Friday, May 27, 2022

Evidence that William Lovering Designed Thomas Law's House


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

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