Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Who designed the Octagon - Part Three


I have created blog re-examining Thornton's work as as architect. Here is link to the table of contents of the blog which is organized as a seventeen chapter book:



Would you have asked William Thornton to design your house?

As of 1799, the US Capitol was the only building in Washington that Dr. William Thornton was known to have had a role in designing. But it was notorious that his original 1793 design was not buildable. Controversy about that flared up again in 1799. Yet Thornton was a formidable influence on the city's architecture because by attacking changes professional architects made to his Capitol design, he became the city's first architecture critic. He defended his own design and attacked others with considerable rhetorical skills including references to buildings and houses in Europe.

He had added influence because as one of three Commissioners overseeing the city's development, he had power over what happened in the city. That power was largely undefined. For example, there was no formal process of approving house designs, but Thornton boasted of doubling the sale price of lots to block construction of a row of houses on Capitol Hill because the design "was destitute of taste and loaded with finery."

So apart from evidence noted in Parts One and Two of this essay, there are two other factors to weigh before deciding who designed the Octagon. Given the continuing controversy over Thornton's Capitol design, was it wise to ask him to design a private house? Then again, given Thornton's rhetorical command of architecture and his power as a Commissioner, was it wise to ignore him?

Ironically the man who chose Thornton's design of the Capitol in 1793 and who appointed Thornton to the Board of Commissioners in 1794 faced that dilemma in 1798. George Washington had to decide how much to involve Thornton in his own building project. Analyzing the ample evidence of how Washington handled Thornton might help us understand what Thornton's influence on the Octagon design process might have been. That was a process about which we have meager evidence.

George Washington spent $12,000 to build the two houses with the double doors. Admiral Wilkes bought the houses for $4000 in the 1830s. In the 1840's Wilkes returned to the city and found the side of the hill dug out for gravel to be used for walks around the Capitol.

In September 1798 when Washington decided to build two houses on Capitol Hill, much had passed between him and Thornton since 1793. The plan Thornton submitted in the Capitol design contest was a godsend that quickly turned into a nightmare. Washington had originally planned to have L'Enfant design the Capitol and President's house. In March 1792 after having only made his plan of the city, L'Enfant left the project. Washington had the Commissioners announce a design contest for each building with a $500 prize, plus a lot in the city for the winning Capitol design. In July 1792, James Hoban, a 30 year old Irish architect who since 1787 had been designing and building houses in Charleston, South Carolina, marked out the lines of the President's house. Washington was at his side making sure the house was bigger than Hoban's winning contest entry design.

A French architect, Stephen Hallet, who had recently left Paris for Philadelphia, almost had a winner for the Capitol but Washington was not moved by his entry. The Commissioners let Hallet move into a house in the city hoping he would come up with revisions to please the president.

Washington feared that not building the Capitol and President's house at the same time would excite the rivalry that already existed between the East and West ends of the city. Still, Washington had the Commissioners reopen the design contest for the Capitol. That gave Thornton the chance in January 1793 to submit a design which he had “worked on night and day” during his extended honeymoon on his family's plantation in the Virgin Islands. He had left the island of Tortola when he was 5 years old to be educated in Britain. After getting a doctorate in medicine in Scotland, Thornton decided to make his career in Philadelphia where in 1790, the 31 year old doctor quickly made a sensation with an essay on language, an award winning design for the Library Company of Philadelphia's new building, and his marriage to the 15 year daughter of the headmistress of the city's premiere finishing school.

For the rest of his life upon meeting another influential gentleman, Thornton gave him a copy of his prize winning essay. That gentleman could not help being impressed

Both Washington and his right hand man in the Capitol project, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, were taken “by the beauty of the exterior and the distribution of the apartments.” Thornton went to Georgetown to deliver his plan. Directed by the enthusiasm in Philadelphia, the Commissioners awarded Thornton the $500 prize and asked him to lay out the foundation as soon as possible.  He surprised the Commissioners by suggesting they ask an architect to do it. He also didn't have any idea how much his design would cost to build.

The two architects already employed by the Commissioners, Hallet and Hoban, warned the Commissioners, and then both Washington and Jefferson when they passed through Georgetown, that Thornton's design was far too expensive and, as designed, parts of it could not be built. Both the president and Commissioners had pledged themselves to grandeur for the ages despite the expense but....

On June 30, 1793, Washington asked Jefferson to arrange a meeting with Thornton and his critics, adding: “It is unlucky that this investigation of Doctor Thornton’s plan, and estimate of the cost had not preceded the adoption of it;... I had no knowledge in the rules or principles of architecture—and was equally unable to count the cost.”

To be fair to Thornton, Washington asked Jefferson to convene the meeting in Philadelphia where Thornton lived and planned to practice medicine. Plus Thornton could invite two builders to the meeting to defend his design. Jefferson also sent Thornton “five Manuscript Volumes in folio” (20 pages, which have been lost) in which Hallet attacked Thornton's design. In Thornton's papers there is a draft of a letter of just over 2000 words long in which Thornton defended his design. He sent the final version to Jefferson.

Judging from Thornton's reaction, Hallet exhausted himself challenging (in his second language) the details of Thornton's design. Thornton admitted being frustrated by not having a copy of his design and by Hallet's bad handwriting. Thornton admitted to a few mistakes and then set out to prove that he knew more about architecture than the French architect. In his letter Thornton referred to the Ancients, the Escorial, the Louvre, and he put the Capitol in context: “It is but of small magnitude when compared to many-private Edifices of Individuals in other parts of the World.” 

Detail of 1722 painting of El Escorial by Houasse
That this huge royal complex in Spain took 21 years to build was a fact Thornton thought relevant to construction of the Capitol

Hallet had a motive for attacking Thornton. Well aware of the excitement generated by Thornton's design, he sent a written description of his own latest design to Jefferson. 

