Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Thornton, [ca. 12 July 1793]

From William Thornton

[ca. 12 July 1793]


After the Receipt of your1 Communication, accompanied by the five Manuscript Volumes in folio by Mr: Hallet, I hasten to attempt2 that Satisfaction which is required relative to the Objections made against the Plan which I had the honor of submiting to the Commissioners.

I will first endeavour to remove the most material Objection, which respects the Time requisite to the perfection of the Work.

It has been said that I thought it would not probably3 be finished in thirty Years. I did not hear whether it was said in a qualified or unqualified manner. I do not remember that I made the Observation however if I did it must only have had relation to the ornamental Parts, and it matters not whether they be finished in ten or forty Years provided they are not incorporated in the Building; but I have always said, and do now repeat it, that the Building might be made ready for the reception of Congress in the time specified for their removal thither. It is but of small magnitude when compared to4 many-private Edifices of Individuals in other parts of the World. I am aware, however, that the Americans ought not to feel prone5 to imitate foreign nations—except where such imitation is peculiarly adapted to their Government and local habits. Yet, when we consider the Building in contemplation, that it is designed for the accommodation6 of 15 States (and7 others in addition here after)8 that it is a work which ought to endure for many ages9 it can hardly, I should suppose, be thought either too large or too expensive. The Condition of America is every day improving—her population encreasing and her riches accumulating. This is, perhaps, not the case elsewhere—for countries long settled are generally stationary10 or upon the decline. But to return to the time necessary for the Completion of a building upon the plan I had the honour to exhibit, and to prove that under due exertions, nothing is to be feared on that score let me call your recollection to a fact. The Escurial of Spain, that enormous and expensive Pile, was finished in about 6 years. Doubtless a multitude of hands were employed to effect so great a work in so short a time. But, it was only expending those monies in 6 years which a less number of hands would have absorbed in a longer term.

To you, Sir, it cannot be necessary to repeat, What writers tell us—that11 the Escurial contains 14000 Windows—11,00012 Doors—1800 pillars 17 cloisters or piazzas and 22 Courts.

In answer, to Mr. Hallet’s objection as to the great13 length of time supposed to be requisite for completing a capitol after my plan, permit me to say, it has been brought forward as an assertion only, when candour required facts to have been adduced in proof.

I conceive that, under present circumstances, any number of workmen may be procured from Europe. Those might be employed in completing the capitol or so much of it as would give the desired accomodation to Congress within the term limited. The remaining parts might afterwards be finished at leisure. And those workmen would14 be found useful in carrying on future works both public and private15 in the City of Washington. Whether the funds of the Commissrs. will allow them to engage so many men on16 the parts first needful in the capitol, within a short term of years, is a consideration17 for them to determine. There can be no doubt but the value of the lots will take an important rise whenever the public buildings18 shall appear to be in active prosecution. The confidence of the people will then it is presumable, be established. And it is certainly a convenience, circumstances considered, that the first or basement story of the plan I submitted is that part of the work which requires the least expence—the expence part of the columns and decorations standing high up on the principal floor.19

I will now make a few observations upon the objections which Mr. Hallet has brought forward. Not having before me either his Sections (which point out the supposed defects in my plan)20 or the plan itself I cannot be so particular here as I could wish.21

Mr. Hallet has founded His calculations upon the dearest materials—as if such were absolutely requisite. When I mentioned Marble for the Columns &c. it did not preclude the propriety22 of employing free stone. Of course candour seems to require, that the calculation of the expence of marble, should have been accompanied with another of free stone.

The lengthy remarks he has thrown together upon the necessity of placing the base of the dome perpendicularly on the Columns—have been condensed into a formidable objection. But would it not have been well, at the same time in Mr. Hallet to have observed that this was a mere inaccuracy in the draft, which no skilful workman could think himself necessitated to follow in the execution. He might and ought to have said that those columns could be drawn a little nearer towards the center of the dome so as to give the perpendicularity required—and this without deranging in the least the disposition of the building.

The Intercolumniation of the portico is objected.23 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 Aræostyle 4 Diameters. The Eustyle is reasoned the most elegant in general, but deviations are allowed according to circumstances, and I have designedly increased the intercolumniations in the present case24 to give a better proportion to the Arcade—which otherwise would have appeared too narrow for the elevation. Should however this immaterial25 objection be insisted on, it is not difficult to obviate it. The Arcade (not being absolutely necessary) can be turned into a26 wall, pierced with windows and a door. The End openings to remain for Carriages—for Mr. Hallet must suffer me to insist in my turn, upon the utility of such a convenience, even in a “Republic”—where would be the crime if a person can afford to keep a carriage alighting dry from it to enter the house. The poorest and most stern27 republican would not willingly28 be drenched with rain, if he could procure the means to keep himself dry. And foreign Ministers would think such a provision a real accomodation.

