impeccably ran the Patent Office. "The Doctor was a man of learning, of genius, of elegant accomplishments and of very eccentric humours." Was the Octagon one of his "elegant accomplishments"? In a November 2, 1801, diary entry when the Octagon house was almost ready for occupancy, Adams wrote: "Dr. Thornton was by turns ingenious and humorous but all the time very talkative." But Adams didn't record what he talked about. No one ever reported anything he said about the Octagon.

In June 1799 Thornton talked about architecture with Thomas Adams, another son of President Adams, who was visiting Washington. Thornton had been appointed a Commissioner of the Federal City in 1794 and the President was his boss. The other two commissioners also visited young Adams. The commissioners oversaw construction of the public buildings, sold building lots and regulated private building. They took every opportunity to show President Adams, who unlike his predecessor, had never been to the city, that they had the situation well in hand and that the city would be prepared to accommodate the federal government in December 1800 as required by law.

Young Adams reported on all three commissioners in a June 9 letter to his mother. He noted that Thornton was born in Jamaica, educated in England and "a democratic, philanthropic, universal benevolence kind of a man—a mere child in politics, and having for exclusive merit a pretty taste in drawing—He makes all the plans of all the public buildings, consisting of two, and a third going up."

Actually Thornton was born in Tortola, British Virgin Islands in 1759, received a medical degree at Edinburgh in 1781 (or Aberdeen other sources say.) He designed only the Capitol not the President's house or original Treasury building flanking the President's house, which were the other two public buildings then being built. Adams probably picked up misinformation about Thornton's background from local gossips, but no one in town would have credited him for planning anything other than the Capitol. So we can take Adams' emphasis on all the planning Thornton did as a reaction to what Thornton told him about his overseeing all the public buildings. Yet in the midst of all that bragging evidently Thornton didn't mention the Octagon.

Within two years of the government's move to Washington, Congress took control of the public buildings and the city. Thornton hoped to be appointed governor of the District of Columbia (an office not created until 1871 only to be abolished in 1874) but wound up in the Patent Office. That didn't prevent him from continuing to defend his Capitol design with sharply written diatribes in the newspaper challenging changes Latrobe tried to make in the design. In none of the letters defending his reputation as an architect did he mention designing the Octagon. For example, in an 1808 reply to Latrobe's he wrote:
I travelled in many parts of Europe, and saw several of the masterpieces of the ancients. I have studied the works of the best masters, and my long attention to drawing and painting would enable me to form some judgment of the difference of proportions. An acquaintance with some of the grandest of the ancient structures, a knowledge of the orders of Architecture, and also of the genuine effects of proportion furnish the requisites of the great outlines of composition. The minutiae are attainable by a more attentive study of what is necessary to the execution of such works, and the whole must be subservient to the conveniences required. Architecture embraces many subordinate studies, and it must be admitted is a profession which requires great talents, great taste, great memory. I do not pretend to any thing great, but must take the liberty of reminding Mr. Latrobe, that physicians study a greater variety of sciences than gentlemen of any other profession . . . . The Louvre in Paris was erected after the architectural designs of a physician, Claude Perrault, whose plan was adopted in preference to the designs of Bernini, though the latter was called from Italy by Louis the 14th.
So why didn't he add that he had designed Col. Tayloe's new townhouse? Or to keep his friend's name out of the dispute, why didn't he add that he had designed one of the notable new private houses in the city?

From 1801 when the Tayloes moved into the Octagon until 1828 when both Tayloe and Thornton died, Washington life pulsed with gossip. One of the best at keeping track of it was Mrs. John Quincy Adams. The Thorntons and Adamses were neighbors on F Street NW just east of 14th. She saw him frequently. In a November 22, 1820, letter to her father-in-law, she wrote:
Dr. Thornton called in late last Evening and chatted some time His conversation is indeed a thing of threads and patches certainly amusing from its perpetual variety—He is altogether the most excentric being I ever met with possessing the extremes of literary information and the levity and trifling of the extreme of folly—He is good natured rather than well principled—
Mrs Adams visited the Octagon and socialized with the Tayloes, Thorntons and the rest of Washington society, but evidently no one gossiped with her about who designed the Octagon. In February 1823 she wrote to her father-in-law:
In the Evening we all went to Col Tayloes and being already out of spirits passed the most unpleasant Eveng Col and Mrs Tayloe have always lived upon the most friendly terms with my family—Their family is of the highest respectability in Virginia but among the whole of them there is not one above mediocrity in point of talents Their wealth and high standing in their own State gives them great influence and they are ever tendering proffers of their services and friendship— (Tayloe's Eton and Cambridge education didn't fool her. She was born and raised in London.)
Wealth alone did not rule in Washington. Tayloe held no elected office and as a die-hard Federalist had no hope of being appointed to office by the series of Republican presidents who were his neighbors. As Mrs. Adams intimated, Tayloe tried to ingratiate himself with those in power. Col. Tayloe's racehorse Lamplighter was famous throughout the land; so why not similarly tout the name of the architect who designed his house especially if that worthy was the much admired Thornton? If the idea that the architect of the Capitol designed the Octagon intrigues us today, why wasn't that the talk of the town back in 1801? It is not uncommon for mediocre patrons to associate themselves with genius.

Quite a few people talked about the good job Thornton did at the Patent Office which he turned into a museum of inventions. Before the Smithsonian it was a must see for tourists after they visited the White House and Capitol. Maybe credit for that and the Capitol design would have been glory enough for other men, but Thornton craved more. As late as August 3, 1822, 23 years after the first president's death, Thornton complained in a letter to John Adams: "When the great Washington died, I lost a Friend, that would not have permitted me to remain so long in the back ground." He longed to be sent to South America to represent the US to revolutionary governments and also make drawings of plants. He blamed John Quincy Adams for not making him a diplomat and explorer. The urban planner and supposed architect of several buildings we still admire wished to escape from it all.

In 1896 Brown kept the promise he had made in 1888 of a more extensive article on Thornton and it appeared in the July issue of the Architectural Record (page 53ff). In "Dr. William Thornton, Architect," Brown placed Thornton in the forefront of American design. Brown provided a concise biography and also rewrote the history of the Capitol, painting Thornton as not one of many designers but its guiding genius, defending his original design from efforts by Hallet, Hadfield, Hoban and Latrobe, all trained architects, to change it. Brown took on its face Thornton's claim that President Washington had asked him to reverse changes made to his Capitol design and prevent the others making any more. Moreover, Brown argued, once Thornton was appointed to the Board of Commissioners, there was noticeable improvement in the "written proceedings and in the business forms and contracts which were introduced in connection with the streets, bridges and buildings that were in their charge." Since the improvements appeared after his appointment, "Thornton should have the credit...."

More to the point, Brown listed among Thornton's private architectural works the Octagon, George Washington's two Capitol Hill houses intended for boarding congressmen, James Madison's house Montpelier, and Tudor Place in Georgetown. Brown added that he had "several of Thornton's sketches for private houses in my possession" which implied that Thornton designed several other houses.

