Thursday, June 09, 2022

Thornton Did Not Design George Washington's Capitol Hill Houses

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:


  A Plaque Marks the Spot of the Capitol Hill Houses                                    

In 1799 work began on John Tayloe's Octagon house, Thomas Law's five story house southeast of the Capitol and George Washington's two houses just north of the Capitol. Thornton is credited for designing all three with his design for the Octagon almost as famous as his design for the Capitol. Actually, he did not design any of those houses.

Most source credit Thornton for designing Washington's houses based on architect Glenn Brown's confident assertion in 1896 that "Dr. Thornton was the architect and superintendent, as shown by letters of Washington," but Brown neither quoted nor cited any letters. Future historians found no reason to disagree. Over a century of unexamined repetition led Ron Chernow, George Washington's 2010 biographer, to credit Thornton as the houses' designer.(1)

In 1905, a biography of the English Quaker poet Thomas Wilkinson quoted a letter Thornton wrote to his old friend in 1799:  

The late President General Washington, who appointed me here, continues to honor me with his particular friendship. I frequently visit and am visited by this great and good man, besides corresponding. He is now building two Government Houses in this city, and has confided to me his money transactions here, as a friend... My public engagements continue as a commissioner. We enjoy uninterrupted health in this place. It is one of the finest situations in the world. I am under obligation to thee for thy beautiful and philanthropic poem on "War." It does thee much honor and I  peruse it with pleasure. (2)

The biography was written by Wilkinson's great-niece and gained no currency in America. It seems unlikely that if Thornton had written that he designed the houses, that she would have cut that out of the letter.

In 1800, Thornton's wife  began keeping a diary. In the wake of Washington's death on December 14, 1799, his executors needed information on the almost finished houses. In her January 3 entry, Mrs. Thornton wrote that a letter from Mount Vernon requested "information respecting the General's two houses building near the Capitol the money paid to the undertaker of them having all gone thro' my husband's hand, he having Superintended them as a friend."(3) She did not mention that he designed the houses in that entry or anywhere else in her diary. 

The correspondence between Washington and Thornton makes clear that Thornton did not design Washington's houses. The historians at the Mount Vernon Museum pride themselves in celebrating Washington's life through his correspondence. They refrain from crediting Thornton for designing the houses and instead suggest he collaborated in perfecting the design. They note that Washington sent a sketch of the houses design to Alexander White who was then one of three federal commissioners preparing the new capital for the reception of congress in 1800. They note that Washington "requested that his plan be examined by a second commissioner, Dr. William Thornton."(4)

Actually, the letter doesn't quite say that. Washington sent a sketch of the floor plan for "plain" houses that White could use to enter into a contract with a builder. He seemed quite proud of his sketch: "I enclose a sketch, to convey my ideas of the size of the houses, rooms, & manner of building them; to enable you to enter into the Contract. This sketch exhibits a view of the ground floor; the second, & third, if the Walls should be run up three (flush) stories, will be the same; and the Cellars may have a partition in them at the Chimnies—"


Then Washington added: "My plan when it comes to be examined, may be radically wrong; if so, I persuade myself that Doctr Thornton (who understands these matters well) will have the goodness to suggest alterations."(5)

That certainly isn't a request for his plan to be examined by Thornton. However, there are no more letters extant between Washington and White about the houses. There is an interesting file of letters about the houses between Washington and Thornton. The contract between Washington and the builder George Blagden is also in Thornton's handwriting. In addition, there is evidence in other letters that Washington saw a "plan of Doct. Thornton's" two weeks before he sent his plan to White. 

Such evidence can be construed as proof that the General must have bowed to the architect when designing his houses. But on close examination, that evidence doesn't hold up.

On August 27, 1798, Washington sent Thomas Peter a brief letter about a monetary transaction, and then added: "Doctr Thorntons plan is returned with thanks; our love to Patsy." Peter had visited Mount Vernon the day before, and Patsy was Martha Washington's grand daughter and Peter's wife. Two days later, Peter acknowledge his receipt of "Doctr Thorntons Plan."

For an explanation of that plan, the editors of Washington's papers refer readers to "Peter to GW, 18 Oct. 1798, in Harris, Thornton Papers 1:473–74." Actually the letter in question is GW to Thornton and in it Washington doesn't discuss the design of the houses, but it is the first letter he wrote to Thornton in which he mentioned the houses. In their commentary on the letter, the editors of Thornton's papers note that Washington first mentioned the houses in a September 12 letter to Alexander White, and note that Washington "had reviewed a plan that WT apparently prepared for Thomas Peter...." They refer the reader to Washington's August letter to Peter. 

By associating Washington' October letter discussing his houses with two August letters mentioning "Doctr. Thorntons plan," the editors imply that the plan Peter shared with Washington informed the design of his houses. Ergo,the ideas of Thornton informed the design of the houses.(6)

However, "Dr. Thorntons plan" likely had nothing to do with house design. The first documentary evidence that Thornton made a plan for Thomas Peter is May 1808 when Thornton's wife noted that her husband "drew a plan for Peter."(7) Historians believe that was one of his many designs for Tudor Place, the Peter's mansion in Georgetown completed in 1815. 

In 1798, Peter, Washington and Thornton had something in common that explains why they would all be interested in a plan made by Thornton. They all owned lots around the public reservation slated to be the site of the National University which was a dream Washington had cherished for years. He had also donated his Potomac Company stock to help fund it. Stock in a company that would charge tolls at the locks around the falls of Potomac had to one day be very valuable. 