Thornton did not impugn Hallet's motives but did fault him for making so much of mistakes that could be easily corrected, such as the placement of the columns to support the dome. But he doubted Hallet's qualifications to criticize the essence of his design:
The want of unity between the Ornaments and the Order, forms another objection in Mr. Hallet’s report. I trust he will permit me in this instance to prefer the authorities of the best books.... The Intercolumniation of the portico is objected. The Ancients had five proportions, (viz) the Picnostyle containing 1½ Diameter; the Sistyle 2 Diameters; the Eustyle 2¼ Dia:; the Diastyle 3 Diam:; and the Ar├Žostyle 4 Diameters. The Eustyle is reasoned the most elegant in general, but deviations are allowed according to circumstances,....
One of Hallet's many plans
"poor Hallet, whose merit and distresses interest every one for his tranquility and pecuniary relief"
Jefferson lamented in a February 1, 1793, letter. 

Then they all met, the President attending as long as he could. The better known of Thornton's experts, Thomas Carstairs, saw the problems with Thornton's design, and his other expert, a Col. Williams, appeared to agree. All agreed that changes that Hallet made to Thornton's design were better and cheaper. Then the day after the meeting, Williams called on Jefferson and explained that conferring with Thornton, he thought all objections “could be removed but the want of light and air in some cases.” Jefferson was very skeptical, telling Washington that Williams' “method of spanning the intercolonnations with secret arches of brick, and supporting the floors by an interlocked framing appeared to me totally inadequate;... and a conjectural expression how head-room might be gained in the Stairways shewed he had not studied them.” 

No rival of Thornton's would forget the trouble with the headroom.

In his July 25, 1793, letter to the Commissioners, the President described the agreed upon design as “the plan produced by Mr Hallett,” but it preserved “the original ideas of Doctor Thornton, and such as might upon the whole, be considered as his plan.,..” And then he goes on to say: “Mr Hoben was accordingly informed that the foundation would be begun upon the plan as exhibited by Mr Hallett, leaving the recess in the East front open for further consideration.” Hallet thought Thornton's grand portico entrance with the elliptical front and grand staircase would block lighting and ventilation in the North and South Wings. In August, the President sent the Commissioners the cost estimates Carstairs made for the stone work on what the President called “Hallet's plan.”

We now don't exactly know what plans everyone was looking at because they no longer exist. By the way the Dome was not Thornton's original idea. Samuel Blodget, a land speculator who replaced L'Enfant as superintendent of all work in the city, sketched out a Roman edifice with a Dome before Thornton submitted his design.

The cornerstone of the Capitol was laid on September 18, 1793, and during the public ceremony Thornton was not recognized in anyway. Hoban and Hallet were both listed as its architects. During the winter Hallet concentrated on completing designs of sections of the huge tripartite building. Hoban shifted masons who had finished the wall of the first story of the President's house over to lay the foundation of the Capitol. No one asked Thornton for any advice least of all the Commissioners who recognized that the President made all the decisions about it and that their job was to raise money and hire workers as cheaply as possible.

Meanwhile on November 29, 1793, Thornton solicited appointment as Washington's secretary. He admitted to him that “My Situation in Life has precluded me from the honor of being but very partially known to you...,” and offered James Madison who he had befriended in Philadelphia in 1790, as a reference. Neither in Thornton's letter nor Washington's brief reply (he had appointed somebody else) was there any mention of the Capitol. 

Was Thornton being shunned for submitting a deceptive design and then trying to back it up with an incompetent expert? It is unlikely that Washington thought that badly of a young man everyone thought congenial and informative. The Commissioners soon got some use out of Thornton, at least out of his “ideas.”

As the foundation continued to rise in the early summer of 1794, Hallet gave orders to the masons which angered the head mason, a Scot named Collen Williamson, who complained to the Board. The Board had hired Williamson in 1792, and he won their gratitude by laying the founding and building the first story of the President's house. (But he was old and ever claiming that the stone castles he built in Scotland were better than the brick-infused buildings in Washington and was eventually fired.) He intimated to the Board that the drawings Hallet was using were different than what the President had sent down from Philadelphia. The Board asked Hallet to give them all his drawings.

Hallet had not exactly prospered. When Jefferson learned that his wife and children lived in poverty in Philadelphia, he was quite alarmed. When they moved to Washington, three children died. Maybe that's why Hallet overreacted to the Board's demands. He said he would give the drawings up only after they hired him as superintendent of construction, which paid $1500 a year, and credited him as the only designer of the Capitol.

At the their monthly meeting on June 26, 1794, the commissioners responded: “nothing has ever gone from us by which we intended or we believe you could infer that you had the chief direction of executing the work of the Capitol or that you or anybody else were to introduce into that building any departures from Doctr Thornton’s Plan without the Presidents or commissioners approbation.”
Hallet replied on June 28 that he believed the earlier conference had led to the adoption of his plan: “In the alteration I never thought of introducing in it any thing belonging to Dr Thornton’s exhibitions. So I Claim the Genuine Invention of the Plan now executing and beg leave to Lay hereafter before you and the President the proofs of my right to it....”( see footnote 7)

The Commissioners fired Hallet. The speculator James Greenleaf took up his cause and kept him at work refining his Capitol design as an insurance policy in case the Commissioners' maladministration delayed construction of the Capitol.

At the same that they dismissed Hallet, Commissioners Thomas Johnson and David Stuart announced their retirement – they had been threatening it since January. (Washington offered to make Johnson the sole commissioner, to no avail.) Thornton sensed an opportunity and spent most of July 1794 in Georgetown. He arrived just after the Commissioners sacked Hallet and just after Washington accepted Johnson's and Stuart's resignation. Washington made replacing Johnson a priority. Johnson, a former governor of Maryland and former chief judge of that state and former Justice of the Supreme Court, advised Washington to appoint a good lawyer to the Board.  

