James Madison Papers

To James Madison from John Peter Van Ness, 4 March 1816

Report of the Commissioners of the Public Buildings to the President of the United States, on the 4th of March.

March 4, 1816

To the President of the United States:

The undersigned Commissioners appointed by him for carrying into execution


"An act entitled an act making appropriations for repairing or rebuilding the Public Buildings in the City of Washington," beg leave respectfully to report:


That as soon as they had received his letter of appointment, they proceeded to the execution of the trust committed to them. In the first place it became important to engage architects of the first taste, education and ability, to superintend the repairs of those massy and and magnificent structures, the Capitol and President’s House, and after duly weighing the overtures of several individuals, they finally determined in selecting those who had heretofore been employed in the completion of these edifices, namely, Benj H. Latrobe for the Capitol, and James Hoban for the President’s House, and as the director of the most delicate and important part of the work, the cutting and laying of the stone, Mr. George Bladgen, whose skill has been so long approved. As soon as these appointments were made, they proceeded to negociate the loans authorised by Congress; all of which have been effected with the Banks of Columbia, of the Metropolis, of Washington, the Union Bank of Alexandria, and the Union Bank of Georgetown, as fast as the exigencies of the public buildings required, amounting in the aggregate tothe sum of five hundred thousand dollars. Instant measures were taken under the superintendance of active agents, and the direction of the architects to clear the buildingsof the ruins with which they were incumbered, and to provide the necessary scaffolding, workshops and enclosures; and contracts were entered into, for purchasing, in due season, supplies of stone, brick, lime and timber for the Capitol and President’s House; which supplies were obtained with more promptitude, and on better terms than could have been expected, considering the destitute condition of the places from which alone they could be purchased, in consequence of the late war, the total want of every article suitable to the purpose in the district of Columbia and the increased expense of transportation. Another difficulty also occured, the engaging of a sufficient number of artificers of different descriptions, & more particularly those in the stone cutting and sculptural lines. The great demand for artists of these descriptions in the principal cities of the United States in consequence of their increased opulence has opposed serious obstacles to the obtaining of a sufficient number for the public buildings; from which has existed the necessity of offering higher wages than had been before common. The wages also of all other artificers have considerably increased; but the commissioners have the satisfaction to state, that they have employed workmen in every line, at a cheaper rate, and purchased materials of a better quality, and on better terms, than any private undertaker in this district; and, that the most ample arrangements are now made to supply, in due season, all the articles of wood, stone, and lime, which may be wanted in the present year, as fast as workmen can be found to operate on them.

To expedite the completion of the Capitol, being satisfied, that the sculptured ornaments necessary for it, as well as for the President’s House could be procured on cheaper terms in Italy, made out of the best statuary marble, than in this country made out of the free stone heretofore used, and that these ornaments might be delivered in the United States in due season, whereas, if attempted to be made here, many years would elapse before they could be prepared, (owing to the want of the requisite artists) and one of the Italian sculptors then and theretofore in the employment of the U. States on an annual stipend, having died soon after their appointment, the commissioners determined to send the other to Italy, having obtained, under the permission of the President, from the Secretary of the Navy, his transportation in one of the national ships to the Mediterranean, to procure under his special superintendance these articles and have placed twenty thousand dollars in London, subject to the order of Richard M’Call, Esq. Consul of the United States, at Barcelona to defray all the expences incident to that mission; and they have the best grounded expectation, that Mr. Andrie, the sculptor entrusted with the execution of this business, will return in or before the month of August next with the articles expected. In the mean time, to supply the place of the other Italian sculptor, they have deemed it proper to take into the public employ, on the recommendation of the architect of the Capitol, signior Vallaperta, an eminent sculptor, lately arrived from Europe, on the same terms on which Mr. Andrie is engaged; there being now many objects on which he can be usefully employed.

As to the Treasury and War Offices, the Commissioners immediately determined, to offer the repair of them to undertakers, subject however to the plans and inspection of the architect of the President’s House. They are happy to state, that they have faithfully performed this duty, and that these buildings will stand repaired on the 1st April next, the War Office and the fire-proof of the Treasury for some time having been completed in a more substantial and useful manner, than they were originally built. But it was difficult to induce the contractors employed on these offices to sign their engagements without giving them an assurance, that in case the circumstances of the times should interpose extraordinary obstacles to the execution of their contracts that the commissioners would on the completion of their contracts take into consideration such obstacles, and not permit them to suffer loss from their undertakings. They deemed such an assurance required by the claims of justice, and it would be unbecoming the dignity of this rich and great nation to take the advantage of an individual in a case of this kind; especially when he had faithfully executed his work of the best materials, and in the most approved manner. Being satisfied, from the extraordinary rise in the price of materials and workmanship of every kind, that the contract price was very inferior to the actual expenditures, the have considered themselves bound to make to these undertakers an additional allowance, which they trust will meet the approbation of the President and the nation.

They beg leave to refer to the paper A to shew the actual expenditures on the Treasury office; to the paper B to shew the actual expenditures on the War office; to the paper C for the actual expenditure on the Capitol and the value of materials on hand there; and to the paper D for the actual expenditures on the President’s House, and the value of materials on hand there: to the paper E for actual expenditures incident to all the public buildings. From all which documents it will appear that there has been expended in permanent fixtures the sum of one hundred and thirteen thousand one hundred and seventy dollars and twenty-eight cents; in materials in a prepared and unprepared state not yet permanently fixed, the sum of forty-six thousand five hundred and twenty-five dollars and seventy three cents -- That there remains in bank to the credit of the commissioners the sum of six thousand nine hundred and twenty-six dollars and fourteen cents; and that there has been advanced to the credit of R. M’Call, our consul at Barcelona, and to various persons in this country for materials not yet delivered the sum of thirty-three thousand three hundred and seventy seven dollars and eighty-five cents, which sums, added to the sum of three hundred thousand dollars not as yet drawn from the banks with which the loans have been negociated, amount to the sum of five hundred thousand dollars authorised to be borrowed.

Before they close their report, they beg leave to add, that a considerable portion of the above expenditures consisted in preparing the necessary scaffolding, workshops and enclosures, in removing the ruins of the buildings, and particularly in taking down the massy vault of the House of Representatives, the fall of which, threatened ruin to all the work in a sound state below it, which was executed (from the judicious manner in which it was attempted) without injury or accident, and putting temporary roofs over both wings of the Capitol. They will also observe that when the buildings shall be fully repaired, a considerable portion of the value of the materials used in the scaffolding, workshops and temporary roofs will be returned to the Treasury.

Printed Source--National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.).

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