Octagon in 1896

In promoting Thornton's reputation as a great architect, Brown did not rest. In 1900 his monumental two volume history of  the Capitol appeared, published by the US government, combining lavish praise of Thornton's genius with pages of prints and photographs of the Capitol. Brown ensured the primacy of the Octagon among Thornton's house designs by persuading the AIA, then headquartered in New York, to buy it, and make Washington its new home. 

Historians of the Capitol's design and construction today consider Brown unfair to both Hallet and Latrobe. To them fell the hard work of making the interior of the magnificent building work. Author and architectural historian, Pamela Scott describes Thornton as the designer only of the Capitol's exterior. Although Thornton and Brown made much of Washington's patronage, in the fall of 1794 the president needed to fill two openings for commissioners. After two men turned down the job, he appointed Gustavus Scott. Then after another turned down the job, he appointed Thornton. As for whether Brown was right to credit Thornton for making the commissioners more business-like, the other new appointee, Scott, was a Maryland lawyer who one must assume had a knack for "business forms and contracts."

For the Capitol at least documentary evidence links to Thornton's role. In the case of private houses, with the exception of Tudor Place for which Thornton made extant drawings and elevations beginning in 1808, Brown's cited sources are problematic.

Today, Thornton gets no credit for Montpelier. Brown attributes it to him based on an 1830 letter by James Madison remarking: "The only drawing of my house is that by Dr. Wm. Thornton, it is without the wings now making a part of it." When Thornton visited Madison there in 1803, he made a drawing of what he saw, not of the additions Madison would build in the future.

Of George Washington's houses, Brown writes "Dr. Thornton was the architect and superintendent, as shown by letters of Washington." Today there is a plaque on the ground where they once stood saying Thornton was the architect. However, in the correspondence Brown cites as evidence, Washington invited Thornton to correct the design Washington himself made, if architectural principles required as much. Thornton offered no corrections save replacing wooden sills with stone. So Washington himself designed the buildings in consultation with the builder he hired.

As the source for Thornton's design of the Octagon, Brown cited a memoir published in 1872 that collected the occasional writings of Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, the most literate of Col. Tayloe's 15 children, a minor diplomat and, like his father, a breeder of horses. Benjamin had moved into the Octagon when he was six years old. In Memoriam devotes three pages to Thornton mostly recalling "his eccentricities and the anecdotes related of him" rather than "his well-earned reputation for letters and taste." For example:
Dr. Thornton imagined he understood the science of pugilism, and complained of his being knocked down by General Van Ness, before he could assume an attitude. Their quarrel arose from a charge against the Doctor of encroaching on the General's domain,—the former claiming, by the "right of discovery," the flats in the Potomac opposite the property of General Van Ness, with the intention of converting them into an island.
Benjamin Tayloe recalled Thornton's bragging on his accomplishments: "He claimed to have been the pioneer in the application of steam as a propeller for boats....Dr. Thornton told me he killed Fulton by his last pamphlet." Robert Fulton died in 1815 so that's possible. But In Memoriam includes no reports of Thornton bragging about designing houses.

Of Thornton the architect, Benjamin Tayloe wrote, "He was the architect of the first Capitol at Washington, and laid out some of the public grounds, and arranged the public buildings accordingly." He makes no mention of Thornton's designing the Octagon. Could Brown have learned of Thornton's role in conversation Tayloe's son? Benjamin Ogle Tayloe died while Brown was still an undergraduate at Washington and Lee University not yet having studied architecture at MIT. So it seems unlikely that Brown learned about Thornton's role directly from Tayloe. In Memoriam was also a source for the 1893 Scribner's article about Washington houses which didn't mention the architect of the Octagon.

The best light to put on Brown's use of In Memoriam is that since Thornton was the only friend of Col. Tayloe's mentioned in the book who was an architect, Brown assumed Thornton was the architect Tayloe employed to design the Octagon. (I have gone out on similar limbs in my own writing.) Perhaps Benjamin Ogle Tayloe was just not the type to mention the architects of private houses. In 1828, he built a house of note on Lafayette Square. In Memoriam includes an article he wrote about all his famous Lafayette Square neighbors and their houses. He didn't mention any architects.

Benjamin Ogle Tayloe house

Today that Thornton designed the Octagon is settled history. What settles the history is what has become settled law in architectural history: Great houses have great architects. Yet what could explain the lack of contemporary reference to the house's designer? Certainly not its being swallowed in a sea of urban architecture. An 1817 watercolor shows it towering over vacant fields with the streets that bound it, New York Avenue and 18th Street, hardly distinguishable from grassy fields.

Simply put, if Thornton was the architect then what passed between Thornton and Tayloe was a private affair between gentlemen. It was not open to public comment; it was not a situation similar to Thornton's entries in honorable design contests that invited public comment and rewards. He accepted an honorarium in 1790 for his winning design for the Library Company of Philadelphia (one share of stock in the company) and in 1793 he won the $500 prize for submitting the best design in the contest for the Capitol. Otherwise he evidently thought receiving money for designing a house for friends was something a gentleman did not do. In his 1989 book Building the Octagon, published by the AIA, Orlando Ridout V reviewed accounts kept for Tayloe during the construction. There is no record of Thornton being paid for any service.

Ridout doesn't rely on In Memoriam as evidence that Thornton designed the Octagon. He points, rather, to a set of plans found in Thornton's papers.
The majority of his finished drawings have been lost, most likely consigned to the use and care of builders and project superintendents. Research is thus hampered by the surprisingly thin evidence for much of Thornton's architectural work. For the Octagon the evidence consists primarily of two unsigned preliminary floor plans... (pp. 61-62)

However, the very documentary evidence that does exist could be seen to contradict Ridout's Thornton theory. The plan, as Ridout admits, "creates a sense of conflict rather than order." The other unsigned floor plan likewise doesn't match the finished house.


Ridout describes the second plan as "more carefully ordered" and suggests it was an improvement on the way to the even simpler final design. But no proof exists of their intended order.

There are two possible explanations of the drawings' origins that undermine Thornton's role in designing the Octagon.The first is that the drawings weren't Thorntons. Ridout documents that Tayloe did pay for the services of architect. He hired  William Lovering as the project's supervising architect. Ridout summarizes the recent emigrant's career after arriving from England(pp. 28-29): Hired as a "contracting carpenter" in the city as early as 1795, Lovering soon after claimed to be an architect, and State records list him as the designer of a house in nearby Maryland in 1798. No one knows anything about his training. When describing how the Octagon was built, Ridout documents Lovering's role as a supervisor of the carpenters and quotes letters Tayloe wrote to Lovering in 1801 about construction problems. Tayloe's in town agent, William Hammond Dorsey, paid Lovering a $901.60 fee on December 26, 1801 (p. 151)

Ridout also notes that in May 1800, after a year of working on the Octagon, Lovering advertised in the newspaper that he could provide "specimens of buildings suitable for the obtuse or acute angles of the streets of the City of Washington." (p. 123) Could two of those specimens, some of which must have resembled the building whose construction he was then supervising, have made their way to Thornton's papers?

The second explanation for the drawings is that Thornton may have faced the challenge of "obtuse or acute angles" not for Tayloe but in designing a house he wanted to build for himself.