Thornton owned two lots in Square 33 and a large wooden house there that he rented out. Washington owned lots in Square 21, and the Peter family owned the houses in Square 22, as well as many of the lots in the area that they retained by virtue of owning the land in 1791.(8)

In January 1796, Washington asked the commissioners if anyone was working on a "plan" for the National University. Thornton told his colleague Alexander White that he was working on a "plan" for the university and soon wanted to pass it around to friends for comment. Since at that time the site of the university was up in the air, Thornton was likely referring to the curriculum and organization of the university. In the fall of 1796, Thornton persuaded the president to place the university on Peter's Hill. The draft of his letter to president begins "the wish you have so frequently expressed of seeing an university founded at the seat of government upon the most extended plan...." His draft of a memorial to be sent by the commissioners to congresses urges authorization for "promoting a plan" for the University. Congress briefly debated a memorial but did nothing.(9)

Thormton's plan in 1798 was likely a map showing the sites of the school's buildings on Peter's Hill which judging by the draft of the letter he sent to the president would include "the national library, museum menage, school for the mechanic arts, and many other appendages to the university..." In a December 26, 1800, diary entry, Mrs. Thornton wrote, "Mr. Blodget making a sketch of Dr. T's plan for our University on Peter's Hill."(10) In 1798, with Thornton's plan in hand, Washington and the Peter family would know how their lots related to the library, museum and schools of various arts.

Washington's reference to Thornton in his September 12 letter to White can be taken as an appreciation of Thornton's genius but not when it was written to White and not when it was written about "plain" houses. Washington wanted to rent his houses to a hotel keeper who would board congressmen when congress convened in the city in December 1800.

George Washington's houses, source:

When rubble was needed during construction of the New Capitol much of the ground in front of the buildings were removed. A new bottom story was added to get the houses closer to the street. Today, the whole hill is a street level slope toward Union Station and the houses are long gone with only a plaque like a gravestone marking the spot. Its inscription credits Thornton for designing the houses. Thornton did not build the third house.

White was a Virginia lawyer and former congressmen who Washington made a commissioner to keep a check on Thornton who in his first six months as a commissioner seemed more interested in thwarting investment in the city and lobbying for a Capitol even grander than the one he designed. He wanted to undo changes made to his design, and his   arguments relied heavily on British books on architecture., especially Colen Campbell's Vitruvius Britannicus and William Chambers' Treatise on Civil Architecture. At least in his own mind, Thornton established himself as the resident expert. 

For example, in January 1798, Thornton chided his colleagues for not having a rose on top of a pilaster recut so that it would be 1 and 3/4 inch larger, Thornton wailed that the mistake "will remain, forever, a laughing stock to architects." It was "not in the proportion recommended by Sir Wm. Chambers in his work on architecture...." Then White went to Philadelphia and while there, he tried to procure mahogany for the doors of the Capitol. A deal fell through and rather than possibly delay progress on the building, he and Commissioner Gustavus Scott voted to have pine doors with a mahogany finish. Thornton dissented. It was his shortest dissent but included his usual refrain. They must do what was "recommended by the best writers in architecture...."(11)

After getting the September 12 letter from Washington, White asked his colleagues for advice on two favors Washington asked for in the letter. He wanted commissioners to get title to the two lots he wanted on Capitol Hill and to make a contract with a reputable builder. That likely was when Thornton first learned of the project.(12).

There is no evidence that Thornton offered written advice on the design. On September 21, along with his colleagues, he was with the president as he chose his lots. But there is no evidence that he talked about the design. That same day he wrote to his colleagues asking  them to give him the other part of his prize for designing the Capitol.  Along with $500, he had won but did not claim a building lot in the city. He then began to arrange that the prize lot was one of the two lots next to lot the president's lots. He did not inform the president about the arrangement until October 25.(13)

Thornton took pains to involve himself in the project, but not to change Washington's design. In that October letter he offered to build a house next to Washington's and bear the  full expense of the party wall after getting specifications for the wall from Washington's builder. That said, he allowed that he did not yet have the money to start building. Washington's graciously welcomed the party wall and didn't want Thornton to pay for it all. He never built on the lot.

Meanwhile, through October negotiations continued with the builder. As Thornton put it in a letter to the president, he and White "formed" a contract that specified dimensions and building materials. The final copy of the contract was written in Thornton's handwriting which suggests he, more than White, drew up the contract. However, a letter Washington wrote to commissioners on November 5 describes a contract hammered out by himself and the builder, who came to Mount Vernon on October **. Thornton wasn't there. In a letter to the commissioners, Washington wrote: "The agreements are drawn on unstamped paper; but I presume it may be stamped in George Town. If it cannot be done there, Doctr Thornton will be so good as to have new agreements drawn for me on stamped paper." Although the final document was only in Thornton's hand because he was also a county magistrate who could make documents official, the editors of Thornton's paper suggest that in drawing the contract, Thornton made design decisions that "extended to such details as the selection of molding."

In his October 18, before the contract was finalized, Washington told Thornton that he hoped to save money by having his slaves do some of the carpentry. He asked Thornton to get Blagden to particularize exactly what he needed. by way of planks and scantling. Plus, "it would be expected of him too, to give the moldings and dimensions of such parts of the work as would be prepared by my own people at this place."

