Architects' Letters

William Thornton's Letter to the Members of the House of Representatives, dated.

Washington, January 1, 1805.

I consider it as a duty, not only to the public but to myself, to correct some unfounded statements made by Mr. Benjamin H. Latrobe, in his letter to the chairman of the committee of the house of representatives in congress, dated at Washington, 28th February, 1804.

This report I did not see till 23d of April following, long after the rising of Congress, and must own it excited my surprise. Previous to Mr. Latrobe's appointment, when he came here to report on the dry docks, suggested by the President, he often complimented me on the plan of the capitol, a ground plan and elevations of which I had shown him; and he declared in presence of the superintendent that he never saw any plan of a building besides his own and this* that he would deign to execute. I must own I cannot easily conceive why previous to his appointment I should hear nothing but approbation of my plan, and after his appointment nothing but condemnation.

* Latrobe in the notes to his report of Nov. 28, 1806, says:

I told the author of the Plan of the Capitol that I admired that work so much that I never saw any plan of a building in my life, not drawn by myself, which I would be willing to execute except that; & this I declare he has asserted & will declare under oath ; but it was only one of my " polite ambiguities," & I only said so to flatter him into a friendly wish to see me appointed, for it never was my opinion.

I saw a copy of the plan given to the President some months before I drew mine. I now remember there were ten or twelve rooms which could have been made without the expense of altering or taking down the brick work, & would have saved fifty thousand dollars. Many of these rooms were larger than any of mine, but as Queen Elizabeth said of Queen Mary, "they were too large.óMine are exactly the proper size;" for if one of the committee should fall asleep in his chair, he will not have room enough to fall back and break his neck.

In the commencement of the report he mentioned the approval of my plan by General Washington. Alterations of it were afterwards authorized by law; but not I believe because it was impracticable, for on fuller investigation it was admitted to be practicable by some who had before deemed it not so; but because some alterations would improve it. Mr. Hallet was appointed to execute it, but not till after I had refused to superintend its execution; for with the able assistance to be derived from some of the excellent workmen who were engaged, I am confident I could have done as much justice to the public as some architects, whose fame has depended more on the assistance of judicious men than on their own abilities . . . When General Washington honored me with the appointment of commissioner, he requested I would restore the building to a correspondence with the original plan. Not a stone of the elevation was laid. I drew another elevation preserving the general ideas, but making such alterations as the difference in the dimensions of the ground plan rendered necessary. I improved the appearance and restored the dome. This obliged me to cause the foundations, laid by Mr. Hallet to form an open square in the centre, to be taken up on the south side of the north wing, where a segment of the dome, or grand vestibule, is now built; but a portion of what I meant to remove was directed by the board of commissioners to remain, in order to erect thereon a temporary building of brick, for the accommodation of Congress, till more committee rooms could be prepared, by a further progress of the building, On the opposite side the walls built by Mr. Hallet between the dome and representatives' chamber, still remain, which may in some measure account for the difference, mentioned by Mr. Latrobe, between the plan as laid and the drawing. Mr. Hallet was not in the public service when or since I was appointed a commissioner which was on the 12th September, 1794. Mr. Hadfield was appointed to superintend the work at the Capitol, October 15th, 1795. At the time of his appointment the freestone work of the basement story of the north wing was carried up too high to admit of any material alteration, and the materials were principally prepared for its completion. He waited on General Washington to urge the propriety of various alterations. The General (then President) discountenanced all alterations, being satisfied with the plan as then under execution. In consequence of this Mr. Hadfield declined the further superintendence of the capitol. He was afterwards re-appointed to superintend the execution of the plan without alterations, in which he engaged. Thus Mr. Latrobe must have been exceedingly misinformed, when he speaks of the various stiles of each architect shewing themselves in the work : one having been out of public employ, before the present elevation was drawn, and before a single freestone was laid, and the other having taken his discharge because he was not permitted to make any material alterations. They are both however men of genius, which I acknowledge with pleasure.

Mr. Latrobe's observation respecting the want of agreement of the plan and foundation is already answered; but, if I could be surprised at any observation made by Mr. Latrobe, after reading his report, it would be at his stating that the author furnished him with only a ground plan. It may be true that I did not give him drawings, but I informed him what was intended in completing the south wing.

He speaks of the impracticability of the plan of the south wing. It has been deemed practicable by very skilful, and practical architects; and I never heard it disputed by any other than himself. He told me he could not execute it as it was intended. To support a coved cieling, formed in the manner of the Hal au Hie at Paris, of the extent contemplated, on columns of wood, cannot, in the conception of any architect, be difficult; and I believe it will be generally admitted, that the grandeur of the room contemplated, would far exceed the appearance of the one intended by him, and at a much less expense. The stability of the work could not be an objection, when it is remembered how many hundred years Westminster hall has stood.