Tayloe bought his lots in Square 170 in April 1797. In May 1797 Thornton too bought real estate - 20 lots at a sale of David Burnes' property including some in Square 171 just south of Square 170, Tayloe's, across New York Avenue. That square had two corners similar to the angled corner on which the Octagon was sited. The Corcoran Gallery building eventually obliterated the lot lines so I am uncertain where Thornton's lots were. (As a Commissioner, Thornton could get lot boundaries changed.)

In 1800 Mrs. Thornton wrote in her diary (p. 102):
Saturday Feb.y 1st— a fine day. The ground covered with the deepest Snow we have ever seen here (in 5 yrs)— river frozen over.— Dr T— drawing a plan of a house to build one day or other on Sq: 171
Thornton continued working on the house plan on the 2nd, she wrote, and on the 3rd Mrs. Thornton, something of a draughtsman herself, "began to copy on a larger Scale the elevation and ground plan of the House." The house was never built, the elevation lost. Could the unsigned plans now in the Thornton papers be those he drew in February 1800 for his own property?

Ridout doesn't mention Thornton's lots in Square 171; he takes the diary entries describing Thornton's making house plans as proof he designed the Octagon. Ridout writes: "If Mrs. Thornton's detailed diary for the year 1800 is any indication, Thornton would have been pleased to respond to the opportunity to produce a design for Tayloe, fitting it into quiet afternoons and evenings between his work routine as a commissioner." So Ridout suggests that sometime prior to May 1799 when construction began, the builder Lovering received Thornton's third floor plan and never returned it to Thornton. Mrs. Thornton didn't keep a diary in 1798 or 1799, so no details can be found that way.

Mrs. Thornton's diary is essential reading for anyone interested in Washington life and society in 1800. The former Anna Maria Brodeau was 25 years old when she wrote it and had been married for ten years to "Dr. T" as she often called him in the diary. She was educated in her mother's Philadelphia finishing school, well read and literate in French. Thornton met Anna and her mother through his friendship with Dr. Benjamin Rush. After their marriage, Anna and her mother spent two years with Thornton at the Tortola plantation where he was born and which was a major source of his wealth. It was there that Thornton learned of the Capitol design contest and began preparing his entry. They returned to Philadelphia in 1793. In some brief notes on her life, Anna seemed disappointed that, rather than staying in the city and starting a medical practice, her husband moved to a farm and indulged his passion for horses. He applied to teach medicine at the University of Pennsylvania but didn't get the job. After President Washington appointed him to the Board of Commissioners,  Thornton, Anna and Mrs. Brodeau moved to Georgetown. They rented a house on Bridge Street and also bought a farm in Maryland where he bred horses. In February 1797 they moved from Georgetown to the City of Washington renting a house on F Street. 

 E Street NW in 1817

Anna seemed to prefer the city to the farm and, in notes on her life, highlighted the month in 1798, February, when she began having society over for tea. In Mrs. Thornton's 1800 diary, which she admits is more about her husband's life than her own, we read much about horses and asses.

There is actually not that much in the diary about Thornton the architect, certainly not as much as we might expect if Thornton was as active in the field as his later chroniclers say he was. She briefly describes her husband designing two houses for Daniel Carroll's brother, a stables for Thomas Law, and a church for Bishop John Carroll. He also offered a plan for a rural Virginia house to Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Lewis but the diary contains no description of his working on the design

The client list reflects the Thorntons' propensity to socialize with everyone who counted in Washington. Mrs. Lawrence Lewis was George Washington's step-grand daughter Eleanor "Nelly" Custis. Law was married to Mrs. Lewis's sister, Eliza, and had invested more in the City of Washington than any other man. Carroll was the city's largest land owner. The Bishop ruled from Baltimore where he planned to build the church but didn't use Thornton's design. The diary has enough depth that we can easily tell that the Thorntons were close to the Laws and Lewises but never saw the Carrolls. It has too little depth to give us much of an idea about what the Thorntons and their friends thought about architecture and the many houses being built around them, not to mention the finishing work on the President's house and Capitol. Mrs. Thornton does mention when Thornton worked on his design for Rotunda and South Wing of the Capitol on which work had not begun. 

Or should we look at that lacuna in this way?: Mrs. Thornton's diary makes being an architect seem easy for her genius husband.
Wednesday [March] 12th: Fine day roads very bad While we were at breakfast a boy brought a Note from Mr Daniel Carroll of Duddington, - living in the City an original and large proprietor - requesting Dr T— as he had promised, to give him some ideas for the plan of two houses which he and his brother are going to begin immediately on Sq 686 on the Capitol Hill....
—Friday 14th A Warm and beautiful day Dr T— after breakfast went to the [Commissioners'] Office— returned a little after with Mr Carroll— to see the designs with which he was much pleased. (p. 116)
It is easy to picture the same scene occurring a year earlier with John Tayloe requesting a plan perhaps during a stop over between his Virginia plantation and Annapolis where his wife's family lived. The Tayloes did not move to the city until late 1801 which meant he needed others to keep an eye on the project. The Georgetown merchant Dorsey oversaw payment of workers and suppliers. Lovering supervised the workers. As a friend and as its presumed architect, we might expect Thornton, too, to have kept an eye on the house. 

Yet that doesn't seem to have happened. Mrs. Thornton's diary does report several visits to see the Tayloe house that didn't seem to amount to much. In her January 7 entry (p. 92) she reports: "After dinner we Walked to take a look at Mr Tayloe's house which begins to make a handsome appearance." But they didn't look inside. Sometimes Mrs. Thornton was careful to add a phrase explaining what she reported. In her January 3 entry (p. 90) she details her husband's role in the building of George Washington's Capitol Hill houses: "The money paid to the undertaker of them having all gone thro' my husband's hands, he having Superintended them as a friend." Note that she didn't say that her husband designed the houses.

That she never detailed her husband's relationship to Tayloe's house suggests he had nothing to do with it. The Thorntons took several more walks that year to see the house but she recorded no thoughts (or facts) about the house in her diary. On  November 27 Thornton invited her to see the new chimney pieces of artificial stone imported from England. She was too busy tending a sick servant but found time to go with a friend to see them a week later. Almost a hundred years later Glenn Brown assumed that Thornton must have designed those fire places but in 1800 Mrs. Thornton recorded nothing about what she or her husband thought of them. (When Tayloe saw them he was enraged because the chimney piece had arrived from England without the mantels. Ridout p. 90)

1896 photo

Something else drew the Thorntons in the same direction as Tayloe's house, the lots they owned across the avenue. On June 26, Mrs. Thornton briefly describes what was happening on their own lots but not at Tayloe's house: "After tea we went to Mr King's to visit Mrs Tingey and Touzard — Dr T. and Mr Winstanly went with us, we walked round by Mr Tayloe's house and our lots which they have just done fencing." (p. 161)

One had best keep an eye on one's lots. On October 26 Mrs. Thornton wrote: "Mrs P. Thornton and I walked as far as Mr Tayloe's House, intended when we set out to go to Mr Knapp's, but found it too warm.— Found 4 Cattle and several Hogs in our field of buckwheat, got a little Boy to drive them out and fasten up the fence." (p. 205)

The Thorntons' interest in their lots in Square 171 could be ascribed to their desire to be across from the house Thornton designed for Tayloe opposite on Square 170. But the location held other attractions for Thornton. Inspired by the L'Enfant Plan, early publicists described how the Malls south and east of the President's house "are to be ornamented at the sides by a variety of elegant buildings and houses for foreign ministers." In 1796, as President Washington's second term came to an end, Commissioner Thornton reminded him of the need to accommodate foreign delegations. (Possibly Tayloe was drawn to Square 170 for its future proximity to embassies, but he also bought lots elsewhere in the city, presumably for investments. Houses he had built on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1818 became the core of the future Willard Hotel.)