Washington asked two Maryland lawyers, a former governor and a former senator, but they declined. Then he asked his Georgetown contacts about Gustavus Scott, a Virginia born Maryland lawyer who had held minor offices and had done more than most in promoting the Potomac canal projects. 

Then while Thornton was in Georgetown, a member of the Fairfax family, the closest to royalty that Virginia had and long respected by George Washington, urged him to appoint Thornton, who "even with the sacrifice of considerable pecuniary interest, being desirous of fixing himself in the neighbrhood of the city of Washington, wou’d willingly accept of some appointment in w’ch his talents might contribute to the Public Advantage by advancing the growth or Prosperity of the City.”

Ferdinando Fairfax then addressed Thornton's qualifications:
From a pretty good acquaintance with him, as well as from general repute, I believe him to possess uncommon Talents, and to have cultivated particularly those Branches of Science which are most useful in this business—and, what is of equal or perhaps more consequence, to have a large share of Public Spirit, and great integrity. He has a Plan of a National University, which appears to deserve attention, and w’ch, at some convenient time, he is desirous of submitting to your Consideration.
There was no mention of the Capitol. Thornton had befriended Samuel Blodget who had initially won Washington's esteem with the same line about a National University.

Washington appointed Scott and then in late August offered the other vacancy to his former secretary Tobias Lear who was setting up a new merchant house on Rock Creek. Accustomed to men declining appointment, he also asked Lear about Thornton: “The Doctr is sensible, and indefatigable I am told, in the execution of whatever he engages; To which may be added his taste for architecture; but being little known, doubts arise on that head.”

There was no mention of the Capitol or Hallet. Note that he did not say that Thornton was an architect. Lear declined appointment and replied:
I find Dr Thornton is much esteemed by those of the proprietors and others hereabouts from whom I have been in the way of drawing an opinion; they consider him as a very sensible, genteel and well informed Man, ardent in his pursuits; but liable to strong prejudices, and such I understand is his prejudice against Hoben that I conceive it would hardly be possible for them to agree on any points where each might consider himself as a judge—Weight of Character, from not being known, seems also to be wanting.
Lear probably thought he had ended Thornton's chances by bringing up his feuding with James Hoban, the architect at the President's house whose work there had never given the President or Commissioners few problems. So Lear mentioned three others that Washington might pick but in September, the new secretary of state Edmund Randolph called on Thornton who was back in Philadelphia and offered him the job. Although there is no evidence that they met at all that summer, in coming years and after several battles with other architects over the Capitol design, Thornton would claim that Washington told him to restore the original design of the Capitol.

In his 1896 article on Thornton, Glenn Brown completely mistakes Washington's reason for appointing Thornton to the Board of Commissioners, and didn't realize that the lawyer Gustavus Scott joined the Board at the same time as Thornton and, as lawyers usually do, had a knack for forms and contracts


Actually, Washington had Randolph inform Thornton and Scott that he appointed them to reform the Board and carry out his new ideas about how it should operate. The old Board met once a month and only Commissioner Daniel Carroll lived relatively close to the city, up near the source of Rock Creek. Washington wanted members of the new Board to live in the city or for a start at least in Georgetown. Washington also expected the new Board would meet in the city three times a week and that the new Commissioners would pay close attention to the work being done. ( Daniel Carroll, the member of the old Board, who remained on the new Board, was in ill health.) The old Board was paid only their traveling expenses and a $6 per diem when they met in Georgetown. To make their new burdens easier, each member of the new Board would get a salary of $1600.

Thornton left Philadelphia and bought and moved into a house in Georgetown in October. Washington had just bought lots on a hill in the city just southeast of Georgetown and planned to build his city residence there. Thornton bought lots in the neighboring square. Scott commuted from a farm he owned nine miles from the city in Virginia and also began buying up city lots.

But a few months on the job, Thornton seemed to show that he understood Washington's wishes. He personally took the level of the ground around the Capitol. That drew attention to what many thought was Washington's obvious mistake in having L'Enfant place the Capitol too far to the west on Capitol Hill. Since 1791 when L'Enfant showed his plan, Washington had resisted moving it back. Then after crews of Irishmen, most speaking only Gaelic, dug the foundation, and masons, mostly Scots, laid the foundation as hired slaves moved stone to the site, the Capitol hardly seemed to rise because of the ground hulking behind it. Hallet had recognized the problem and had estimated how much it would cost to remove the hill.

The old Board assumed that brick-makers needing clay would level the hill in due time. While the building's foundation was stone, its walls would be brick fronted with sandstone. Thornton went to Philadelphia in March 1795 to do the paper work to get a bank loan to finance construction of the public buildings. Since he periodically had money from his legacy transferred from London, he knew Philadelphia bankers. (He didn't manage to raise a loan but it wasn't his fault.)

While in Philadelphia, he suggested to Washington that the foundation be raised ten feet. Thornton told his colleagues what he was up to and added, by the way, that both he and the President agreed that the Capitol was a building for the ages and it would not do to spare expense. Washington put off any decision until he viewed the site. One can credit Washington's eventual decision to raise the foundation walls six feet as an endorsement of Thornton's vision, although Washington probably felt compelled to rectify the mistake he made when he placed the Capitol too far to the west.
Washington was likely gratified that Thornton seemed to have thoroughly investigated the situation which is exactly what he wanted the new commissioners to do.

Then Thornton and Scott started a row with Thomas Johnson, the man Scott succeeded. Johnson had long worked with Washington to develop the Potomac Valley. When he first mentioned retiring, Johnson wrote to his old friend that he thought it was time "benefit myself by the rise of the City." He bought lots from James Greenleaf along Rock Creek just north of the stone bridge at K Street NW. When Johnson tried to get the deeds for the lots, the two new members of the Board told him that the old Board had not been authorized to award what were in effect water lots to Greenleaf.