If the arcade should be changed for29 a wall, then the Columns of the portico might be drawn nearer to one another, so as to produce a more received proportion in the intercolumniation. In this case, however, some little alteration in the disposition of the adjoining parts will be necessary. Upon the whole, I would prefer the portico, as it stands.

The Senate Chamber is the next scene of objection. In Mr. Hallet’s Section the coving of the cieling passed through the upper windows. This,30 I grant, is a real defect in my plan, and which doubtless I should have perceived and remedied myself, if time had permitted me to make a section. I should, in that case, have mentioned in the Explanation of the plan, that those windows should be omitted at both ends of the building [for, in fact, none there are needful] and their places filled up with ornamental Tablets. It is to be observed here, that in my Explanation accompanying the plan, a sky light was recommended to be added to the Senate Chamber, as without it, the 3 lower windows would be insufficient. I am sorry I cannot concede to31 Mr. Hallet’s other objections32 to the Senate Chamber. He has I think,33 unnecessarily, not to say unhandsomely, availed himself again of a trifling inaccuracy in the plan.34 In laying down the 2 columns on each side of this Apartment it seems the diameter of them was made too large. From this, it appears that Mr. Hallet has traced out the Shafts and Capitals, giving to the former a correspondent diameter and35 consequently Carrying the Columns to an impracticable height. As Columns in this particular situation need not be regulated by the intercolumniation—the Elevation of the architrave here36 whatever it may be, is the obvious and natural point at which the capital must stop.37

If these 4 columns are included In the calculation of the expence they must have added to the error because they were intended to be of wood.

Objections are brought against the Conference room and the Colonade before it. With respect to the first I can only say at present, that my intentions have in some measure been misapprehended. It is not possible for me to answer particularly, without an inspection of the plans. I dare say however, that if there are defects here, they38 can be remedied with ease.39 The Windows here require but a thought to correct them—which I am ready to explain verbally40 on revising my plan.41

In regard to the measurements below Mr. Hallet is mistaken. This I will also shew.

As to the Colonade of the Conference room, the intercolumniations of which seem to become an objection—because it is surmized, the stones for the architrave over each intercolumniation42 would be too ponderous to be raised—I answer, that it would require a small expence of genius only43 to raise stones of much greater magnitude.44 The same observation will apply to the architrave over the double45 columns at each end of the Portico. Mr. Hallet will recollect that the lofty46 Colonade of the Louvre is composed of double pillars—and consequently has very wide intercolumniations. Let me ask him,47 how were the stones raised there?

If the difficulty should still be48 insisted on, there is still an easy way of oversetting it—by cutting the Stones of the architrave each into 2 or 3 pieces perpendicularly lengthwise.

Fault is found with the semicircular projections at the ends, as losing their effect or appearing disproportionate on a front of such extent. I would ask, whether in a front of any less49 length having such projections, if seen out of the proper point of view, the like effect would not happen? These projections50 will be most properly viewed from the ends. There they are ornamental, and useful. The double pilasters which they admit have, in my opinion, a bold and beautiful effect.51 They correspond in a happy manner with the double pillars seen over the Carriage way of the portico on one side and those52 of the Colonade on the other—producing a grand and striking part of the composition which I should be very sorry to part with. Besides in an insulated building every front should exhibit the same or similar elegance of stile.

Some particular parts are said to want light—such as the stairs leading from the Arcade of the Colonade and the53 passages through the Basement. In the former, it is conceived the objection is not valid, light enough coming in from the arcade:54 which may be increased55 by small circular windows looking into the colonade—and which I ought to have56 noticed in my Explanation57—if it is not already done. With respect to the passages, I conceived a Sufficiency of light for a basement story, would come thro windows over the doors of the apartments,58 and the open doors of the ends of the passages. If, however, upon farther consideration this should appear doubtful, we have only to break an open arched aperture in the bases supporting the two projecting pillars on each side of the Colonade59—and of course leaving out the niches60 which are placed there in the61 plan—tho’ I can not believe either this alteration or Mr. Hallet’s lamps to be at all necessary.62

As to the waste room or space in the Basement Story, I have only to say, That the Capitol will require extensive cellar room for Fuel, public Stores &c.—and the inside walls may be all of the common foundation stone.

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 instance63 to prefer the authorities of the best books.

Thus, Sir, I have given64 a few short observations in answer to the voluminous objections which have been brought forward. I believe they embrace all or more than all that required to be answered. I could, however, have been much more particular if the plans had been in my possession—and if Mr. Hallet’s Report had been written in65 a more legible hand. I have the honour to be with Great respect, Sir Your obedt. hble Sert.

The Water Closets objected to in the upper Story may, if deemed improperly placed, be substituted by those below.66

Dft (DLC: Thornton Papers, 7: 1329- 32, 1325); unsigned and undated; heavily emended text consisting of eight numbered pages on four sheets of one kind of paper and a ninth numbered page on a different type of paper with postscript on verso, the last sheet and many of the revisions being in a different ink; only the most significant emendations are recorded below; brackets in original. Enclosed in TJ to George Washington, 12 July 1793.

