Would You Have Asked William Thornton to Design Your House?

Bob Arnebeck's picture

I finished the third part of my essay on the Thornton and the Octagon: "Would You Have Asked William Thornton to Design Your House?"


In this part I explore Thornton's relationship with George Washington, and show how Thornton was more of an architecture critic than an architect. Here is the end of my essay:

Bob Arnebeck

,,,Of course, Thornton could design a house anytime or anywhere he wanted. In the Thornton papers at the Library of Congress there are two unsigned floor plans that curators and scholars consider preliminary plans for the Octagon. The drawings only resemble what was built so Orlando Ridout V in Building the Octagon assumed that what would have been Thornton's third plan was what William Lovering followed when he served as the project's superintending architect.

If those two extant plans were indeed made for Octagon by Thornton, then Thornton showed not a little brass. Shortly after those floor plans had to have been made if they were for the Octagon, a battle between Thornton and Hoban came to a head. Three years later in a July 13, 1802 letter to President Jefferson, Alexander White recalled the episode: “Some years ago both my Colleagues were desirous of getting Hoban out of the way; and amazing exertions were made to find something in his conduct which would justify them in dismissing him.”

Thornton did not emerge unscathed. In an April 12, 1799, letter to White, Hoban's head carpenter Redmond Purcell felt "determined to pour broadsides" into the hulls of Thornton and Scott. Purcell accused "the fribbling quack architect" of signing "his name to the only drawings of sections for the Capitol ever delivered to the commissioners' office, made out by another man." The letter was soon published.

Hoban's counterattack was more effective. If the Commissioners attacked him for not doing his job, he would attack the so-called architect for not doing his. In a March 12, 1799, letter, he told the Commissioners of the difficulties he had answering their request for a breakdown of future costs at the Capitol. He had no "plan or sections of the building to calculate by, not the parts in detail, all which should be put into the hands of the superintendent." Investigations of his past handling of workers at the President's house continued. So on April 15, he pointedly asked for "drawings necessary to carry on the work on the staircases and the Senate and House chambers.'

Hoban asked for drawings that he knew that Thornton could not provide

Commissioner White forced Commissioner Scott, who also wanted Hoban out, to change sides. In the invitation for the design contest, there was a requirement that the winning architect provide drawings needed during construction of the building. His colleagues asked Thornton to provide the drawings. He didn't, likely because even though he boasted of restoring his design of the Capitol, he couldn't provide the drawings needed to build it. He told his colleagues, rightly, that Hadfield had been hired to do that. Of course, when Hadfield made drawings, Thornton ridiculed them.

But while taking that stand, how could Thornton at the same time provide a detailed design for the Octagon house? Judging from what Lovering wrote to the Commissioners in October, 1798, it was common knowledge that Thornton was "unacquainted with the trouble of architectural details." Lovering discussed a contract for building the Octagon on or shortly before March 9, 1799. He likely would have learned if the house plans with enough detail to allow a cost estimate had been made by Thornton. It is unlikely Thornton could have gotten away with secretly designing the Octagon.

The floor plan in Thornton's paper which is less like the actual Octagon is likely a design that Mrs. Thornton described her husband making on February 1 and 2, 1800, for a house he told his wife that they would build on the lot across New Jersey Avenue from Tayloe's house.



The central axis of the house is quite like Thornton's floor plan for the middle the Capitol.


If Thornton had offered that house design so reminiscent of his design for the yet unbuilt rotunda of the Capitol, Tayloe did not go for it. The Octagon as built is different.


Is it likely that after defending his Capitol design with increasing vehemence since 1793, Thornton would radically alter his first take on the Octagon and eliminate the line up of ovals reminiscent of his Capitol design? The other design in Thornton's papers is more like what was built.


But could he have exhausted himself with such detail?

There is another explanation for how a design so similar to the Octagon wound up in Thornton's papers. In describing how he designed the Library Company building and the Capitol, Thornton almost boasted that he consulted books implying that using them substituted for being trained in architecture. So prior to designing his own house, he likely asked Lovering for one of his preliminary designs for the Octagon.

Lovering had chided the Commissioners in 1798, but in 1799 they still asked him to inspect the roofs of the President's house and Capitol.  As noted in Part Two of this essay, we know from Henri Stier's letters that Lovering liked to give prospective patrons three designs. Perhaps Thornton's request so impressed Lovering that in May when he advertised his move to Georgetown, he offered specimens of his designs for houses built on angled avenues which probably also included a house he designed and built for Thomas Law on New Jersey Avenue.

That the houses Lovering in 1794 and 1795 for Greenleaf, and the Twenty Buildings he designed for Morris and Nicholson don't have the ovals or look of the Octagon shouldn't be held against him. After doing those houses, he measured work done at the President house and Capitol to determine the compensation for workers. He was by no means unfamiliar with the ovals of those buildings. The angle of the streets dictated the need for a novel design and ovals discretely used (not lined up a la Thornton) was the obvious solution.

Assuming that Lovering made the preliminary drawing of the Octagon found in Thornton's papers, frees Thornton from an accusation that he worked on details of Octagon at the same time he refused to make detailed drawings for the Capitol.

This is not to say that Tayloe avoided involving Thornton in the project. He seems to have known that Tayloe ordered chimney pieces from London. When chimney they came in November 1800, Thornton went to see them. Judging from Mrs. Thornton's diary it was the only time in 1800 that Thornton went inside the house.

Thornton did design houses, but only after work began on the Octagon. By not asking him to design his house, Washington shocked Thornton into making his talents as a designer more serviceable. So in 1800 while he remained busy as a Commissioner, Thornton began his modest career as a house designer. A double house for Daniel Carroll was easy given the experience he had helping to draw up the contract for Washington's two houses. His obsession in 1800 was a monument, if not a mausoleum, for George Washington. So he maintained close ties to the Washington family. He found that easiest to do by befriending two grand daughters of Martha Washington and their husbands Thomas Peter and Lawrence Lewis. Two of the most gracious acts of his life were gifting house designs to both couples.

Then why didn't Lovering become famous for designing the Octagon? That he was not a gentleman and already famous are two reasons. Also in June 1801, after two years of work, the project was well over budget and far from being finished. Tayloe came on site and urged Lovering to get it done. At a time when an architect was also expected to build what he designed, his failure as a builder could eclipse the credit he might deserve for being the designer. The pity of continuing to celebrate Thornton as the Octagon's architect is that we lose sight of the problems faced by the handful of men who had the talent to design and build. None of them were born rich like Thornton or became rich off their work. Don't we owe them something?