Thornton enraged Johnson. So he who had used the “ideas of Thornton” in order to fire Hallet, took aim at Thornton. Alluding to his head bumping design of the Capitol's interior Johnson jibed in a letter that Thornton had a “head to clear of the lumber which crowds it to make room for what is correct.” Thornton and Scott sent a packet of documents and Johnson's offensive letters to the President. (See footnote 3.)

Washington tried to mediate the dispute and found both Johnson and Thornton stubborn. In a letter to Commissioner Carroll, he described his conversation with Thornton:
He, any more than Mr Johnson, seemed to think this could not be accomplished, as the Commissioners (or whether he confined it more particularly to Mr Scott and himself, I am not certain) were clearly of opinion, and had been so advised by professional men, that the lots upon Rock Creek would, undoubtedly, be considered as water lots under Greenleafs contract; and being so considered and of greater value, it followed as a consequence, that they, as trustees of public property in the City, could not yield to a claim which would establish a principle injurious to that property. He added that they had taken pains to investigate this right, and was possessed of a statement thereof which he or they (I am not sure which) wished me to look at. [(According to Tobias Lear, no one in Georgetown thought they were water lots.]
Learning that Carroll was about to retire, Johnson warned the President that his choice for replacing Carroll was crucial.  The other former Commissioner, David Stuart, told Washington that the two new Commissioners were "in error" and he had to appoint "a Law character of consderable eminence." He suggested Alexander White and Washington picked the 57 year old former two term Virginia congressman who had a farm in Woodville near Leesburg.

In explaining to White what he expected of him as a Commissioner, Washington shared his disappointment with Thornton and Scott:
In short, the only difference I could perceive between the proceedings of the old, and the new commissionrs result⟨ed⟩ from the following comparison. The old met not oftener than once a month, except on particular occasions; the new meet once or twice a week. In the interval, the old resided at their houses in the country; the new reside at their houses in George Town. The old... were obliged ⟨to⟩ trust to overseers, and superintendants to look to the execution; the new have gone more into the execution of it by contracts, and piece work, but rely equally, I fear, on others to see to the performance. These changes (tho’ for the better) by no means apply a radical cure to the evils that were complained of, nor will they justify the difference of compensation.... 
Then on June – before White joined the Board, all of that year's work to date which entailed raising 300 feet of foundation walls for all three parts of the building, all fell down. Work resumed only on the North Wing. Both houses of congress would have to meet there in 1800. Washington did not lecture Thornton and Scott. He left that to Secretary of State Randolph who put it this way: "The President will by no means suppose, nor does he mean in the most distant manner to insinuate, that due attention was not paid by the Commissioners to the running up of the walls of the Capitol, but it may happen in some other instance that a similar fatality might take place which would be prevented by the watchful inspection of the Commissioners...."

From the Secretary of State's letterbook

Thornton and Scott wrote to Randolph complaining of the “motley set” they had to deal with which made inspecting the work distressing. They insisted that if they had walked on top of the faulty walls three time a day, they couldn't have prevented their collapse

Despite the strain the collapse of the walls caused between the Commissioners and President, everyone conspired to minimize reports of the damage. The Commissioners conducted an investigation only to assign blame so that the culprit would pay damages. So for years they carried on their account book that contractor Cornelius McDermott Roe owed $1264 for damages to the North Wing and $1470 for damages to the South Wing. On April 22, 1795, Roe had written to the Commissioners asking for the architect to give directions. Evidently he didn't receive an answer. No one investigated the Board's role in the collapse.

Then to save the Capitol from further blunders, upon the recommendation of the American artist John Trumbull, George Hadfield arrived from England having just graduated from the best architectural training in England and with the highest recommendations. The Commissioners hired him to do what Hallet had found impossible to do, build the plan which in one letter Washington would refer to as “nobody's.”

After being on the job but a few months Hadfield complained both about the design handed to him and the defective work already done on the building. He recommended not building the basement, which is to say, a story above the foundation and below the story with the Senate chamber. To add height to the building, he recommended building an attic. Thornton found an ally in James Hoban whose Irish friends working at the Capitol took an instant disliking to Hadfield. In a 2200 word letter to Washington, Thornton referred to Hoban 11 times including this fillip: “Mr Hoban we know to be a practical man, and a person on whom I think we may depend. He has sometimes opposed my wishes, but I knew his motives were good, and I always admire independence.”

To excuse defective workmanship, Thornton relied on Hoban's judgment: “Mr Hoban and I knew of these defects, not only in the foundation but also in some parts of the distribution of the interior—we lamented, and endeavoured to correct them—In some Instances we succeeded, some small ones may yet remain, but not of much Importance in our Estimation.

As for Hadfield's criticisms of the building's design, Thornton was gracious to a point: Hadfield was “a young man of genius,” but incompetent. Thornton especially focused on one criticism made by Hadfield:
No objection can be urged to a rusticated Basement, because such are made use of not only in some of the most beautiful remains of Antiquity but also in the most magnificent modern Houses in England & other places—I will only instance a few in England. Wentworth House, which is an elegant palace belonging to the Marquis of Rockingham, six hundred feet in length—and of the same Order viz. the Corithian with a rustic Basement—Worksop-Manor House belonging to the Duke of Norfolk, three Hundred feet in extent yet only a small part of a superb Building once contemplated—Same Order rustic Basement. Holkham House—345 feet—Heveningham Hall, which is a very elegant Structure has a line of Pilasters supported on a rustic Arcade that runs the whole length—Chiswick House, the Seat of the Duke of Devonshire has a rustic Basement supporting fluted Columns of the Corinthian Order—Wentworth Castle, Seat of the Earl of Strafford abt 6 miles from Wentworth House is of the same Order on a rustic Arcade. Wanstead House is also Corinthian on a rustic Basement, & considered as a very chaste & beautiful Building—It was designed by the Author of the Book on Architecture called the Vitruvius Britannicus—These may serve to shew that a Basement (rusticated) is not only proper, but adopted by many of the first Architects. The expense is certainly less than any other mode of obtaining the same height.