While the diary makes no mention of her husband's association with Tayloe's house, there are entries about his ties to Tayloe's horses. Thornton and Tayloe probably became friends through their shared interest in horse breeding and racing. On April 17, 1797, two days before he paid $1000 for the lot on Square 170, Tayloe won 500 guineas (about $2000) when his horse beat Charles Ridgely's on a 4 mile course laid out just northwest of the President's house. Too bad Mrs. Thornton did not make a diary entry on that festive day. Three years later Thornton and Tayloe were trading horses.

In 1800 Mrs. Thornton made her first and only mention of Tayloe's being in the city, or at least in Georgetown. On January 24, Thornton met Tayloe at the Union Tavern where he planned to spend the night before continuing on to Annapolis. Perhaps they talked about Tayloe's house. But more likely they talked horses. In the February 16 entry (p. 108) we learn that Driver, one of Thornton's 23 horses, was "to be sent to Mr Tayloe 's in Virginia to run."

Mrs. Thornton wrote Tayloe's name exactly twenty times in her diary. Other than visits to his house and race horses the business mentioned concerned Tayloe's legal interventions on Thornton's behalf in Annapolis, where Tayloe's  father-in-law, Benjamin Ogle, was governor. The Thorntons sought his help securing money owed to Mrs. Brodeau by someone in Georgetown.

The lack of any direct involvement by Thornton in building the Octagon comes as no surprise to Ridout. Thornton's modus operandi was to do no more than a floor plan and elevation and leave it to others to supervise the work. Ridout writes:
He considered himself first and foremost a gentleman and an intellectual. While architecture was not an ungentlemanly profession, the collecting of fees was pointedly disagreeable to him. Neither did he care to commit himself to the tedious work of a full-time architect directly engaged in the construction process. (p. 68) 
Ridout notes that even when Thornton did superintend the construction of George Washington's houses on Capitol Hill, his involvement was minimal. "The chief contractor, George Blagden, was among the most capable and successful builders in the region, and Thornton's duties must have been limited." (p. 61) Well, maybe not. Thornton did visit the site and what he wrote in a letter to Washington on April 19, 1799, suggests that he was more than an idle on-looker:
I visited the workmen the Day before yesterday, and they progress to my Satisfaction. I took the liberty of directing Stone Sills to be laid, instead of wooden ones, to the outer Doors of the Basement, as wood decays very soon, when so much exposed to the damp; but I desired Mr Blagdin would do them with as little expense as possible....
While he might shun tedious architectural work, in other words, Thornton could be bossy about the building of other people's houses. In 1790 he had lived near and befriended Congressman James Madison and he jumped at the chance in 1801 to arrange for Secretary of State Madison to rent the house being built next to the house Thornton himself rented on F Street. On August 15 he wrote to Madison that he had given the builder an advance on the rent and also told him what to build:
have directed the third Story to be divided into four Rooms, two very good Bed-chambers, and the other two smaller Bed chambers. The Cellar I have directed to be divided, that one may serve for wine and c, the other for Coals and c—and for security against Fire a Cupola on the roof, which will add to the convenience of the House in other respects. There will be two Dormer Windows in front, and two behind. Our House has only one.
In that letter, Thornton comes close to bragging on his accomplishments as an architect but makes a joke out of it. Thornton writes: "like Cadmus of old, after I have presumed to invent Letters for the Americans, I was sent hither to build their great City!" Thornton's 110 page book Cadmus: or a Treatise on the Elements of Written Language, by a Philosophical Division of Speech, the Power of Each Character, Thereby Mutually Fixing the Orthography and Ortoepy; with an Essay on Teaching the Surd or Deaf, and Consequently the Dumb to Speak won the American Philosophical Society's  prize essay competition in 1793. On meeting any prominent man of the day Thornton gave him a copy. He titled his work after "Cadmus" because that worthy brought the alphabet to the Greeks. Then he built the city of Thebes

Then in the letter Thornton quotes a poem: "There’s a Stroke of Vanity—It lives in all my Doings!" But in alluding to his "doings" he doesn't mention the almost completed Octagon house. "...I who lately was nothing less than a Commissioner or Edile, am now reduced to a High-way Man. You will remember we are engaged in making Highways." The Board of Commissioners was in the throes of improving avenues and streets between boarding houses and public buildings.

Thornton's butting in on builders in 1799 and 1801 had no parallel in 1800. There is only one mention of Lovering who was then supervising the workers building the Octagon. On August 21, Mrs. Thornton came home to find her husband talking with Lovering. They were locked out of the Thornton's parlor and she had the only key. What could they have needed in the parlor? Thornton kept drawings of the Capitol there, which he generously showed to visitors. The Commissioners now and then hired Lovering to measure the work done at the Capitol, and perhaps Thornton wanted to show him what work should have been completed.

So let us accept that the absence of Thornton's finger prints on the Octagon's working drawings or construction bears no relevance to his genius as an architect. Let us accept that being a gentleman he was not about to brag about what he did for Tayloe. But how do we explain away this: Given his roles both as a genius designing houses in the city and a commissioner regulating all construction in the city, why when offering architectural advice did he refer to houses in London as the examples to follow? Why did Thornton hide the shining light of his architectural genius as it related to house designs?

The two houses George Washington had built side by side just north of the Capitol are the best documented houses built in early Washington. They were erected in 1799 a year when many other houses in the city were being built including the Octagon. That year Thomas Law also had a house built on the other side of the Capitol from Washington's houses, on the northwest corner of New Jersey Avenue and C Street SE. Because Mrs. Thornton mentioned Law's house in her diary and because it was built on the lot shaped by the angle made New Jersey Avenue, architectural historians think it was designed by Thornton. Its design addressed a similar problem confronted in the Octagon design.

