This section is from the book "The National Capitol. Its Architecture Art And History", by George C. Hazelton, Jr. Also available from Amazon: The National Capitol Its Architecture Art and History.
" A premium of a lot in this city to be designated by impartial judges, and five hundred dollars, or a medal of that value at the option of the party, will be given by the Commissioners of the Federal Buildings to the person who before the 15th of July, 1792, shall produce to them the most approved plan for a Capitol to be erected in this city ; and two hundred and fifty dollars, or a medal, to the plan deemed next in merit to the one they shall adopt. The building to be of brick, and to contain the following apartments to wit: a conference-room and a room for the Representatives, sufficient to accommodate three hundred persons each ; a lobby or ante-room to the latter ; a Senate room of twelve hundred square feet area ; an ante-chamber ; twelve rooms of six hundred square feet each for Committee rooms and clerks' offices. It will be a recommendation of any plan if the central part of it may be detached and erected for the present with the appearance of a complete whole, and be capable of admitting the additional parts in future, if they shall be wanted. Drawings will be expected of the ground plots, elevations of each front, and sections through the building in such directions as may be necessary to explain the internal structure ; and an estimate of the cubic feet of brick work composing the whole mass ot the walls".
Of the sixteen plans which, in answer to this advertisement, are said to have been submitted by architects, draftsmen and others* throughout the country, many persons, including Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, favored those of Stephen Hallet, a French architect, who had established himself in Philadelphia just prior to the Revolution. Hallet visited the city of Washington by invitation in the summer of 1792, in order to examine the site chosen for the Capitol and better to perfect his designs. These would undoubtedly have been accepted, had not William Thornton,* an English physician by education, but an amateur draftsman by taste, and the designer of the Philadelphia Library, then brought to the President's attention through Trumbull, the artist, a different conception of a building designed for the meetings of Congress. Washington,! at the sight of Thornton's drawings, became enthusiastic over " the grandeur, simplicity, and beauty of the exterior ; the propriety with which the apartments are distributed, and economy in the whole mass of the structure".
* See Washington's letter, Appendix, p. 249.
As Hallet, however, had been encouraged regarding his designs and had made alterations in them to meet the approbation of the President and others, some courtesy was due to him. For the sake of conciliation, the President, with considerations of justice towards both, shrewdly suggested that Thornton's plans be adopted, but that, as he was not a professional architect, Hallet be engaged, in order that, under the direction of a trained architect, they might the better be executed. The Commissioners, too, evidently felt kindly toward Hallet at this period; for in a communication to Jefferson of February 7, 1793, they say: " We feel sensibly for poor Hallet, and shall do everything in our power to soothe him. We hope he may be usefully employed notwithstanding." On the 13th of the following month, in a letter to Hallet himself, they thus endeavored to compensate him for his disappointment :
" The plan you first offered for a Capitol appeared to us to have a great share of merit, none met with our entire approbation. Yours approaching the nearest to the leading ideas of the President and Commissioners. . . . Our opinion has preferred Doctor Thornton's and we expect the President will confirm our choice. Neither the Doctor or yourself can command the prize under the strict terms of our advertisement, but the public has been benefitted by the emulation excited and the end having been answered we shall give the reward of 500 dollars and a lot to Dr. Thornton. You certainly rank next and because your application has been exited by particular request, we have resolved to place you on the same footing as near as may be, that is to allow compensation for everything to this time, 100 £ being the value of a Lot and 500 Dollars".
The Commissioners notified Thornton of his triumph by letter of April 5, 1793, written from Georgetown : "The President has given formal approbation of your plans." Four days later they write to the Executive : " Doctor Thornton throws out an idea that the Capitol might be thrown back to the desirable spot and the center ornamented with a figure of Columbus. The idea seems not to be disapproved by Mr. Blodget, and Ellicott thinks there's room enough. It does not seem to us that there's any striking impropriety and wish that you could consider it on the spot where you could have the most perfect idea of it".
* See letter to Thornton, Appendix, p. 250. f See letters, Appendix, pp. 250, 251.
Hallet at once raised objections to the practical application of Thornton's plans; and in the following July, the President held a conference in Philadelphia, at which were present the author of the contested design, Hallet, Hoban and a " judicious undertaker [builder] chosen by Doctor Thornton as a competent judge of the objections made to his plan of a Capitol for the City of Washington." At this meeting, the plans were carefully examined, and the objections fully discussed. Certain changes were suggested by Hallet, wherein, says Washington, " 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, rendered into practical form." The President further informs us that " Col. Williams, an undertaker also produced by Doctor Thornton," after viewing the plans and objections, thought, on the whole, the reformed plan the best. Later, on the 25th, the Executive writes to the Commissioners as follows:
" . . . After a candid discussion, it was found that the objections stated, were considered as valid by both the persons chosen by Doctor Thornton as practical Architects and competent judges of things of this kind. . . . The plan produced by Mr. Hallet altho' preserving the original plan of Doctor Thornton, and such as might, upon the whole, be considered as his plan, was free from those objections, and was pronounced by the gentleman on the part of Doctor Thornton, as the one which they, as practical Architects would chuse to execute. Besides which, you will see, that, in the opinion of those gentlemen, the plan executed according to Mr. Hallet's ideas would not cost more than one half of what it would if executed according to Doctor Thornton's.