Your communication: TJ to Thornton, 8 July 1793. This reply represents Thornton’s initial response to the critique of his prize-winning design for the United States Capitol that Stephen Hallet, the frustrated runner-up in the competition who was now supervising the construction of the edifice, had prepared at the direction of the Commissioners of the Federal District. Because Hallet’s Five manuscript volumes in Folio and Thornton’s original Plan are lost, the letter provides the best contemporary evidence of what Thornton originally proposed and of the shortcomings identified by Hallet. For the resolution of the architectural issues surrounding the Capitol, see TJ to George Washington, 17 July 1793, and note. A missing letter from Thornton to TJ of 14 July 1793 was recorded in SJL as received on 15 July 1793.

1Thornton here canceled “kind.”

2Word interlined in place of “give.”

3Word interlined.

4Remainder of sentence interlined in place of “the private Palaces of <Individuals> Private Persons in Europe.”

5Word interlined in place of “themselves bound.”

6Thornton here canceled “of the <People> Representation.”

7Thornton here canceled “probably.”

8Thornton here canceled “and.”

9Preceding twelve words interlined.

10Thornton first wrote “for in all old countries the Nations are either stationary” and then altered the phrase to read as above.

11Thornton first wrote “to observe that” before altering the passage to read as above.

12Number reworked from “14,000.”

13Word interlined.

14Word, followed by “<possibly> <afterwards>,” interlined in place of “might probably.”

15Preceding four words interlined.

16Preceding five words interlined in place of “defray the expence of.”

17Thornton here canceled “that <of which I am> <was> does not belong to me to judge of.”

18Thornton here canceled “are in forwardness.”

19Thornton first wrote “all the columns and decorations of weight standing on that” before altering the passage to read as above.

20Closing parenthesis supplied.

21Sentence written lengthwise in margin.

22Word interlined in place of “possibility.”

23Word interlined in place of “stated as a matter of fact. Mr. Hallet says, the Italian and French [Schools] allow both. I would answer […].”

24Preceding fourteen words written lengthwise in margin in place of what appears to be “My intercolumniation I designedly made rather wider than the [most?] approved. And my reasons for it were these 1st. […].”

25Word interlined.

26Thornton here canceled “solid.”

27Word interlined in place of “rigid […].”

28Preceding two words interlined in place of “never wish to.”

29Thornton first wrote what appears to be “If I have said the arcade, may be turned into” and then altered the phrase to read as above.

30Thornton here canceled “indeed, could be called a defect.”

31Thornton here interlined and canceled “one of.”

32Thornton first wrote “Hallet’s next objection” before altering the phrase to read as above.

33Preceding two words interlined in place of “very.”

34Thornton here canceled “which <he> his Section has tortured into an aspect that must <confound> frighten any persons viewing it and would threaten the whole <building> fabric with instant dissolution in the eyes of those unable to trace the thing back to its source.”

35Preceding eight words interlined in place of “and.”

36Preceding two words interlined in place of “<room> part they support gives the proportion of their diameter.”

37Thornton here canceled “and the shaft derives a diameter.”

38Thornton here canceled “may be open to ready correction—remedies are not.”

39Thornton wrote “without difficulty” before altering the phrase to read as above.

40Thornton here canceled “at once.”

41Sentence written lengthwise in the margin.

42Preceding three words interlined.

43Thornton here canceled “(to) laid out in a proper Mechanical Apparatus.”

44Thornton here canceled “I <presume> do not remember the dimensions of the Colonade of the Louvre—but its intercolumniation [will I think be?].”

45Word interlined.

46Word interlined.

47Word interlined.

48Dft: “should <be> still to be.”

49Word interlined.

50Thornton here canceled “are for the decoration.”

51Thornton here canceled “<corresponding> Besides I conceive them absolutely necessary towards a correspondence with.”

52Thornton here canceled “on the end.”

53Remainder of sentence interlined in place of “wide part of the passages before the Apartment appropriated for select committees of both houses to meet in.”

54Thornton here canceled “and colonade <in the> the latter will draw its light.”

55Word interlined in place of what appears to be “assured.”

56Preceding four words interlined in place of “if I mistake not, were.”

57Remainder of sentence interlined.

58Remainder of sentence interlined.

59Word interlined in place of “portico.”

60Word written in the margin in place of “statues.”

61Thornton here canceled “<plan> Elevation.”

62Eighth numbered page ends here. At the top of the ninth page Thornton canceled “I do not recollect that there was much, if any, lost Space in the basement Story—<I believe that in a building of such magnitude the Cellars must> there must be extensive Cellar<s> room for <various> Fuel, <&ca.> <and> public Stores &c—and as to.”

63Preceding three words interlined.

64Word interlined in place of “hastily thrown together.”

65Thornton here canceled “an English hand.”

66Sentence preceded by a canceled sentence of substantially the same import.

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