Wanstead House, built in 1722, was the last of six private houses in England with basements that Thornton brought to the attention of George Washington. It was demolished in 1825 just before the original US Capitol was finished

Washington's reaction to that Vesuvius of Basements was muted. He wrote to Thornton on November 9, 1795: “If [Hadfield] is the man of science he is represented to be, and merits the character he brings; if his proposed alterations can be accomplished without enhancing the expence or involving delay; if he will oblige himself to carry on the building to its final completion; and if he has exhibited any specimens of being a man of industry and arrangement I should have no hesitation in giving it as my opinion that his plan ought to be adopted....”

In a letter to the Commissioners written the same day, he said he was busy with the upcoming session of congress. As for Hadfield's suggested changes “I should have no objection as he conceives his character as an Architect is in some measure at stake – and inasmuch as the present plan is no body's, but a compound of every body's....”  He left the decision on the basement up to the Commissioners. However, on his last visit to the city, he was told that the dome had been eliminated from the plan which he did not like at all. Indeed, Thornton penned a new design with a huge cupola thrust high by columns letting light into all the rooms below. Washington did get the dome back, although he didn't live to see it built.

As long as he was a Commissioner, at least through 1800, Thornton worked on the designs of the Capitol at his own behest. This may have been one that shocked Washington into fearing that a dome was no longer part of the design

Ten years later President Thomas Jefferson would enjoy collaborating with Benjamin Latrobe as he designed and built the South Wing of the Capitol. Washington did not want to collaborate with Thornton at all. He wanted Hadfield to supervise construction of the Capitol to its completion. And he wanted the Commissioners to be on the scene making sure that the work progressed. Washington made it clear in a June 6, 1796, letter to the Board's treasurer William Deakins that the Commissioners must live in the city, that living in Georgetown wasn't enough. But not until December 1796, did Thornton arrange to move into the rental at 1331 F Street NW that became his home for the rest of his life. Washington congratulated him for choosing such a central location. (Not until February 1798, almost a year after Washington left office, did Mrs. Thornton host her first tea there.)

Washington's gratitude was probably genuine because Thornton's colleagues never moved to the city. Scott had bought a small house just over the city's boundary and expanded Rock Hill into a house suitable for his family of nine. White didn't move to the city because after a stay of a few weeks, his wife refused to live there. Anyway, his main contribution was lobbying congress for loan guarantees which kept him Philadelphia for months when congress was in session. That also kept him near the president who found the former congressman reliable and trustworthy.

But Thornton's tardy move must have puzzled Washington because Thornton had money and just after Washington bought lots in 1794, Thornton bought lots nearby. That created the expectation that Thornton would make a major commitment to the city. In 1794 Washington expected to make a major sale of his Westernlands but when the land deal failed (it was probably with Greenleaf and Morris,) Washington forgot about building. So did Thornton, but he still had money to spend on housing. Just as he did in Philadelphia when he gave up his short lived medical practice (just in time to miss the deadly 1793 yellow fever epidemic,) he bought a farm just outside the District of Columbia. It was not too much farther from his house in Georgetown to his farm, then it was to the Capitol.  He also bought city lots cheaply when proprietors put up their less desirable lots for auction.

One of the squares in which he bought lots in May 1797 was across the street from the lot Tayloe bought in April. Likely Thornton had an eye on the long projected development around the planned Mall to the east of his lot where foreign governments would be required to build their embassies. Thornton also noticed the emergence of mud flats in the Potomac south of the President's house, and beginning in September 5, 1795, obtained warrants to register a claim to them.

John Nicholson mistook Thornton for a player in the high stakes game of speculating on the ups and mostly downs of Morris's and Nicholson's vast holdings in the city and elsewhere. Perhaps Thornton's kindness in sharing a “good pipe of Madeira,” gave the speculator the wrong idea. He wrote to Morris on December 9, 1796, that he “made a strong attack on him to get his paper to settle with Gen. Bailey but he parried, said his wife and mother-in-law would be alarmed.” Nicholson needed “paper” to fulfill a contract that Greenleaf had made to buy land from Bailey.

The failure of Greenleaf, Morris and Nicholson to fulfill their contract to buy 6000 public lots prompted Washington and the Commissioners to frown on sales of lots to speculators. The Commissioners wanted buyers to build houses and soon. So they began offering two prices to all buyers giving a discount of 20% to 30%  to those who built a brick house on a lot within three years. (NB: that clock did not tick on the lots Washington and Thornton had bought before the new rule.) That policy did not sit well with many buyers given that original proprietors and those to whom they sold lots had no building requirement.

 Washington's plan for two "plain" houses

In September 1798, a year and a half after retiring from office, Washington decided to buy two more lots in the city and set a pattern for other gentlemen to follow. He immediately put in motion his plan to build two houses suitable for renting to those coming to the city in 1800. Well knowing the complications involved in buying lots and building in the city, he sought the help of Commissioners. He didn't want to involve the full board until he picked his lots so he decided to first ask one of them for help. He could choose Thornton the architect, Scott who Deakins had told him was the best at making contracts, or Alexander White. He seemed the least qualified Commissioner to lend a hand. He hadn't bought any Washington lots for building or speculation.