C. M. Harris, editor of The Papers of William Thornton, writes in an introductory essay to the Library of Congress's on-line collection of Thornton's architectural drawing:
Thornton probably first suggested the idea of using a curvilinear element to take an odd-angled corner lot a year earlier [1798], to Thomas Law, who had determined to build a residence on Capitol Hill, at the northwest corner of New Jersey Avenue and C Street S.W. [sic, it was S.E.], but drawings for that project have not survived.... The two plan drawings for Tayloe's house, which became known in the nineteenth century as The Octagon, are more ambitious in their use of curvilinear forms than the modified plan to which Tayloe built.
A detail in Benjamin Latrobe 1815 map of Capitol Hill
In Creating Capitol Hill (p. 128-9) Pamela Scott finds evidence that Thornton designed Law's house in Mrs. Thornton's diary:
In September 1798 the corner lot on the northwest corner of New Jersey Avenue (across the avenue from Law's second house) was surveyed for builder William Lovering in preparation for erecting Law's third house in the city. It was designed by William Thornton, and was "a very pleasant roomy house," according to Anna Marie Thornton.
Mrs. Thornton tells us nothing about the Octagon other than it was "looking handsome" and had chimney pieces. That she went into Thomas Law's new house and was pleased suggests, to architectural historians at least, that her husband designed it.

Scott also finds evidence in a sketch Benjamin Latrobe made in a letter to a friend planning to rent Law's house in 1815.

In the caption to an image of Latrobe's letter, Scott writes "The only verified visual evidence of Thornton's design for Law's third Washington house is Latrobe's sketch of its public rooms at the apex of the acute angle at C Street and New Jersey Avenue SE." (p. 128)

She suggests that since architects like Latrobe abhorred ovals then the house must have been designed by Thornton who liked ovals. Indeed in her diary entry for January 4, 1800, Mrs. Thornton wrote: "Went thence to the Capitol, where we staid for some time by a fire in a room where they were glazing the windows —while Dr T— n laid out an Oval, round which is to be the communication to the Gallery of the Senate Room." However, Thornton didn't have a patent on ovals. In 1790 President Washington had a "two- story bow" added "to the south side of the main house" he rented in Philadelphia. A historian of that house, Edward Lawler, Jr., writes that "this is believed to have been the inspiration for other bows and oval rooms, including those of The White House."

There were no ovals in the houses Washington built on Capitol Hill. Its similarity to the Octagon and the Law house is that they were all designed and built at about the same time. If you believe Thornton designed the latter two houses, then he was associated with all three houses either as a designer or superintendent. Here was an opportunity for George Washington to get some lessons in architecture from Thornton. Indeed he invited it. On September 12, 1798, when he asked Commissioner Alexander White, a 61 year old lawyer, to recommend a builder to finish the plan Washington himself had drawn for the houses, he added: "My plan when it comes to be examined, may be radically wrong; if so, I persuade myself that Doctr Thornton (who understands these matters well) will have the goodness to suggest alterations."

White consulted with his fellow commissioners and they sent George Blagden, an English stone mason who supervised the stone work on the public buildings in Washington, to Mount Vernon and there they agreed on the specifications and plan ( httpsn:// ) White and Thornton drew up a contract. Thornton was a county magistrate and notarized it.

During the process of drawing a final plan with Blagden there is no evidence that Thornton put anything on paper. He arranged for the Commissioners to give him the neighboring lot as part of the award for his winning Capitol design which for five years he "had not demanded from motives of Delicacy." He wrote to Washington that he was "willing to prepare for a House or Houses on a similar plan, the Chimnies may be run up at the same time."  By sharing a party wall Washington's house would be cheaper to build. (As it turned out Thornton didn't build.) Otherwise, Thornton advised entrances to allow vats of wine to get easily into the house.

Washington also wanted a man to handle payments to Blagden for supplies and labor. All the commissioners were experienced in doing that. White didn't live in the city and Scott lived close to Georgetown. So Thornton did that service for the great man he idolized and it kept him corresponding with Washington until he died. There were more discussions of bank payments, renters and building practices than of architecture. In a December 20, 1798, letter, Washington did ask Thornton about architectural principals.Washington recalled a house he saw in Philadelphia about the same size as his with a pediment between dormer windows on the roof and "if this is not incongruous with the rules of Architecture" he wanted his houses to have the same. Thornton replied on Christmas Day: "It is a Desideratum in Architecture to hide as much as possible the Roof—for which reason, in London, there is generally a parapet to hide the Dormant Windows."

If architectural historians are right about Thornton's  portfolio, presumably at that time Thornton had some idea of how such houses were designed locally. Yet he offered London as the standard. It's not like he had to reveal what he had designed for Tayloe, he could have said that he understood that Tayloe planned to have parapets on his house. If Thornton had written that we would at least know that Thornton was privy to the design -- if not the actual designer -- of the Octagon for which ground had not yet been broken. Washington thanked him for the advice, went over pros and cons and concluded that a final decision could be made later.

Tayloe's house came up in their ensuing correspondence, in the April 19th letter in which Thornton reported that he changed wooden for stone sills in the kitchen. That letter certainly presented the opportunity to talk about parapets in the design of the Octagon which had to have been finalized by then. Yet Thornton reported only that "Mr J. Tayloe of Virga has contracted to build a House in the City near the President’s Square of $13,000 value." (On April 27, 1799, Thornton personally "set out Mr. Tayloe's lot." Tayloe probably appreciated that act of friendship. The Commissioners' surveyors usually did that job. Yet had Thornton been the architect, you could argue, he might have been inclined to survey the lot earlier than four days before construction started.)

Washington did not reply to Thornton's news. He probably already knew about Tayloe's house. One can get the impression that Thornton did not know that Washington already knew of Tayloe's plans. It's odd that Thornton didn't know because Washington's involvement is woven into stories about the birth of the Octagon. Tayloe family legend has Washington persuading Tayloe to move the city, pointing out the site for the house and riding by on horseback to watch it being built. There is evidence for the last assertion. Benjamin Ogle Taylor recalled hearing from the son of a bricklayer that while he and his father were working on Col. Tayloe's house, Washington stopped on horseback and watched them work. As proof of Washington's interest in the house Ridout quotes from a February 10, 1799, letter from Tayloe to Washington in which the young builder reports that he was  "anxious to appropriate every shilling I can raise towards the improvements I contemplate putting up in the Federal City." (Not necessarily good news to Washington. He had written in January hoping Tayloe would fulfill a verbal offer to buy Washington's asses and offered three for 800 pounds or around $1600.)

Thornton had another opportunity to share his thought on Tayloe's house with Washington. In a September 1, 1799, letter he explains why he and his wife didn't come to Mount Vernon as planned. "Mr. Tayloe of Mount Airy spent the Day with us." There's no mention of the house. It is difficult to believe that if Tayloe had discussions about the design of the house with Thornton that he would not have intimated the extent of Washington's influence. And work on Law's house also began in the spring and it's difficult to believe that if Thornton had designed that house, Washington would not have known. Law and his wife were frequent visitors to Mount Vernon to see Mrs. Law's grand mother, and Thornton sometimes accompanied them. That means that it is possible that Washington, Law and Thornton had thoroughly discussed houses and had no need to write about them. But you'd think Washington and Law would leave some hints in their correspondence about Thornton's designs.

Law referred to Thornton in one letter to Washington. Law was also a theatrical promoter, the city's first, and because of that hosted a glittering dinner party on August 10, 1799: "Last night I heard Bernard and Darley, and spent a very pleasent Eveng there were Thornton the Architect Cliffin the Poet and Painter, Bernard the Actor and Darley the Singer in short several choice spirits the forerunners of numbers such."