Thornton replied that after asking Blagden for the dimensions, "I meant to obtain a specimen of different moldings, thinking your people could work better by them, than by drawings." That hardly seems to be a design decision and nothing came of it since once he met with Blagden, Washington decided not to use his slaves.(14)

Once the contract was signed Washington would be obliged to send money to the builder to buy building materials. He had sent his money for the two lots to the commissioners even though one lot was privately owned. Realizing it may seem unseemly to have the commissioners pay his builder, he asked Thornton to privately do that for him. In his October 28 letter, he wrote: “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.” Of course, Thornton agreed. By doing so, he guaranteed an on-going correspondence with George Washington until the house was finished.(15)

Questions about the design did come up in their correspondence. For example, in a December 21, 1798 letter, Thornton advised Washington to put a parapet on the roof of his houses. Characteristically, he noted that the City of London made it a rule that houses have parapets. Washington didn't take that advice. A clash of quotes all but proves that Washington's assuring White that Thornton would correct errors was a joke between the two men which alluded to the inevitability of Thornton finding fault.

Washington wrote: "I saw a building in Philadelphia of about the same front and elevation that are to be given to my two houses, which pleased me. It consisted also of two houses united - doors in the center - a pediment in the roof and dormer window on each side of it in front - skylights in the rear. If it is not incongruous with rules of architecture, I should be glad to have my two houses executed in this style."

Thornton wrote back: "it is a desideratum in architecture to hide as much as possible the roof - for which reason in London, there is a generally a parapet to hide the dormer windows. The pediment may with propriety be introduced, but I have some doubts with respect to its adding any beauty."

Washington replied: "Rule of architecture are calculated, I presume, to give symmetry, and just proportion to all the orders, and parts of the building, in order to please the eye. Small departures from strict rules are discoverable only by skilful architects, or by the eye of criticism, while ninety-nine in a hundred - deficient of their knowledge - might be pleased with things not quite orthodox. This, more than probable, would be the case relative to a pediment in the roof over the doors of my houses in the city.(16)

That was the second time Thornton used his experiences in London to try to instruct the General. In late October Thornton suggested that despite local building regulations, the houses destined to entertain boarders be set back just as they were in London to accommodate large casks and make a subterranean kitchen more airy. Washington agreed but declined asking the board to change a regulation he had proclaimed and Thornton enforced. (17)

Thornton was involved in a design change but only as a conduit of information between Washington and the builder.

In his response to a letter Thornton sent that has not been found, Washington wrote: "Your favor of the 28th instant, enclosing Deeds for my Lots in the Federal City—and Messrs Blagden & Lenthals estimate and drawing of the Windows—dressed in the manner proposed—came to my hands yesterday. The drawing sent, gives a much handsomer appearance to the Windows than the original design did; and I am more disposed to encounter the difference of expence, than to lessen the exterior show of the building—& therefore consent to the proposed alteration."1 Thanks to the way the letter was written, it is not clear who proposed the change in the design. It may well have been Thornton. However, either Blagden or his partner Lenthals, who was a carpenter, made the drawing. There are no more discussions of the design of the houses that Thornton never claimed credit for designing.(18)

Historians who don't credit Thornton for designing the houses credit him for superintending or overseeing their construction. That implies that after reviewing the design and contract, Thornton could rely on his understanding of building techniques and the cost of building materials to prevent cost over runs and delays. Thornton seemed as clueless as his colleagues

Washington bristled at Blagden's $12,982.29 estimate of the cost of the houses. He knew that Thomas Law had contracted to build a house, "not much if any less than my two," for under $6,000. Washington said he had calculated it would cost $8,000, or $10,000 at most. Washington decided "to suspend any final decision until I see Mr Blagdens estimate in detail, with your observations thereupon; and what part of the work I can execute with my own Tradesmen, thereby reducing the advances."

In the commissioners' reply, signed by Thornton, they assured him of Blagden's integrity, allowed that they were unable to say if the estimate was reasonable and regretted that the only man in their employ who could was at the time "confined by indisposition." That was James Hoban, architect of the White House, who, unlike Thornton, was a real architect.(19).

Rather than the novice Washington taking advice from the man who a century later would be proclaimed the greatest American architect of the 18th century, Washington schooled Thornton in building techniques. He reminded him to get window sashes painted before installation, instructed him on the proper mixture of sand in the paint for the walls and lectured him on plaister of Paris. After that lesson, Thornton referred Washington to a pamphlet on the subject written by a Pennsylvania judge. While president, Washington had asked the judge to do the research and write the pamphlet.(20)

However, there was a contemporary who credited Thornton for superintending the houses. In her diary, Mrs. Thornton noted apropos the houses that "the money paid to the undertaker of them having all gone thro' my husband's hand, he having Superintended them as a friend." And as a friend,Washington did not hold Thornton responsible for when the work began and how it progressed. A real superintending architect never got off that easily. 

After signing the contract, Washington naively expected the contractors to make preparations for building. Washington was shocked to learn in March 1799, that nothing had been done to prepare the site or have building materials delivered. That would have been the responsibility of the superintending architect, if he had one. He didn't blame Thornton,(21)

Work on the houses began in the second week of April. In an April 19 letter, Thornton described what Blagden had done thus far. He also briefly acted like a supervising architect: "I visited the workmen the Day before yesterday, & they progress to my Satisfaction. I took the liberty of directing Stone Sills to be laid, instead of wooden ones, to the outer Doors of the Basement, as wood decays very soon, when so much exposed to the damp; but I desired Mr Blagdin would do them with as little expense as possible." Washington thanked him for the stone cills but ignored the lecture on the wood getting damp: responded that (Judging by the remaining letters he wrote to Washington, he never advised Blagden again.)(22)

Then in his April 19 letter, Thornton turned to the gossip of the day, He briefly reported the death of a mutual friends daughter as well as this item: "Mr J. Tayloe of Virga has contracted to build a House in the City near the President’s Square of $13,000 value."

