Dr. William Thornton: First Architect of the Capitol

–by Joanna Hallac

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to give an outdoor walking tour of the Capitol to a group of 2nd graders from a local school, and they submitted questions ahead of time that they were hoping to get answers to that morning (which, by the way, I thought was both adorable and really smart). As you can imagine, the questions ran quite a gamut—from why was the Capitol built to does anyone live in the Capitol—so I certainly enjoyed going about compiling all of the answers and I even found myself doing some serious research for a couple of them. There was one question, however, that was far more complicated to answer than one might imagine.

Who designed the Capitol? Seems like an easy question that should have an easy answer, right? Wrong. There were so many architects that oversaw the design and building on the Capitol during all of its various phases of construction and extensions and repairs until its completion in its present form in December 1863 that it is hard to keep track of them all. Yet no matter how many architects are on that list, one will always stand out: the first one. Dr. William Thornton was and will forever be known for having been the first Architect of the Capitol, despite having no actual training as an architect.

Dr. William Thornton, portrait by George B. Matthews, after Gilbert Stuart, 1930 (Architect of the Capitol)

Thornton was born in the British West Indies in 1759 and was sent to England at the age of 5 by his parents for his education, receiving his medical degree from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in 1784. Thornton would move to the United States—Philadelphia, to be specific—in 1786 and subsequently became an American citizen the following year. So how did a medical doctor and newly naturalized citizen with no architectural training come to be chosen to be the first to design and oversee construction of the United States Capitol? The answer is, again, not so simple.

In 1790, the Congress passed the Residence Act, which put an end to the argument over where the new government would reside, with an area along the Potomac River settled upon as the designated site of the new capital city (the exact location would be chosen by George Washington in 1791). The Congress, the President, the Supreme Court and other federal government buildings would all be calling DC their home in ten years time, which was when, according to the Residence Act, that those buildings needed to be completed. Washington then created a three-man commission to oversee the construction of the whole city and the federal buildings that would house the various branches of government. After Pierre L’Enfant, the man who designed DC, was dismissed by the commission in 1792 for refusing to make any of his plans known to them ahead of time (he said they were all in his head and he didn’t feel he had to make any drawings available to them, nor did he believe—wrongly, as it were—that he was even subject to their control or approval), they opened up a public design competition for the Capitol in March 1792, with the winner to get $500 and a city plot. Despite 17 entries, the commission was not pleased with any of them, and with time ticking away, they wondered if they would find a plan they could agree upon.

Thornton's East Elevation of the Capitol, circa 1796 (Architect of the Capitol)

Then, in October 1792, months after the competition had officially ended, they received a letter from Dr. Thornton asking if he could be allowed to submit his plan for the Capitol, and since the commission had yet to make any decision they permitted him to do so. When Thornton finally submitted his plan for consideration in January 1793, it was received with a great deal of enthusiasm from a number of people, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Jefferson said to the commissioners about Thornton’s plan, according to Thornton’s own papers (cited below), that it had “so captivated the eyes and judgment of all as to leave no doubt you will prefer it.” So with the consent of the commissioners and with the formal approval by George Washington given on April 2, 1793, Thornton’s plan for the U.S. Capitol was put into motion.

Though his design was a take on classical European architecture, with the two wings of the House of Representatives and Senate being joined by the central piece with a low dome, Thornton’s design would be housing a free and democratic legislative body, unlike most throughout Europe at that time. The Capitol has been altered considerably since Thornton’s original design was submitted and constructed, as has the role of the Architect of the Capitol; Dr. Thornton’s role then was simply to design and oversee the original construction of the Capitol under the supervision of the commission and the President. During Thornton’s tenure as the Architect of the Capitol, only the original north wing of the Capitol was constructed, although much of the original structure, with some modifications, is based upon Thornton’s design.

This is merely a very brief and simplified answer to the question of who designed and built the Capitol. Essentially, it deals only with the issue of design rather than construction, which involved a great deal of enslaved labor–and that’s a whole other story for another time. No matter how one goes about answering the question of who designed the Capitol, however, there is only one name that can be used to start that explanation: Dr. William Thornton. Not such a bad question for a bunch of 8 year olds, was it?

As always, let us know if you have any questions about the Capitol that you’d like answered and we’ll do our best to accommodate you.

Sources Consulted:

AOC Website

“Papers of William Thornton: Volume One, 1781-1802.” Edited by C.M. Harris. University Press of Virginia, 1995.


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