To keep a parallel with the other worthies assembled, Law had to refer to Thornton as the architect and not "my" architect. But shortly after that letter Washington came to the city and, as he always did, spent one of his nights there in Eliza Law's house and another in her sister's. In an 1800 letter Law recalled Washington's reaction when he stood in the oval parlor purportedly designed by Thornton: "General Washington was so pleased with it, that he said 'I would never recommend to  a wife to counteract her husband's wishes but in this instance and I advise Mrs. Law not to agree to a sale.'"

There are no documents extant in which Law or anyone else mentions who designed or built his houses on New Jersey Avenue. Hence the importance of Mrs. Thornton's diary in determining who Law's architect was. But if we look more closely at the references to Law's house in her diary and the context of what was happening on Capitol Hill at the time, we shine an entirely different light on how his gentlemen friends regarded his architectural talents.

To begin with Mrs. Thornton's diary entry doesn't say outright that Thornton designed the Law house. Here is the complete entry from which Pamela Scott extracted a quote suggesting he did.
Sunday [January] 12th— A very fine day, as pleasant as a Spring day. After breakfast Mr T. Peter called and mentioned that his wife was at home; we therefore sent the Carriage for her. I, and Dr T— . accompanied them to the Capitol, the General's [George Washington's] and Mr Law's houses —the latter being locked we entered by the kitchen Window and went all over it— It is a very pleasant roomy house but the Oval drawing room is spoiled by the lowness of the Ceiling, and two Niches, which destroy the shape of the Room.— Mr and Mrs Peter dined with us and returned home early in the afternoon some of her Children not being well. (p. 94) 
Yes, Law's house was roomy but the oval parlor had a major flaw, Mrs. Thornton was suggesting. Is this a case of the superintending architect making a mistake? Or does it suggest Thornton didn't design the house? Given that Thornton seemed to lead the party into the private house through a window, one could suppose he felt he had the right of entry by virtue of his design role. And in a later diary entry Mrs. Thornton notes that Law said he liked his new house which is something you might expect the wife of its architect to note.

However another explanation presents itself. Thornton might have been emboldened to climb into Law's house through a window not because he was the designer but because he was accompanied by Mrs. Law's sister, Mrs. Thomas Peter. Both were Martha Washington's grand daughters. George Washington had died on December 14 and the trip to Capitol Hill was made to show the Peters, who lived near Georgetown, the state of Washington's houses, whose future depended on  probating the great man's will, (Thomas Peter was an executor.) Thornton was also eager to get the family's approval for placing Washington's remains in a mausoleum under the yet to be built Capitol rotunda. And then they visited her sister's new house. Her older sister was rather over bearing, so criticism of her house may have been appreciated by Mrs. Peter.

The diary does explicitly refer to Thornton designing a structure for Law, but it's not a house. On March 27 Mrs. Thornton writes: "Dr T. received a Note from Mr Law enclosing a rough Sketch of a plan for his Stables behind his House which is five Stories behind and three before, which Dr T — promised to lay down for him, as he had suggested the ideas—" That night he got to work on the plan. "The Stables and Carriage house are to be built at the bottom of the lot and the whole yard to be covered over at one Story height, and gravelled over, so as to have a flat terrass from the Kitchen Story all over to the extemity of the lot.— I wrote a note to Mrs Law excusing our dining with them tomorrow—the weather appearing very threatening—."

This is confusing. Thornton suggested the idea, then Law made a rough sketch, and sent it to Thornton who made a plan. Finally Mrs. Thornton expounds on an architectural topic no doubt relaying her husband's ideas. But it is about stables. There were not a few stables built in early Washington including one next to the President's house. Architectural historians don't credit Thornton with designing any stables. They credit Lovering for designing the stables at the Octagon.

When congressmen came to town in December 1800 Law leased his new house and a neighboring building to Conrad and McMunn for a boarding house. They advertised "stableage sufficient for 60 horses." Yet Thornton gets no credit for that singular achievement.

But why did those stables generate such excitement back in March between Law and Thornton? Plus two weeks earlier Daniel Carroll had asked for a design for two houses. Those houses built in the middle of a block presented no architectural challenge. His brother Henry Carroll, who financed the building, put them up for sale in early 1801 and described them as "finished in a plain but substantial manner and built of best materials." Thornton's plans must have been no more daring than the typical builder's plans. Why was the gentleman architect who made designs for great and challenging buildings suddenly designing a humdrum town house and stables? One can't help getting the impression that rather than being sought out for solutions to the relatively difficult architectural problem of building spacious townhouses on angled lots or designing houses worthy of the gentleman who designed the Capitol, Thornton was simply a fount of ingenuity volunteering ideas in the heat of conversation and congenial to putting them on paper if asked.

On December 13, 1799, Commissioner Alexander White wrote a private letter to President John Adams that amplified on an assurance made in an official letter from Commissioners White and Thornton (two commissioners together could do official business) "that a good house in a convenient situation may be provided at the seat of Government for the use of the President until that intended for his permanent residence shall be finished." In his private letter White revealed that "the houses alluded to were, One building and in great forwardness near the Presidents Square, by Mr Tayloe of Virginia, and two new houses built by Mr. Carroll and Mr Law, near the Capital—Any one of these three is better than the President of the U. States, as such, has resided in—." ( the editors of these on-line papers transcribed "Taylor" but the letter clearly reads "Tayloe.")

Adams told his Secretary of the Navy what White wrote. Benjamin Stoddert who was also a Georgetown merchant wrote to the Commissioners that Adams insisted on moving into the President's house. The Commissioners received the letter on January 7. (Is that why the Thorntons took a walk to look at the Tayloe house that day?) The other commissioner Gustavus Scott who lived near the President's house wasn't amused and Thornton joined him in disavowing what White wrote: "We hold it highly dishonourable to violate that faith which was pledged to the City Proprietors when they relinquished their property for a City—." There was no way the commissioners could countenance both branches of government being placed on the same side of the city.

President Adams' orders didn't settle the issue. Abigail Adams didn't like what she heard about the new President's house and told friends that she was not sure she wanted to spend the following winter in the large cold house. Once they heard about her concerns both Thomas Law and Daniel Carroll tried to lure the First Family to their houses. On April 9 Law wrote to James Greenleaf describing his house. That reforming bankrupt was in Philadelphia and had a family connection to the First Family. His sister was married to their favorite nephew, William Cranch, who once was his clerk and then did legal work for Law. The idea was for Greenleaf to get the letter or at least the information in it to Abigail Adams.

Carroll evidently learned about Law's scheme and wrote a letter of his own for Cranch to give to his aunt and uncle. On April 26  Cranch enclosed Carroll's letter in his own and opined that his house, Duddington Manor, was the better house. It was farther down New Jersey Avenue and had a whole city square to itself. In his letter Carroll boasted that it had "one of the best springs in America." As for the house itself, Carroll took pride in its being "finished in a plain decent style." Cranch preferred it to Law's house because it was farther from the marsh at the foot of Capitol Hill and Mrs. Carroll was cordial to Mrs. Cranch. Evidently the sometimes imperious Mrs. Eliza Custis Law did not notice Mrs. Cranch.