While keeping Washington updated on his houses, Thornton never again mentioned the other house he supposedly designed and that was then being built. Of course, letters only provide a narrow window on what passes between people who might spend hours together in conversation. But letters we have to and about Thornton make clear that he had little interest in talking about private building. A letter from Washington's secretary to Thornton reveals the topics talked about when Thornton was at Mount Vernon. On September 12, 1799, Lear wrote to Thornton thanking him for some recent medical advice and continued

I am very happy to learn that the prospects in the city are brightening fast. You will become every day more and more important, and I have not a doubt but the improvements will be rapid beyond example. I hope the grand and magnificent will be combined with the useful in all the new public undertakings. We are not working for our selves or our children; but for ages to come, and the works should be admired as well as used. Your wharves and the introduction of running water are among the first objects. Let no little mindedness or contracted views of private interest prevent their being accomplished upon the most extensive and beautiful plan that the nature of things will admit of - and - But hold, I am talking to one who has considered and understands these subjects much better than myself...(23)

Thornton gloried in his role as the protector of the public interest and planner of public grounds. In May, Thomas Boyleston Adams, the First Family's third son, toured the city. In a June 9, 1799, letter to his mother, he described as "a democratic, philanthropic, universal benevolence kind of a man—a mere child in politics, and having for exclusive merit a pretty taste in drawing—He makes all the plans of all the public buildings, consisting of two, and a third going up. There was no mention of three notable private house then under construction: Washington's, Law's and Tayloe's.(24)

Thornton did defend the private interests of his great patron, as he saw fit. Once word got out that Washington was building, John Francis, who boarded congressmen in Philadelphia, expressed an interest in renting Washington's houses. Washington asked Thornton what the customary rent would be. Instead, Thornton turned Francis away. Since Francis also wanted to build back buildings behind Washington's houses, Thornton wrote to Washington that he “refused to name any price,” and Francis lost interest. But not to worry, if Francis hesitated to rent Washington's houses, Thornton had a better idea. He advised Washington to become a real estate developer, starting with the houses he was building:

...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.(25)

Washington didn't react to Thornton's suggestion. But the General almost plunged. Washington saw a lot that struck his fancy. Carroll owned it and Thornton inquired about its price. One benefit of Washington's building on Capitol Hill had been that it increased the value of all lots in the vicinity. Carroll could not lower his price just for him and assume other buyers would understand and gladly pay more. Washington lost interest and gave an excuse reserved for all gentlemen: he had expected that closing another deal would give him the means to proceed, but that deal fell through.(26)

Throughout the back and forth, there is no evidence that Thornton offered to design a house, not even one for the lot he owned next to Washington's. A New England gentleman bought the lot on the other side of Washington's houses. In an August 1 letter, Thornton told Law that he called on him "to recommend houses like the Generals,... but I think he has not yet determined what to do."(27)

In one letter he sent to Washington that summer, Thornton did mention seeing Tayloe. The first clearly documented meeting between Thornton and Tayloe took place on Saturday, August 31, 1799, while the Octagon was being built. Thornton even canceled a visit to Mount Vernon. He wrote to Washington that instead he and his wife "spent the day" with "John Tayloe of Mount Airy."1 Thornton did not report what they did that Saturday. Did they begin the day examining the foundation of the Octagon house and then go out to Thornton's farm to see his horses? Thornton imported two thoroughbreds in 1799 and Tayloe imported several*.

Thornton also had a reason not to go to Mount Vernon once his and his wife's day with Tayloe was done. He planned to see William Hamilton who had to return to Philadelphia "immediately." Hamilton's Woodlands had oval rooms like ones then being built in the Octagon, but he was also a connoisseur of garden plants and may have heard about Thornton's illustrations for the unpublished Flora Tortoliensis.

Thornton's letters to Washington were rarely short. In his September 1 letter, he did not pick up on the theme of his July 19 letter, no more analysis of the house rental market. Instead, he noted a letter that Secretary of State Pickering sent to the former president that the latter forwarded to the commissioners. Pickering offered a plan for the capital city's docks that would prevent yellow fever. Thornton noted that "it is a highly interesting subject and one I have urged, for three years to the board."

The conjunction of Tayloe and Hamilton, men with oval rooms, did not inspire Thornton to develop that theme. Instead, he noted that "the navy- yard will be fixed... where I recommended it." He had prevented it from being placed on the square designated for the Marine Hospital. He also had preserved the "point" for "a military academy, for parade-ground, for the exercise of the great guns, for magazines, etc., etc." Then he found even higher ground: "I am jealous of innovations where decisions have been made after mature deliberation, and I yet hope that the city will be preserved from that extensive injury contemplated by some never-to-be-content and covetous individuals." Thornton clearly had a higher mission than designing residential houses.(28)

1. Chernow, George Washington. p. 794; Brown, Glenn, "Dr. William Thornton, Architect, Architectural Record, 1896 , Vol. VI, No. 1 July-September (page 53ff)

2. Mary Carr, Thomas Wilkinson: A Friend of Wordsworth, p.11, Headley Bros., London, 1905.

3. Mrs. Thornton' s Diary, p. 90.


5.GW to White, 12 September, 

6. Harris, Papers of William Thornton, vol. 1,  p. 453.

7. Anna Maria Thornton (AMT) notebook reel 3 image 40, LOC:,-0.129,1.22,0.454,0

8. United States Congressional serial set. 5407.,  #765, page 13, Hathi Trust;

9. Thornton to GW 13 September 1796, Harris, Papers of William Thornton, pp. 395-97, WT to GW, draft letters 13 September, 1 October, draft memorial 18 November, 1796, Harris pp. 395 - 403

10. Mrs. Thornton diary, December 26, 1800, p. 225.

11.Stuart to GW 22 February 1795,; GW to White, 17 May 1795,; WT to Commrs., 10 January, 1798,Harris, pp. 430-2, 453.

