Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 17 July 1793

To George Washington

Philadelphia July 17. 1793.


According to the desire expressed in your letter of June 30. I called together Doctr. Thornton, Mr. Hallet, Mr. Hoben, and a judicious undertaker of this place, Mr. Carstairs, chosen by Dr. Thornton as a competent judge of the objections made to his plan of the Capitol for the City of Washington. These objections were proposed and discussed on a view of the plans: the most material were the following.

1. The intercolonnations of the western and central peristyles are too wide for the support of their architraves of Stone: so are those of the doors in the wings.

2. The colonnade passing through the middle of the Conference room has an ill effect to the eye, and will obstruct the view of the members: and if taken away, the cieling is too wide to support itself.

3. The floor of the central peristyle is too wide to support itself.

4. The stairways on each side of the Conference room want head-room.

5. The windows are in some important instances masked by the Galleries.

6. Many parts of the building want light and air in a degree which renders them unfit for their purposes. This is remarkably the case with some of the most important apartments, to wit, the chambers of the Executive and the Senate, the anti-chambers of the Senate and Representatives, the Stair-ways &c. Other objections were made which were surmountable, but those preceding were thought not so, without an alteration of the plan.

This alteration has in fact been made by Mr. Hallet in the plan drawn by him, wherein he has preserved the most valuable ideas of the original and rendered them susceptible of execution; so that it is considered as Dr. Thornton’s plan reduced into practicable form. The persons consulted agreed that in this reformed plan the objections before stated were entirely remedied; and that it is on the whole a work of great merit. But they were unanimously of opinion that in removing one of the objections, that is to say, the want of light and air to the Executive and Senate Chambers, a very capital beauty in the original plan, to wit, the Portico of the Eastern front, was suppressed, and ought to be restored; as the recess proposed in the middle of that front instead of the Portico projecting from it, would probably have an extreme ill effect. They supposed that by advancing the Executive chamber, with the two rooms on it’s flanks, into a line with the Eastern front, or a little projecting or receding from it, the Portico might be re-established, and a valuable passage be gained in the center of the edifice, lighted from above, and serving as a common disengagement to the four capital apartments, and that nothing would be sacrificed by this but an unimportant proportion of light and air to the Senate and Representatives rooms; otherwise abundantly lighted and aired.

The arrangement of the windows in front on different levels was disapproved, and a reformation of that circumstance was thought desirable though not essential.

It was further their opinion that the reformed plan would not cost more than half what the original one would.

I need not repeat to you the opinions of Colo. Williams an undertaker also produced by Dr. Thornton, who on seeing the plans and hearing the objections proposed, thought some of them removeable, others not so, and on the whole that the reformed plan was the best. This past in your presence, and with a declaration at the same time from Col. Williams that he wished no stress to be laid on opinions so suddenly given. But he called on me the day after, told me he had considered and conferred with Dr. Thornton on the objections, and thought all of them could be removed but the want of light and air in some cases. He gave me general ideas of the ways in which he would remove the other objections, but his method of spanning the intercolonnations with secret arches of brick, and supporting the floors by an interlocked framing appeared to me totally inadequate; that of unmasking the windows by lowering the Galleries was only substituting one deformity for another, and a conjectural expression how head-room might be gained in the Stairways shewed he had not studied them.

I have employed Mr. Carstairs to calculate the cost of the whole masonry of the building, according to the Philadelphia prices, because the cost of the walls of a building furnishes always a tolerable conjecture of the cost of the whole, and because I thought that a statement in detail of the Philadelphia prices of materials and work might be of some value to the Commissioners. I have the honor to be with the most perfect esteem and respect, Sir Your most obedient & most humble Servant.

Th: Jefferson

RC (DNA: RG 59, MLR); in a clerk’s hand, signed by TJ; at foot of text: “The President of the United States”; endorsed by Bartholomew Dandridge, Jr. PrC (DLC); unsigned. Tr (Lb in DNA: RG 59, SDC). Tr (DNA: RG 42, PBG); at head of text: “Copy.” Tr (same, DCLB). Recorded in SJPL.

The conference on the design of the United States Capitol described in this letter took place on 15 July 1793 after the President again called for a meeting of the interested parties. Immediately after the meeting Washington and TJ agreed that Stephen Hallet’s modification of William Thornton’s award-winning plan was the preferred design and that work should begin as soon as alterations were made to it (Washington, Journal description begins Dorothy Twohig, ed., The Journal of the Proceedings of the President, 1793–1797, Charlottesville, 1981 description ends , 198–9, 202; Thornton to TJ, [ca. 12 July 1793]; Tobias Lear to Thornton, 13 July 1793, DLC: Thornton Papers; TJ to Thomas Carstairs, 14 July 1793). Whether the modified design was Dr. Thornton’s plan reduced into practicable form, as Thornton also considered it, or departed fundamentally from it, as Hallet maintained, has long been debated by architectural historians, but there is general agreement that the compromise merged the form of Thornton’s exterior design with Hallet’s modifications. The President enclosed a copy of TJ’s letter when he wrote the Commissioners of the Federal District on 25 July 1793 notifying them of this decision (Fitzpatrick, Writings description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington, Washington, D.C., 1931–44, 39 vols. description ends , xxxiii, 29–30). TJ subsequently sent the Commissioners an estimate of the Cost of the whole Masonry prepared by Thomas Carstairs, and the cornerstone of the Capitol was laid on 18 Sep. 1793 in a ceremony attended by the President in masonic regalia (TJ to the Commissioners of the Federal District, 15 Aug. 1793, and enclosure; Charles H. Callahan, Washington: The Man and The Mason [Alexandria, 1913], 289–93 and plate facing 310). Hallet was dismissed as superintendent of construction by the Commissioners in 1794 when he persisted in deviating from the accepted plan. For a comparison of the adopted design with reconstructed elements of Thornton’s lost plan which argues that TJ may have stressed similarities between them only to “preserve appearances,” see Fiske Kimball and Wells Bennett, “William Thornton and the Design of the United States Capitol,” Art Studies: Medieval, Renaissance and Modern, i (1923), 76–92, esp. 87–8; for a more recent supporting assessment which indicates that “Thornton’s elevations were married to Hallet’s revised plan,” see Pamela Scott, “Stephen Hallet’s Designs for the United States Capitol,” Winterthur Portfolio, xxvii (1992), 145–70, esp. 150, 166. Both studies reproduce related drawings of the Capitol, among them Hallet’s conference design (Kimball and Bennett, pl. 72, facing p. 88; Scott, fig. 9, p. 151).

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