All those letters wound up in the Adams Family Papers so it appears Abigail Adams at least received them. John Adams respected his wife's worries enough to postpone a final decision. In June, he went to the city himself and found it and his house to his liking. He had seen the palaces of Europe and thought the American president deserved the same. (Carroll asked $2000 rent, Law half that. A cynic might suggest that President Adams' interest in the new capital was principally that it would accommodate him rent free.) He moved into the Palace, as it was often called, in October, Abigail joined him a month later.

Is it possible that while trying to lure the First Family, Law and Carroll also competed for the favor of Commissioner Thornton reasoning that he might have some say in choosing a private residence for the First Family? He and White had first floated the idea after all. White, though, after his colleagues attacked him for identifying the houses, retreated to his home in Virginia. The other Commissioner, Scott, was dying of cancer. This left the eccentric genius Thornton in charge. Which side was he on? So asking Thornton for designs of an ordinary house and stables on Capitol Hill could be viewed as a salvo in the battle for Adams' favor. In 1798, when asked where to put the executive office buildings of the government, Adams opined that putting them next to the Capitol was fine with him. Such presidential whimsy is what Law and Carroll hoped to kindle once again..

The rivalry between the East and West sides of the city was as old as the 1791 decision to build the capital between plantation owners in the east and Georgetown merchants to the west. The rivalry only got worse as the years passed. In a February 4, 1797, letter to President Washington, Thomas Law complained "I aver that When Mr Young, Carroll myself and other Proprietors near the seat of Congress waited upon Mr Scot to approve a Petition to the Legislature of Maryland for a Bridge over the Eastern branch, he amused us by shewing the Presidents House on the Map and by pointing out where the Offices should be and by anticipating the future splendor of that part of the City by the residence of Ambassadors and by the Assemblage of Americans who were great Courtiers."

Three years later in her diary Mrs. Thornton related a report that people in Georgetown expected congress to meet in the President's house. That she hoped not, would have surprised people on Capitol Hill who nursed suspicions that Thornton favored Georgetown. The farm he bought lay west in Montgomery County, Maryland, neighboring that of Georgetown's Benjamin Stoddert. In 1799 Thornton opined that if yellow fever drove the government out of Philadelphia, congressmen could live and meet in Georgetown College. If in the 1800 merry-go-round of social visits for tea, as word got around that Thornton was designing his own house on a lot across the street from Tayloe's, Law and Carroll may have felt desperate and cheated. Law and Notley Young, Carroll's uncle, had helped Thornton acquire the lot next to Washington's houses where he promised to raise a party wall to reduce their mutual expenses. That's where Law and Carroll wanted him to build and raise property values.

Since he didn't take money for his designs, asking Thornton for a design was not a bribe, but it was flattery. Of course, this explanation for why in March 1800 Law prevailed on Thornton to design his stables assumes that Thornton didn't design any of Law's houses. Indeed, if he had, merely heaping praise on his designs might have been flattery enough. Then again, given the opportunity, why not associate the designer of the Capitol with the house you're offering to the First Family? Law did not. His letter to sway Mrs. Adams lauds the house in great detail with no mention a designer it:
The house I occupy is built upon the side of an hill - the lower story has two cellars and a passage to the outhouses. The kitchen story has an excellent office abt 21 by 20 which contains a folding bed and 4 windows, a store room, a pantry and the best kitchen in America - in the area is the ice house filled - the kitchen is in the form of a fan thirty six feet across with dressers and a modern kitchen or fire to boil, bake, and c. On the ground floor there is a handsome oval room 32 by 24 and a room adjoining 20 by 28 - the oval room is so handsomely furnished that I wish to leave the eagle round glasses, carpet and couches in them as they are suited to the room - above stairs is a dressing room and a bedroom 21 by 20 - a center room with a fireplace about 17 by thirteen, an oval room 30 by 25 - and a room 20 by 11 with a fireplace - the same upstairs - say 8 bed rooms or 7 bedrooms and an oval sitting room. The fireplaces in the large room have marble.
It is the most convenient house I ever was in  the view is beautiful - it is dry - has an excellent pump of water on the hill which goes to the kitchen - it is most dry, in short the President cannot be better accomodated - it has a stable for five horses, a good coach house, hay loft etc etc - no one can be but pleased with it. It is warm in the winter and cool in the summer having all the southerly wind. General Washington was so pleased with it, that he said "I would never recommend to  a wife to counteract her husband's wishes but in this instance, and I advise Mrs. Law not to agree to a sale"....

By associating "Architect Thornton" with this wonderland of ovals, Law would have flattered Thornton and could have gratified architectural historians of the future by linking ovals and curvilinear designs to fit an angled lot.

But since Thornton designed the Capitol, wouldn't he have been partial to that part of town already? Why would Law have to use flattery to entice him there? Thornton developed a curious relationship with the Capitol which will be a topic for another blog post. Briefly put, he was incapable of providing or found it too tedious to provide the drawings needed by workers. The most complex and largest structure yet built in America needed a lot of working drawings. So, being too close to the building would only subject him to frequent embarrassments. He rented the F Street house as his residence because it was nearer the Commissioners' office. To ensure his separation, he even asked work supervisors to send their requests for instructions to the Commissioners. For example, on October 24, 1796, when Blagden needed to know if and how the pilasters would "diminish", he had to write to the Commissioners. Thornton wanted to be asked about the Capitol's design in writing. He did not want to be buttonholed and asked to explain what he intended in person, in front of workers, .

By 1795 it was widely known that the interior of the Capitol as designed by Thornton would have inadequate head room. That led to this insult: "He has his head to clear of the lumber which crowds it to make room for what is correct." ( note 3) But joking aside, thanks to his role as Commissioner Thornton had power enough to preserve his designs (and reputation.) With the support of just of his fellow commissioners, who knew little about architecture, he could officially check any effort by supervising architects at the Capitol like George Hadfield and James Hoban to change his design and have it stopped in writing so posterity would know whose design it truly was. That cumbersome process of policing the men trying to get the work done could try the patience of his colleagues who must have wondered why architect and builders couldn't simply talk to each other. Periodically they sided against Thornton, also in writing.

On April 17, 1799, (two days before Thornton wrote to Washington about Tayloe's house contract) his fellow commissioners wrote to Thornton reminding him that the 1793 advertisement for the contest to design the Capitol required that the "Author should furnish the necessary drawings." They informed him that the Superintendent of Capitol construction, then James Hoban, asked them "for several drawings of the sections of the Capitol without which he cannot progress with the building." Thornton replied that he was "on the spot" to give advice, that since the work then being done was temporary he didn't make drawings, and, come to think of it, the job description of the superintendent included making drawings.

I estimate Thornton's avoidance of the Capitol building delayed construction by a year, but that will have to be the subject for another post. The point to make here is that, in the crucial days of early 1800 when uncertainty prevailed about what would happen when congress arrived in December, Law and Carroll did all they could to flatter Thornton. Given this, why was there no flattery from the likes of Stoddert and Tayloe who had bet on the west side of town? Simply put, Thornton might be in charge but Stoddert controlled the flow of money. (I won't go into whether Tayloe flattered Thornton by taking some of his horses seriously. There is no record of one of Thornton's horse ever beating Tayloe's.)