12. White to GW, 8 September 1798;  Commrs to GW, 27 September, 3, 4, 15, 25, October 1798; GW to Commrs. 28 September 4, 17, 22, 27 October 1798

13.  GW Diary; WT to Commrs 21 September 1798, Harris pp. 472, 475; WT to GW 25 October 1798

14. Harris p. 586 ; GW to WT, 18 October 1798, ; WT to GW, 25 October 1798,; for contract see

15. GW to WT 28 October 1798, ;

16.  GW to WT, 20 December 1798,; WT to GW 21 December, 1798,; GW to WT 30 December 1798,

17. WT to GW, 25 October 1798; GW to WT 28 October 1798 

 19. GW to Commrs. 4 October 1798, ; Commrs to GW, 4 October 1798,

20. GW to WT, 30 January,; 1 1 October,; 1 December 1799, ; WT to GW, 5 December 1799,; Harris, p. 515.

21. GW to Lear, 31 March 1799;

22. WT to GW, 19 April 1799,; GW to WT 21 Apeil 1799,

23. Lear to WT, 12 September 1799, Harris

24. T.B. Adams to Abigail Adams, 9 June 1799,

25. WT to GW 19 July 1799, ; GW to WT, 1 August, 1799, .

26.  Law to GW, 10 August 1799, ; GW to Law, 21 September 1799, 

27. WT to Law, 1 August 1799, Harris p. 505

28.  WT to GW 1 September, 1799,









Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Mrs. Thornton's Diary Doesn't Provide Evidence that Thornton Designed Law's or Tayloe's Houses

Chapter Fifteen

Mrs. Thornton's Diary

Mrs. Thornton by Gilbert Stuart

In 1800, Mrs. Thornton's occasional kitchen and social notebooks grew into a diary, although she regretted in her March l entry that: "This little Journal is rather an account of my husband's transactions than mine, but there is so little variety in our life that I have nothing worth recording, and this may rather be called a memorandum than a Journal." The passage explains why even as we explore Anna Maria Thornton's diary, it makes sense to continue to call her Mrs. Thornton. While reading her diary, one doesn't get a sense of what Anna Maria was really like. She was not a dull person and had grown up in the largest city in the country. She was well read in both English and French literature. However, she was not disposed to talk about the emotions and motives of her husband, much less her own. That leaves her brief entries open to interpretation.

For example, after dinner on Saturday, on January 4, the Thorntons and Mrs. Brodeau went by carriage to view the "General's houses." Since he had handled Washington's money for financing construction of his houses, Thornton had things to do as executors prepared the estate for probate. It seems money was on his mind since she noted: “the money paid to the undertaker of them having all gone thro' my husband's hand, he having Superintended them as a friend.” Mrs. Thornton had written nothing about Washington's death and funeral at Mount Vernon in the first three daily entries in her diary. She found no way to communicate the depths of her husband's mourning. Is it possible that Thornton's taking his wife and mother-in-law to Washington's houses was a way to share his mourning for his "friend?"

The North Wing of the Capitol in 1800

Then they went to the Capitol where "we stayed for some time by a fire in a room where they were glazing windows while Dr. T-n laid out an oval round which is to be the communication to the Gallery of the Senate room."(1) This would be the only mention in the diary of Thornton actually working inside the Capitol. In all the bickering over the work done in the building, no one ever alluded to Thornton actually doing anything inside the building save for once showing George Hadfield, the young supervising architect of the Capitol from 1795 to 1798, what had been done. Did he go into the building on a late Saturday afternoon in order to avoid seeing the bricklayers and carpenters who would build any walls needed to make the "oval round?" Or was he trying to avoid James Hoban who was then the supervising architect at the Capitol? Did he bring his wife and mother-in-law with him to avoid harassment from the glaziers who might have a beef with Commissioner Thornton? As he laid out the oval round was he applying lessons learned from Law's house or designs for Tayloe's as yet unfinished house? Did he have to do something that day to prepare his mind for the next challenge he might face: designing the monument for his "friend" that would be in as yet unbuilt grand vestibule as he called the Rotunda? By the way, there are no more mentions of the "oval round" in her diary.

Thus, a relatively concise diary can engender much commentary. Indeed, architectural historians find evidence for how Thornton designed the Octagon and evidence that he did design Law's house. But early in 1800 honoring his "friend" was paramount.

In 1793, Thornton had suggested a memorial to Washington as the focal point under the dome. But when he got back to the city after the funeral, he realized that no one seemed to remember that. He wrote a letter to John Marshall whom he had never met. He knew from the newspapers that he had chaired the joint House and Senate committee on Washington's death.

