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This 1852 lithograph depicts extensions to Thornton's House and Senate Wings; the additions, authorized in 1851, were not yet constructed. (Library of Congress)

A Capitol Vision From a Self-Taught Architect

In 1792, William Thornton designed America's defining monument, where a new visitor center opens in December

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In the torrid summer of 1792, William Thornton, the 33-year-old son of wealthy planters on the Caribbean island of Tortola, labored over a set of architectural drawings. Thornton, who had been trained as a physician but was now trying his hand at architecture, seemed unaware of the oppressive heat. As his sheaf of sketches grew, Thornton's thoughts were focused on the nation that had inspired his endeavor—the fledgling democracy of the United States, whose shores lay more than a thousand miles distant. When he looked up from his desk, Thornton gazed out across the plantations of Pleasant Valley, where slaves toiled in the terraced fields. Since the 1750s, Thornton's Quaker family had prospered on 12-mile-long Tortola (today part of the British Virgin Islands), where sugar, cotton, tobacco and indigo were grown. By the 1790s, export crops carpeted the island's deep valleys and razorback ridges, bringing great fortunes to many and guilt to a few, including Thornton, who abhorred slavery.

As Thornton refined his drawings, the air was thick with the pungent scent of sugar cane being refined into molasses and rum; the cooing of mountain doves mingled with the thud of waves onshore in nearby Sea Cow Bay. Gradually, a magnificent building—the United States Capitol—took shape on Thornton's papers. The structure, he believed, would rise as a shrine to republican government. (On December 2, 2008, the most recent addition to the nation's defining monument—the $621 million Capitol Visitor Center—will be inaugurated when it opens to the public after six years of construction.)

"I have made my drawings with the greatest accuracy, and the most minute attention," Thornton wrote to federal commissioners charged with selecting a design from more than a dozen submissions. "In an affair of so much consequence to the dignity of the United States," he added, it was his hope that "you will not be hasty in deciding."

Several months earlier, in the spring of 1792, the government of President George Washington had begun soliciting designs for the Capitol. The intention was to create a structure that would embody the lofty ideals of the new nation and serve as a defining landmark in a new federal city that was to rise on the banks of the Potomac River. According to historian Kenneth R. Bowling of George Washington University, our first president well understood the significance of the national capital's location. By siting the city "in the Middle States," says Bowling, President Washington envisioned that future city would play "a fundamental role in the survival of the Union, by uniting the North, South and West." The Capitol building, Bowling adds, would serve as the city's political anchor—a physical counterpart to the Constitution and a kind of temple to the secular religion of republican government.

Heated competition for the site of the capital city had raged for years, reaching its height during the First Federal Congress, which met in New York from 1789 to 1790. Fierce backroom negotiations went on for months. In the end, factions advocating for Philadelphia and New York were outmaneuvered by those who argued for a location on the Potomac River, equidistant between North and South, easily defended and naturally attractive to inter­national trade. Southerners also feared that establishing a capital in the North—where those in bondage were already being emancipated—would help to undermine slavery. (As a conciliatory gesture to Pennsylvania, Philadelphia was named the temporary capital until Congress could take up residence on the Potomac in 1800.)

By mid-1792, the "city" existed as little more than a speculative if magnificent plan, mapped out by French-born engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant. (Washington had first met L'Enfant at Valley Forge during the terrible winter of 1777-78, when L'Enfant served under the commander in chief.) Only a handful of streets had been laid out, designated by surveyor's stakes and lines of felled trees radiating across landowners' forests and pastures. Washington and his allies wanted buildings that would embody the nation's hoped-for future. "In our Idea the Capitol ought in point of prosperity to be on a grand Scale, and that a Republic especially ought not to be sparing of expenses on an Edifice for such purposes," wrote the three recently appointed commissioners overseeing creation of the new capital city.

The commissioners also solicited designs for an official residence to be known as the President's House. The winners would receive $500 and, in the case of the Capitol, a city lot as well. For the President's House, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, the administration's resident aesthete, had expressed a desire for something "modern," perhaps, he suggested, resembling the Louvre or another Parisian landmark. For the Capitol, however, Jefferson had in mind the architecture of classical Rome: "I should prefer the adoption of some of the models of antiquity, which have had the approbation of thousands of years."

Indeed, it was Jefferson who had come up with the name Capitol Hill, consciously invoking the famous temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome. (The tract of land slated for the Capitol had been known as Jenkins Hill.) Jefferson was also appropriating the mantle of the Roman Republic, with its political freedoms and popular government. "Jefferson didn't want to take any chances with the Capitol and the public buildings," says William C. Allen, architectural historian in the Office of the Architect at the U.S. Capitol. "He wanted them based on buildings that were already famous and admired. Basically, he wanted the Europeans to stop laughing at us."

The contest for the President's House was quickly decided and resulted in the appointment of James Hoban, an Irish-born architect from Charleston, South Carolina. The competition for the Capitol, however, presented a host of problems. Submissions began to arrive in July 1792. One design featured the statue of a gigantic bird, reminiscent of a turkey, perched atop a cupola. Another plan evoked a county courthouse; a third resembled an army barracks. Jefferson himself drew a plan, which he never submitted, that he based on the circular, second-century a.d. Pantheon, the most renowned surviving temple in Rome; he incorporated oval chambers under the dome, intended to house the three branches of government. Washington did not hide his disappointment in the submissions. "If none more elegant than these should appear...the exhibition of architecture will be a very dull one indeed," he said.

Washington and Jefferson reluctantly focused on the only plan from a professional architect, French-born Étienne (Stephen) Sulpice Hallet, whose ornate and monumental scheme, calling for multiple exterior and interior sculptures, became known as the "fancy piece." Hallet had been at work for months, refining his design, when, in January, a late entry appeared. The deadline had come—and gone—six months before, but Thornton had nonetheless requested, and received, permission to submit his plan.

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