Congress had been financing the public buildings in one way or another since 1796 and never had much confidence in the Commissioners. So in January 1800 they appropriated $10,000 to prepare the city for their coming and ordered the cabinet secretaries to dispense it. In that function the secretaries of State, Treasury and War deferred to the Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert, Georgetown merchant, speculator in Washington lots and owner of the farm neighboring Thornton's.

If not Thornton, who did design the Octagon? Yet another post will be needed to explore who was designing and building other houses in the city. The early development on Greenleaf's Point failed but the energy collected there endured. Architect William Lovering had been in the city in since 1794. Even as the speculators who hired him returned to Philadelphia and were jailed in the Prune Street debtor's prison, Lovering remained in Washington.

Compared to Thornton, he suffered the disadvantage of not being a gentleman. He had to offer his services in newspaper ads, not during tea or dinner. He worked for his living and was not celebrated for any other attainments or, as far as we know, ever held any position outside the building trades. Put it this way: Thornton corresponded with Washington, Jefferson and Madison and dined frequently with all three, and with Tayloe. Lovering wrote one note to President Jefferson about a "Mangle" he "made for Callendering of Linen" that President Adams' servant requested. Jefferson wasn't interested.

However, in 1798 Lovering claimed that he superintended the construction of two-thirds of the houses in the city. No one doubted that since they were all still standing including several impressive brick buildings on Greenleaf's Point . Much of southwest Washington below the Capitol was named after James Greenleaf, the speculator who first hired Lovering. How could a gentleman who wanted to build a house ignore Lovering?

On March 9, 1799, Lovering wrote to the speculator John Nicholson who owed him money: “I could have had a building to do upon a contract about fifteen thousand dollars for a gentleman [of?] Virginia but could get no security therefore have lost it.”

Thornton informed Washington of the Tayloe contract on April 19. If Lovering was referring to Tayloe then he knew about the Octagon project six weeks earlier. Lovering could not get security because Nicholson in part had driven him to bankruptcy. Lovering continued writing to Nicholson through April 22 hoping for money and possibly the correspondence stopped because Lovering made a contract with Tayloe.  However, in that last letter, Lovering writes "I have nothing to do here and shall be soon on my way to Phila[delphi]a, as I now am down to the last shilling, without any hopes of getting any relief...."

However, Lovering stayed. Tayloe must have had a design before he began negotiating a contract with Lovering back in March. There were not a few building contractors in the city to do the job. Six, including Lovering, bid for building the executive office that would house the Treasury. Why didn't Tayloe hire one of them? Why did he stick with Lovering? Maybe because Lovering designed the Octagon.

To be fair to Thornton what can't be explained away is his knack for drawing up plans all the more impressive because he wasn't a trained architect. His drawing also impressed men known to be careful judges and particular in what they wanted, namely Washington and Jefferson who were so enthusiastic about Thornton's original elevation and floor plan for the Capitol.(Neither the originals nor copies remain.) When Thornton bragged on himself in his 1804 reply to Latrobe he highlighted what he thought important in architecture: ancient masterpieces, the orders of architecture and "the genuine effects of proportion [that] furnish the requisites of the great outlines of composition." His Capitol design was a great outline in composition.

The drawings and photos Glenn Brown used in his 1896 article to illustrate the Octagon  by contrast show little of "the great outlines of composition exhibited" in Thornton's Capitol design. To illustrate Tudor Place, Brown used Thornton's floor plan and also a contemporary drawing made in 1894 by a member of the owning Peter family.

Artist Walter Gibson Peter was himself an architect

The drawing strikes one as something that Thornton, with his "pretty taste for drawing" could have done himself. When designing Tudor Place on a hill above Georgetown, Thornton had enough space to proportionally balance the needs of a private residence with a tasteful classical focus. The building lots confining the designs of the Octagon, the Law house and any other private house in the city did not inspire Thornton. What was the point of laying out an oval room in a building that due to the constraints of practicality and economy required ceilings too low to accommodate it? In her diary, Mrs. Thornton expressed the contradiction when she saw Law's house. It was roomy but too cramped for grandeur. Conceptually linking the curvilinear fronts of the Octagon and Law house and crediting Thornton for both, as architectural historian do, is ingenious use of scant evidence, but Thornton preferred his ovals to be grand and preferably under a dome.

Thomas Jefferson understood Thornton's strengths and limitations as an architect. On May 9, 1817, he enlisted Thornton's aid in filling a large quadrangle with buildings to form the core of the University of Virginia: "Will you set your imagination to work and sketch some designs for us, no matter how loosely with the pen, without the trouble of referring to scale or rule; for we want nothing but the outline of the architecture, as the internal must be arranged according to local convenience. A few sketches, such as need not take you a moment." (

Jefferson understood that Thornton was an outline of an architect. In his reply, Thornton was in his element:

I admire every thing that would tend to give chaste Ideas of elegance and grandeur. Accustomed to pure Architecture, the mind would relish in time no other, and therefore the more pure the better.—I have drawn a Pavilion for the Centre, with Corinthian Columns, and a Pediment. I would advise only the three orders: for I consider the Composite as only a mixture of the Corinthian and Ionic; and the Tuscan as only a very clumsy Doric.
In this letter, Thornton finally shares architectural insights with a former president based on his own experience with a house he designed, not the Octagon but the Lewis house. He describes how its columns were made:

Columns can be made in this way most beautifully, as I have seen them done at mr. Lewis’s, near mount Vernon, where they have stood above 12 years, and I did not find a single crack or fissure. The Bricks were made expressly for columnar work, and when they were to be plastered, the Brick-work was perfectly saturated with water which prevented the plaister from drying too rapidly.—The mortar was not laid on fresh. It was composed of two thirds sharp well washed fine white sand, and one third well slaked lime. I would mix these with Smiths’ water. I would also dissolve some Vitriol of Iron in the water for the ashlar Plaister, not only to increase the binding quality of the mortar, but also to give a fine yellow Colour—which on Experiment you will find beautiful and cheap. (Remember Thornton had a medical degree.)
In her diary entry for August 4, 1800, 17 years earlier, Mrs. Thornton describes their visit to Mount Vernon and the nearby Woodlawn site, a wedding gift from George Washington to his step-grand daughter Eleanor "Nellie" Lewis when they were still in the planning stages of their Thornton-designed house there:

Dr T. and Mr Lewis play'd at Back gammon till tea. After breakfast— Mrs Lewis, the young Ladies and I went in Mrs Washington's Carriage (a Coachee ; and four) and Mr Lewis and Dr T. in ours, to see Mr Lewis's Hill where he is going to build— and his farm and mill and distillery. Dr T. has given him a plan for his house.— He has a fine situation, all in woods, from which he will have an extensive and beautiful view.
In the eventful year 1800, that was probably Thornton's happiest day.

Part Two: Did William Lovering Design the Octagon House?

Bob Arnebeck 

(I am very grateful to Mandy Katz for copy editing and editorial help; opinions expressed all my own,)