Thornton used rhetoric that suggested that his opinion was requisite to the on-going planning. He wrote that he had "doubted not" that the president and congress would do the right thing. He encouraged Marshall to use the eventual placement of the body in the Capitol to assure that the building in all its grandeur would soon be completed just as described by the plan Washington accepted. That would make the Capitol as a whole a magnificent temple. He also reported that upon his suggestion the corpse was "enclosed in lead" in order to best preserve it for its ultimate burial. Then he suggested that congress pass a bill in secret assuring the eventual burial of Mrs. Washington in the temple. He added that he wrote "unknown to any of the family."(2)

Thornton's idea for a monument to George Washington

On the next day, Thornton was reminded that there was another President. The commissioners received a letter from Navy Secretary Stoddert reporting that the president planned to ship his furniture to the city in June. What prompted the president's announcement were two letters. On November 21, 1799, Commissioners White and Thornton wrote to Adams assuring him that if the President's house wasn't ready in time "that a good house in a convenient situation may be provided at the seat of Government for the use of the President until that intended for his permanent residence shall be finished."(3)

Then on December 13, 1799, Commissioner White paused in Leesburg, Virginia, during a snow storm as he made his way from the federal city to his home in Winchester. There he wrote a private letter to President Adams that amplified the assurance made in the board's letter. "It was not thought proper in a public paper to be more particular," White explained, "but the houses alluded to were, one building and in great forwardness near the Presidents Square, by Mr Tayloe of Virginia, and two new houses built by Mr. Carroll and Mr Law, near the Capital—Any one of these three is better than the President of the U. States, as such, has resided in—."(4)

Adams bristled at being told where he might have to stay and jumped to the conclusion that the commissioners wanted to park him in Washington's Capitol Hill houses. He told Stoddert to tell the board that he would not stay there and insisted on moving into the President's house. Stoddert so informed the board and added that the president was not interested in the other houses White mentioned.

White was not in the city on January 7 when letter came from Stoddert. Evidently, he had not told his colleagues what he had written to the president. Commissioner Scott had not signed the November letter. He was often too sick to conduct business. Stoddert's letter gave him the impression that White had asked the president to choose a house to rent. He dashed a letter off to Stoddert: "We hold it highly dishonourable to violate that faith which was pledged to the City Proprietors when they relinquished their property for a City—." Thornton also signed that letter. White would not take being accused of being dishonorable lightly.(5) The affair at least proved William Cranch's 1797 description of Thornton as the vacillating commissioner.

In her diary on January 7, Mrs. Thornton noted the letter and when the president would send his furniture. She seemed unaware of Scott's outrage. In her January 7 entry, she added: "After dinner we walked to take a look at Mr. Tayloe's house which begins to make a handsome appearance."(6) The walk could have been coincidental to Stoddert's letter. Or did Scott get Thornton to reveal what houses he and White had in mind? Tayloe's house would not be finished, and was likely not planned to be finished, until the fall of 1801, when, if elected, Tayloe would take his seat in the new congress. Perhaps Scott knew that and challenged Thornton to go see that the house could not possibly receive the president's furniture in June 1800.

 Octagon in 1817

There is more that is open to interpretation. In her diary, Mrs. Thornton described her husband's contribution to the General's houses. On 7th, she made no mention of any contribution he might have made to Tayloe's house, only that it "begins to make a handsome appearance." None the less, architectural historians highlight her entry to show that the Thornton's kept an eye on the house he designed. Her admiration could have been unalloyed appreciation of her husband's genius. But there is another context in which to view her comment. The large brick house rose in a wasteland. Her expression of pleasure was giving credit to civilization in general not to her husband in particular.

That weekend the Thorntons took their friends the Peters for a brief tour of Capitol Hill. They lived in Georgetown and were probably not that familiar with Capitol Hill. He was one of the executors of Washington's estate. She was the sister of Mrs. Law. They both might have a say about where the remains of George Washington and his wife would be laid.

Mrs. Thornton's diary entry describing the visit is cited as evidence that Thornton designed the house: As one historian put it: "It was designed by William Thornton, and was 'a very pleasant roomy house' according to Anna Maria Thornton. Another opines "Thornton's partially but substantially documented by his wife's diary for 1800."(7) Actually, her diary entry shows that Thornton neither liked nor understood the essential design element of the building:

Sunday [January] 12th— A very fine day, as pleasant as a Spring day. After breakfast Mr T. Peter called and mentioned that his wife was at home; we therefore sent the Carriage for her. I, and Dr T— . accompanied them to the Capitol, the General's and Mr Law's houses —the latter being locked we entered by the kitchen Window and went all over it— It is a very pleasant roomy house but the Oval drawing room is spoiled by the lowness of the Ceiling, and two Niches, which destroy the shape of the Room.— Mr and Mrs Peter dined with us and returned home early in the afternoon some of her Children not being well. (8)

Mrs. Thornton's criticism of the room was so succinct that one suspects that her husband informed it. In large mansions or monumental buildings, a high domed ceiling usually looked down on the oval room. That was impossible in a five story town house in which Lovering carefully detailed the height of each room in the contract and built the house for $5800, almost half of the expense of Washington's houses and almost one-third of the contract price for Tayloe's house. Lovering solved the problem of facing an angled intersection with oval rooms and did so in a way that pleased most who saw the house.

the chapter continues exploring Thornton's relationship to Tayloe in 1800

To read more contact me at for a PDF of the as yet unpublished book 

2. WT to Marshall, 6 January1800, Harris, p

3. Commissioners to Adams, 21 Nov, 1799, RG 42

4.. ( the editors of these on-line papers transcribed "Taylor" but the letter clearly reads "Tayloe.")

6. Diary p, 92

7. Creating Capitol Hill, p. 129; Harris, Papers of William Thornton. vol. 1, p. 586

8. Diary p. 94



Friday, May 27, 2022

Evidence that William Lovering Designed Thomas Law's House


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:

Chapter Twelve

An Ingenious A

The editors of Thornton's papers, who tried to make sense of Thornton's often messy drafts, footnoted when Thornton crossed something out. The draft of a letter to Secretary of State Thomas Pickering has 27 footnotes spelling out what Thornton crossed out. In that letter Thornton didn't only recount the more egregious mistakes made by George Hadfield who was the recently dismissed as supervising architect at the Capitol. He also recounted Hadfield's refusal to return his plan for the Executive office which was the reason he was fired. He explained to Pickering, the Adams' administration point man on the federal city, that after Hadfield made the design, "the board applied to Mr. Lovering to calculate the expense of erecting such a building." After "Mr. Lovering" Thornton crossed out "an ingenious A."(1) It is not likely that he meant "Appraiser." Then the proper adjective would be accurate not ingenious.