Washington asked White to pick out two lots near the Capitol that would be a good site for two “plain” houses. He also sent White a design of the houses that he said he had made himself and asked White to get the Commissioners to make a contract with a suitable builder. Washington knew that Thornton would soon learn of his intentions and made a comment to White in a way that must have given White a chuckle: “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's last exposure to Thornton's "goodness" on architectural principles came earlier in 1798. Thornton discovered a mistake Hadfield made in the size and placement of a cornice which resulted in a rose carved in a medallion that was an inch and three quarters too small and thus "not in proportion recommended by Sir Wm. Chambers in his work on architecture which is admitted to be a work inestimable in its way." Thornton's colleagues refused to spend $1100 to make it right. Thornton protested that the cornices "will remain forever a laughing stock to architects."

Thornton took pride in his battles with architects. In an October  5, 1797, letter to a mentor in Britain he recalled his early experiences defending his design of the Capitol: “I was attacked by Italian, French and English – I came off, however victorious. President Washington's determination joined by the Commissioners, after long and patient attention to all, was final and in my favor.” (The Italian he referred to was probably a model maker named Provini who worked with Hallet..)

He soon had another victory. As he continued his 1798 attack on Hadfield, Thornton again found an ally in Hoban. With work on the President's house put on hold to get the Capitol ready, Hoban wanted to become superintending architect at the Capitol. In a March 27, 1798, letter to his colleagues demeaning Hadfield, Thornton relied mostly on retelling what Irish carpenters closely allied to Hoban characterized as Hadfield's inept attempt to supervise construction of the Capitol's roof. Thornton recalled Hadfield's mistakes in arithmetic, his “total incapacity in the most trivial calculations,” and deficiencies mere Irish carpenters would not notice. Hadfield operated “as if the 47 proofs of the first book of Euclid had never been discovered.” After a good bit of back and forth, the Commissioners fired Hadfield at the end of May.

"nay so little did he know of the consequences of a small mistake in the basement..."
Thornton takes Hadfield to task in a letter to his fellow Commissioners

A few months later Washington wanted to build two “plain” houses. He did not ask Thornton to design them, likely.to avoid his histrionics. But as he avoided Thornton the architect, he had to avoid provoking Thornton the architecture critic. Could Thornton ever criticize the man who made him famous? Washington had to remember Thornton's unwarranted attacks on his old friend Thomas Johnson.

On September 21,1798, the Commissioners finalized Washington's lot selection as the former President joined them on Capitol Hill. They sent the house plans to George Blagden who had been the head mason at the Capitol and with that work ending had become a private builder. There is absolutely no evidence that Thornton had anything to do with the plan they gave to Blagden who then estimated how much it would cost to build. But that same day, Thornton sensed an opportunity to get more involved in the project.

Since 1793 he had never claimed the lot that along with $500 was the prize for winning the Capitol design contest. So on the day Washington chose his lots, Thornton asked his colleagues that he be awarded a lot. He justified bringing it up at that late date by noting that he had finally restored the design of the Capitol. His colleagues took him at his word. They arranged for him to choose a lot and he took one next to Washington's. Thornton also joined White in drawing up a contract with Blagden and listing the specifications for the houses. (When he mentioned getting his prize lot in a letter to Washington, he only said of the prize lot that until then he “had not demanded [it] from motives of Delicacy....” He didn't push the idea that he had “restored” the Capitol design.)

Then, Thornton volunteered to help Washington save money by building a three story brick house “or Houses on a similar plan” next door and assuming the full cost of the party wall. That is, he would build as soon as he recovered from “some late heavy losses; not in Speculations, but matters of Confidence, to the amount of between four and five thousand Dollars.”

Washington replied on October 28th just as he met with the contractor Blagden to go over the specifications of the house. He welcomed Thornton's offer without “any allowance being made... as the kindnesses I have received from you greatly overpay any little convenience or benefit you can derive from my Wall.” (The best documented “kindness” that Thornton gave to Washington was a gift of special medicinal "Tincture of bark" made at his Virgin Islands plantation.)

Could the design for Washington's house have been another kindness from Thornton? No. Washington wrote: “With respect to your own accomodation you will please to give Mr Blagden such Instructions when he enters upon the Walls as to suit your views perfectly.” If Thornton had designed Washington's house, he would have already known how Blagden would build the wall. We could say Thornton designed the party wall, but he never built his house.

In that same letter Washington asked Thornton to oblige with another kindness: “as you reside in the City, and [are] always there, and have moreover been so obliging as to offer to receive the Bills and pay their amount (when presented by Mr Blagden) I will avail myself of this kindness.” As Mrs.Thornton proudly noted when she viewed the almost completed Washington houses on January 3, 1800: “the money paid to the undertaker of them having all gone thro' my husband's hand, he having Superintended them as a friend.” She didn't add that her husband designed the houses because he didn't.

He did try to do more than merely pay off the contractor. He gave Washington advice on parapets, which Washington didn't take, and replaced wooden sills with stone at some outer doors. Then in July 1799 once again Thornton brought up expanding Washington's two houses into a row of houses. 

John Francis who boarded congressmen in Philadelphia had immediately expressed an interest in renting Washington's houses. Washington asked Thornton what the customary rent would be. Thornton researched the issue and suggested a rent of 10% of the cost of construction which would have been $1200 for both houses. Francis also approached Commissioner Thornton to see if he could buy a lot and build next to Washington. He needed more room for boarders. Since Francis also wanted to build back buildings behind Washington's houses, Thornton “refused to name any price,” and Francs lost interest. But not to worry, if Francis hesitated to rent Washington's houses, Thornton had a better idea:
...preserve them unrented, and keep them for sale, fixing a price on them together or separately; and I have no Doubt you could sell them for nine or ten thousand Dollars each, and if you were inclined to lay out the proceeds again in building other Houses this might be repeated to your Advantage, without any trouble, with perfect safety from risk, and to the great improvement of the City. I am induced to think the Houses would sell very well, because their Situation is uncommonly fine, and the Exterior of the Houses is calculated to attract notice. Many Gentlemen of Fortune will visit the City and be suddenly inclined to fix here. They will find your Houses perfectly suitable, being not only commodious but elegant.
Thornton added “You have done all in your power to render them convenient for a lodging-house without absolutely injuring the Tenements...” In reply, other than thanking him "for the information, and sentiments," Washington didn't react to Thornton's suggestion that in the waning years of his illustrious career he become a real estate developer.

That Thornton didn't design Washington's houses doesn't prove that he didn't design the Octagon. Indeed snubbed by Washington, why wouldn't Thornton be chomping at the bit to design someone else's house? Don't cringe at the metaphor. Not until Glenn Brown's 1888 article in American Architect and Builder News were Thornton and Tayloe paired in regards to the Octagon. Throughout the 19th century, there names were both mentioned in articles and books about racing and breeding horses.

It is easy to picture young Tayloe, only 29 in 1799, asking the famous architect, then 42, for a house design. Tayloe split his time between his plantation near Richmond and his wife's family home in Annapolis and only passed through Georgetown. He had little time to meet other architects or hear about the problematic side of Thornton.

Blurring that picture is that in 1799, young Tayloe's horses dominated American horse racing. In that regard, Thornton was simply not in his league. As for architecture, while Thornton had seen the great houses of Britain at  least in picture books, young Tayloe likely had been inside some hobnobbing with their owners. Tayloe had attended Eton and Cambridge. His son Benjamin later wrote that his father had been "on terms of great intimacy with the Marquis of Waterford, the Beresfords, Lord Graves and Sir Grey Skipwith a native of Virginia, through whom he had access to the best society in England...."

Tayloe's school chum Grey Skipwith would inherit Newbold Revel from a relative in Warwickshire

So Tayloe was not unfamiliar with English houses.Tayloe's best friend at college, Edward Thornton, was humbly born but became a leading British diplomat and courtier. Edward Thornton was serving in the US while the Octagon was being built. Tayloe did not necessarily learn about parapets from William Thornton.    

We cannot be sure when Tayloe and Thornton became friends. Given that a horse race in early Washington would always be an occasion for socializing, it likely that Thornton and Tayloe met at least by April 1797.when Tayloe's horse won a match race with Charles Ridgely's. (Hampton, Ridgely's estate just north of Baltimore, rivaled Tayloe's Mount Airy just north of Richmond.) Tayloe bought the lot upon which the Octagon would be built in April 1797. As I point out in Part Two of this essay, there is no evidence that he thought about what to build on the lot until February 1799 when George Washington advised him to run for congress rather than accept appointment as an officer in the army. If elected, he would need a house in Washington. (He lost by a wide margin but still made the Octagon his winter residence for the rest of his life.)

Between April 1797 and April 1799, there is no evident that Tayloe, who was rarely in Washingon, had much to do with Thornton, who rarely left it. In the fall of 797 the Thorntons toured Virginia going to Monticello and Montpelier but not Mount Airy.

After that, what evidence we have suggests that Tayloe and Thornton continued to have a distant relationship.In October 1798 Washington asked Thornton about land purchases made by Henry Lee. Thornton thought that Lee might have sold some lots to "J. Tayloe of Mount Airy" but he would have to see those gentlemen to be sure. Thornton mentioned "J. Tayloe of Virga" in his April 19, 1799, letter to Washington reporting that Tayloe made a contract for his house. (The formal way of identifying Tayloe suggests that Thornton didn't realize that Tayloe and Washington were rather close. He spent the night of April 17 at Mount Vernon. On March 31 Washington had written to Tayloe that “at all times and upon all occasions I should be glad to see you under my roof.")

The earliest indication that Thornton and Tayloe were friends is in another letter to Washington in which Thornton reported that he did not go to Mount Vernon as planned because he and his wife "spent the day" with "John Tayloe of Mount Airy." That day was August 31, 1799, well after the Octagon was designed. Perhaps they spent the day viewing the Octagon, but then as now, one usually spent a day with someone in the countryside not in the city taking care of business. In 1799 Thornton imported a notable horse; Tayloe imported several.

Of course, Thornton could design a house anytime or anywhere he wanted. In the Thornton papers at the Library of Congress there are two unsigned floor plans that curators and scholars consider preliminary plans for the Octagon. The drawings only resemble what was built so Orlando Ridout V in Building the Octagon assumed that what would have been Thornton's third plan was what William Lovering followed when he served as the project's superintending architect.

If those two extant plans were indeed made for Octagon by Thornton, then Thornton showed not a little brass. Shortly after those floor plans had to have been made if they were for the Octagon, a battle between Thornton and Hoban came to a head. Three years later in a July 13, 1802 letter to President Jefferson, Alexander White recalled the episode: “Some years ago both my Colleagues were desirous of getting Hoban out of the way; and amazing exertions were made to find something in his conduct which would justify them in dismissing him.”

Thornton did not emerge unscathed. In an April 12, 1799, letter to White, Hoban's head carpenter Redmond Purcell felt "determined to pour broadsides" into the hulls of Thornton and Scott. Purcell accused "the fribbling quack architect" of signing "his name to the only drawings of sections for the Capitol ever delivered to the commissioners' office, made out by another man." The letter was soon published. 

Hoban's counterattack was more effective. If the Commissioners attacked him for not doing his job, he would attack the so-called architect for not doing his. In a March 12, 1799, letter, he told the Commissioners of the difficulties he had answering their request for a breakdown of future costs at the Capitol. He had no "plan or sections of the building to calculate by, not the parts in detail, all which should be put into the hands of the superintendent." Investigations of his past handling of workers at the President's house continued. So on April 15, he pointedly asked for "drawings necessary to carry on the work on the staircases and the Senate and House chambers.'