Why would Thornton almost write in late June 1798 that Lovering was an ingenious architect?

After making the calculation, Lovering made his own cheaper design for the building which the board accepted. However, his design did not add to his future reputation as an architect. One architectural historian rues that instead of ''Hadfield’s sophisticated, up-to-date neoclassical building," the city got "a traditional, rather old-fashioned Georgian one."(2) Poor Lovering, when he made the design, he was trying to simplify Hadfield's. But that historian has a point, and it is unlikely that Thornton thought Lovering ingenious for an ability to cheapen a superior design.

In early 1798 the board asked Lovering to inspect models of window sashes for the Capitol made by three contractors. Lovering approved Andrew McDonald's, though it needed an extra inch here and there, and thought highly of Clotworthy Stephenson's, though static electricity might be a worry. As for the third, the molding was too thin.His ability to school everyone about sashes might make him "ingenious" but not necessarily an "ingenious A." Incidentally, McDonald would do the carpentry at the Octagon.(4) That might make him "ingenious" but not necessarily an "ingenious A."

In an October 1798 letter to the board, Lovering claimed that he had a hand in building two-thirds of the houses in the city.(5) It's not likely that the mere number of his projects impressed Thornton. He had never commented on the design features of the Twenty Buildings but nothing about the buildings likely pleased an avatar of grandeur like Thornton. That leaves a current project as the inspiration for Thornton's crossed out compliment of Lovering.

Two houses built in 1799 that might have been designed in 1798 had ingenious designs, Tayloe's Octagon and Thomas Law's largest house. Law decided to build on an angular lot on New Jersey Avenue, not far from the Capitol. The lot faced down hill. According to the commissioners' records, on September 12, 1798,William Lovering was Law's agent when the commissioners' surveyor laid out Law's lot on Square 689. Based on that, Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan, the author of the first comprehensive history of the city published in 1914, suggested that Lovering was probably the architect of the house built on the lot.The house was soon connected to neighboring houses Law built or financed and eventually that curving row of houses became the Varnum Hotel.(6) 


The building which was soon connected with neighboring buildings and eventually form centerpiece of  the Varnum Hotel has since be torn down for a House of Representatives Office Building, but its design was memorable. A curved brick front intrigued passersby on New Jersey Avenue, and, once inside, from an elliptical room eyes could easily follow New Jersey Avenue down to the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, at least in 1800 when the leaves were off the oaks that surrounded the hill. At that time, the building was tall enough to also afford a view of the Capitol higher up on the hill.

In the late 20th century, architectural historians began attributing the design to Thornton based on its solving for Law the same problem that Tayloe faced. Both houses faced an angled intersection where an avenue crossed the grid of streets. Both Law's house and the Octagon used oval rooms to solve that problem, ergo:

Thornton probably first suggested the idea of using a curvilinear element to take an odd-angled corner lot a year earlier [1798], to Thomas Law, who had determined to build a residence on Capitol Hill, at the northwest corner of New Jersey Avenue and C Street S.W. [sic, it was S.E.], but drawings for that project have not survived.... The two plan drawings for Tayloe's house, which became known in the nineteenth century as The Octagon, are more ambitious in their use of curvilinear forms than the modified plan to which Tayloe built.(7)

Those two undated and unsigned drawings found in Thornton's papers have been interpreted as being preliminary designs for the Octagon. The design of Law's house is not strikingly similar. The Octagon fans out from the oval entrance with the straight walls of the house parallel to 18th Street and New York Avenue respectively. The curved bow of Law's house is the only wall facing the street. Law planned to build two houses on each side of his that would front the street and share a party wall with the house Lovering contracted to build. That party wall had to be perpendicular to the adjacent street. 


Law's sketch of his house's kitchen

In 1815 Treasury secretary Alexander Dallas expressed interest in the house which by that time had been connected to houses flanking it to create a large boarding house. Benjamin Latrobe sketched a floor plan of the huge house with a ballroom in a letter he sent to Dallas. Only the room mark B was built in 1799. Nothing Thornton ever drew resembles the setting of Law's elliptical room, and only an experience builder like Lovering could wedge it into the available space with confidence that it could be built. 

Oval rooms became the fashion in late 18th century Britain and France. New country seats had them. Beginning in 1786, while on a prolonged stay in England, William Hamilton would direct construction of Woodlawn, then outside Philadelphia but now in Fairmount Park. His mansion would have two notable oval rooms, a parlor and dining room.(8) The decision to have oval rooms was obviously made by Law, and, when he decided to build, John Tayloe. They were then the richest men in the city, much wealthier than Thornton, and oval rooms were a nice way to prove it. Law refused to settle for bow windows in a room with three otherwise straight walls. But fitting an oval room in a house confined by party walls that narrowed the space available provided a challenge. Thornton had an ability to draw ovals in large rectangular spaces but could he confidently design what Law wanted?