Hoban asked for drawings that he knew that Thornton could not provide

Commissioner White forced Commissioner Scott, who also wanted Hoban out, to change sides. In the invitation for the design contest, there was a requirement that the winning architect provide drawings needed during construction of the building. His colleagues asked Thornton to provide the drawings. He didn't, likely because even though he boasted of restoring his design of the Capitol, he couldn't provide the drawings needed to build it. He told his colleagues, rightly, that Hadfield had been hired to do that. Of course, when Hadfield made drawings, Thornton ridiculed them.

But while taking that stand, how could Thornton at the same time provide a detailed design for the Octagon house? Judging from what Lovering wrote to the Commissioners in October, 1798, it was common knowledge that Thornton was "unacquainted with the trouble of architectural details." Lovering discussed a contract for building the Octagon on or shortly before March 9, 1799. He likely would have learned if the house plans with enough detail to allow a cost estimate had been made by Thornton. It is unlikely Thornton could have gotten away with secretly designing the Octagon.

The floor plan in Thornton's paper which is less like the actual Octagon is likely a design that Mrs. Thornton described her husband making on February 1 and 2, 1800, for a house he told his wife that they would build on the square below the square where Tayloe was building his house. Tayloe built on the corner of New York Avenue and 18th Street, north of the avenue and east of the street. Thornton planned his house for his lots on New York Avenue and 17th Street, south of the avenue and west of 17th Street. Both houses had to fit in a lot shaped by the angle of  New York Avenue to 17th and 18th Streets.

The central axis of the house is quite like Thornton's floor plan for the middle the Capitol.

If Thornton had offered that house design so reminiscent of his design for the yet unbuilt rotunda of the Capitol, Tayloe did not go for it. The Octagon as built is different.

Is it likely that after defending his Capitol design with increasing vehemence since 1793, Thornton would radically alter his first take on the Octagon and eliminate the line up of ovals reminiscent of his Capitol design? The other design in Thornton's papers is more like what was built.


But could he have exhausted himself with such detail?

There is another explanation for how a design so similar to the Octagon wound up in Thornton's papers. In describing how he designed the Library Company building and the Capitol, Thornton almost boasted that he consulted books implying that using them substituted for being trained in architecture. So prior to designing his own house, he likely asked Lovering for one of his preliminary designs for the Octagon.

Lovering had chided the Commissioners in 1798, but in 1799 they still asked him to inspect the roofs of the President's house and Capitol. As noted in Part Two of this essay, we know from Henri Stier's letters that Lovering liked to give prospective patrons three designs. Perhaps Thornton's request so impressed Lovering that in May when he advertised his move to Georgetown, he offered specimens of his designs for houses built on angled avenues which probably also included a house he designed and built for Thomas Law on New Jersey Avenue.

That the houses Lovering in 1794 and 1795 for Greenleaf, and the Twenty Buildings he designed for Morris and Nicholson don't have the ovals or look of the Octagon shouldn't be held against him. After doing those houses, he measured work done at the President house and Capitol to determine the compensation for workers. He was by no means unfamiliar with the ovals of those buildings. The angle of the streets dictated the need for a novel design and ovals discretely used (not lined up a la Thornton) was the obvious solution.

Assuming that Lovering made the preliminary drawing of the Octagon found in Thornton's papers, frees Thornton from an accusation that he worked on details of Octagon at the same time he refused to make detailed drawings for the Capitol.

This is not to say that Tayloe avoided involving Thornton in the project. He seems to have known that Tayloe ordered chimney pieces from London. When chimney they came in November 1800, Thornton went to see them. Judging from Mrs. Thornton's diary it was the only time in 1800 that Thornton went inside the house. 

Thornton did design houses, but only after work began on the Octagon. By not asking him to design his house, Washington shocked Thornton into making his talents as a designer more serviceable. So in 1800 while he remained busy as a Commissioner, Thornton began his modest career as a house designer. A double house for Daniel Carroll was easy given the experience he had helping to draw up the contract for Washington's two houses. His obsession in 1800 was a monument, if not a mausoleum, for George Washington. So he maintained close ties to the Washington family. He found that easiest to do by befriending two grand daughters of Martha Washington and their husbands Thomas Peter and Lawrence Lewis. Two of the most gracious acts of his life were gifting house designs to both couples.

Then why didn't Lovering become famous for designing the Octagon? That he was not a gentleman and already famous are two reasons. Also in June 1801, after two years of work, the project was well over budget and far from being finished. Tayloe came on site and urged Lovering to get it done. At a time when an architect was also expected to build what he designed, his failure as a builder could eclipse the credit he might deserve for being the designer. The pity of continuing to celebrate Thornton as the Octagon's architect is that we lose sight of the problems faced by the handful of men who had the talent to design and build. None of them were born rich like Thornton or became rich off their work. Don't we owe them something?

Bob Arnebeck


Monday, September 09, 2019

Who Designed the Octagon House? (continued)


I have created a blog re-examining Thornton's work as as architect. Here is link to the table of contents of the blog which is organized as a seventeen chapter book:



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.

Bob Arnebeck

(Mandy Katz was a great help with editorial comments and copy-editing.)

Go to Part Three: Would you have asked William Thornton to design your house? 

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.
8. http://marylandstatehouse.blogspot.com/2014/07/joseph-clarks-dome.html
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 https://capitalslaves.blogspot.com/2018/07/did-isabella-clark-see-slave-brickmakers.html
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 https://dcswamp.blogspot.com/2019/09/two-letters-from-deblois-to-nicholson.html 
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. 
 51. Ridout, pp. 28 and 76.
52. Ibid. p. 29; https://npgallery.nps.gov/AssetDetail/NRIS/73002166
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