The contract Law made with Lovering for building the house is extant, though perhaps not widely known. Archivists mislabeled the 11 page document as being written "circa 1794" so it escaped the scrutiny of researchers interested in what Law was building in 1798. The document begins "Particular description and manner of building a house for Thomas Law Esq. fronting the side of New Jersey Avenue and South C Street on Square 689 for $5800 as per drawings marked A.B.C.D.... " The document then specifies building materials, dimensions, and the use of latches, sashes, etc. The "elliptical rooms" are mentioned but not described save for their height, 12 feet and 10 feet respectively, and that the walls were to be framed by wood scantling. Unfortunately, drawings A.B.C.D. have not been found but they were likely Lovering's designs. There is no mention of Thornton in the document. Unfortunately, the signatures in the document aren't dated. However, the second half of the document is in another handwriting, presumably Law's. That helps give an idea of when the contract was made because the second half addresses a change made after the lot was laid out. In September 1798 Lovering saw that a fifth floor was needed because of the slope of the ground and Law accepted the necessary changes. That means the first part of the contract was written before September.(9) But was it written before Thornton crossed out "ingenious A" in late June 1798?

Lovering's attempt to establish a career independent of the bankrupt speculators proved difficult. In January 1798, John Nicholson's creditors had Lovering arrested for nonpayment of debts that he incurred while working for Nicholson. The judge would not let Lovering post bail because he owned no property. The sheriff posted bail for him, which allowed him to dun Lovering for petty cash on demand. All this happened after the Maryland legislature’s relatively short annual session. That prevented him from getting relief under the state's new bankruptcy law until the legislature reassembled in December.(10)

In the summer of 1798, Lovering faced two problems: How to make money without losing it all to Nicholson's creditors, and how to acquire land without paying for it with money. He was told that owning property would leave him less at the mercy of judges and sheriffs. He decided that in lieu of money, he would ask to be paid in property.

The board paid Lovering $300 for his estimate and redesign of the Treasury building. On July 10, 1798, Lovering asked them to apply their payment as down payment on lot 12 in Square 691, on the southwest corner of the intersection of New Jersey Avenue and C Streets SE. It is clear that he made the request because he knew Law was going to build across the street. That suggests that Law had accepted his design by July 10, but that date is two weeks after Thornton crossed "ingenious A" in his draft letter to Pickering,(11)

In 1801, another client of Lovering's described how the architect designed and contracted to build houses. The Belgian emigre Henri Joseph Stier broke off negotiations with Benjamin Latrobe for a country mansion in nearby Maryland. Latrobe struck him as “one of those who do not finish their work." He sought out Lovering. In 1800, in a letter to James Greenleaf lauding his new house, Law mentioned that “Steer” was staying in one of his other houses. Perhaps Law told Stier about Lovering.(12)

Stier's letters explain how Lovering tried to win a client. 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....” At that time, Lovering was still overseeing work at the Octagon for which he would be paid $900.

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 Belgium, and all during March [1801] 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. Architectural historians give Lovering little credit for the design of what was built, concluding that Stier based the design on his house in Belgium..(13)

Those recollections suggest that Lovering worked with Stier for over a month before coming to an agreement which evidently entailed Lovering's modifications of a design Stier gave him. Thus if Lovering knew where Law was going to build by mid-July, he may have been showing him designs since mid-June and Law might have shared Lovering's ideas with his friend Thornton who might have then noted that Lovering was "ingenious."

Letters Lovering wrote to the board that summer also make it clear that Thornton had nothing to do with Lovering's design of Law's house. Being ingenious doesn't satisfy creditors. Lovering worried that if he was arrested again, he might have to abandon his five-year-old daughter. An adult son from his first marriage also had just joined him in Washington. Lovering began to plan a return to England. At the end of August, a friend of Nicholson's warned the speculator of the possible loss of “a man of abilities."(14) That friend was Samuel Ward, a well traveled Rhode Island and New York City merchant, who likely had experience judging the talents of men who called themselves architects,

Laying out Law's lot in two weeks later gave him more confidence. He had Law's sympathy. For building a house valued at $5800, Law accepted Lovering's lot across the street as security.

However, Lovering still had two more payments to make on the lot. He asked the board that future payments for his Executive office design be used to cover two more annual payments on that lot.

Lovering was clutching at straws. The board had never said it would pay him more than $300, and it told him so. The commissioners advised him to take cash and not the lot. Lovering shot back, “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....” He would not have said that if he had just "particularized" Thornton' design for Law's house.

This chapter continues with a discussion of the design of George Washington's Capitol Hill houses.  Architectural historians also use entries from Mrs. Thornton's diary to support their attributing the design of Law's house to Thornton. That is discussed in another of my book:

Chapter 15: Mrs. Thornton's Diary 

(To read more of my book The Case of the Ingenious A- or Why William Thornton Didn't Design the Octagon, contact me at for a PDF of my book.)

1 Harris, Papers of William Thornton, volume 1, p. 461, footnote 17

2 https//

4 Lovering to Commissioners, January 8, 1798.Commissioners' Letter Recieved RG42

5 Lovering to Commissioners, October 4, 1798, Letters to Commissioners, RG 42, National Archives (microfilm)

6 Bryan, A History of the National Capital, volume 1, p. 311

7 Harris,

8 Corosino, Catherine Ann, The Woodlands: Documentation of an American Interior, Thesis, U. of Penn, 1997, p. 128

9 "Particular description and manner of building a house for Thomas Law,..." Mount Vernon Museum,

10 Lovering to Nicholson, January 14, 1798, Letters sent to John Nicholson. microfilm LOC

11 Lovering to Commissioners,10 July, 4 October, 1798

12 Margaret Callcott, editor, Mistress of Riverdale, p 28; Law to Greenleaf, April 9, 1800, Adams Papers.

13 Colcott

14 Samuel Ward to Nicholson, August 31, 1798. 

Bob Arnebeck