JEFFERSON AND LATROBE - GPO · earn Latrobe additional income. 5 Although the pres- ... A grand stair on the west ... could not be supported from within due to the. Jefferson and - [PDF Document] (2024)



Few people had such an enduring

influence on the Capitol’s early his-

tory as Thomas Jefferson. He nur-

tured the compromise that led to passage of the

Residence Act and counseled President Washing-

ton throughout the process of selecting a design

for the Capitol. He presided over the conference

that put one man’s floor plan into another man’s

exterior elevation. As president he approved the

congressional action abolishing the old board of

commissioners, freeing him to personally direct

future construction. Until his retirement in 1809,

Jefferson managed affairs at the Capitol with the

same care and attention he lavished on his beloved

Monticello, and later on the University of Virginia.

Working with the president was B. Henry Latrobe,

an architect of exceptional ability and experience.

Theirs would be an association without parallel in

the history of the Capitol.

The act of Congress abolishing the board of

commissioners transferred its duties to a superin-

tendent of the city of Washington. On June 2, 1802,

Jefferson appointed Thomas Munroe, the clerk of

the old board, to the new office. Munroe was

apparently a man of few words: his entire annual

report for 1802 ran just two sentences. He

recorded that there were about 830 private build-

ings in the city—100 more than the previous

year—and that the condition of the public build-

ings had not materially changed.1

Although Munroe did not report any problems

with the public buildings, the roofs of the Presi-

dent’s House and the Capitol needed repair. They

were said to be “so leaky as to threaten both

edifices with ruin.”2 On February 12, 1803, New

York Congressman Samuel Mitchill offered a reso-

lution in the House of Representatives calling for

an investigation into the state of the public build-

ings: he said they were near a state of “ruin and

dilapidation.” In addition to maintenance prob-

lems, the House was about to gain thirty-eight new

members as a result of the 1800 census and the

admission of Ohio into the Union. John Dawson of

Virginia wanted a provision added to provide more

space for the future accommodation of Congress.

A colleague from the Old Dominion, Richard Brent,

said that an architect had already estimated the

cost of finishing the south wing beyond what had

already been spent for the “oven.” The estimate,

he believed, was $40,000. Either George Hadfield

or James Hoban prepared the estimate but there is

no record of what it covered. The figure was too

low to finish the south wing and more likely indi-

cated the money needed for one season’s work.


Section of the South Wing (Detail)

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1804

Library of Congress

50 History of the United States Capitol

On March 3, 1803, President Jefferson

approved an appropriation of $50,000 for the

“repairs and alterations in the Capitol . . . for the

accommodation of Congress in their future ses-

sions.”3 It was understood that $5,000 to $10,000

was meant for repairs to the Capitol and President’s

House while $40,000 to $45,000 would be available

to begin construction of the south wing. Coming

twelve years after passage of the Residence Act,

this appropriation was the Capitol’s first.

Soon after he signed the appropriation bill, Jef-

ferson wrote B. Henry Latrobe, America’s foremost

architect/engineer, offering him the position of

“surveyor of the public buildings.” The job was not

a permanent government office, but a temporary

position necessary to carry out the intent of the

appropriation. The president informed Latrobe

that the appropriation was to be expended under

his direction, but that Munroe would keep the

accounts and provide administration. He wanted

work to begin in April, so if Latrobe accepted the

position, he should make a “flying trip” to start

ordering stone from Aquia.4

Along with his official letter, Jefferson enclosed

a private note saying that he expected another

appropriation for the south wing in 1804, which he

thought would be enough to finish it. (Why Jeffer-

son thought it would take only two years to build

the south wing is not easily understood.) While

Latrobe’s work on the south wing might therefore

seem short-term, other projects in Washington sug-

gested the “probability of a very steady employ-

ment for a person of your character here.” Jeffer-

son mentioned his dry dock proposal for the Navy

Yard as one example of potential projects that could

earn Latrobe additional income.5 Although the pres-

ident had known Latrobe since 1798 (both were

members of the American Philosophical Society),

their collaboration had begun over plans to build a

dry dock to house twelve frigates at the Washing-

ton Navy Yard. In 1802, Jefferson asked Latrobe for

help in designing the dry dock because the archi-

tect’s work on the Philadelphia waterworks had

Statue of Thomas Jefferson

by Pierre Jean David d’Angers, 1833

Received in 1834, the bronze portrait of Jefferson was the first statue placed in

the Capitol’s rotunda. It was a gift to the nation from Uriah P. Levy, a Jewish naval

officer who admired Jefferson’s stand on religious freedom. Levy and his family also

honored Jefferson by preserving Monticello, which they owned from 1834 to 1923.

Jefferson hoped the public buildings in the federal city would educate fellow citi-

zens about classical architecture, elevating their taste at home and their reputation

abroad. As secretary of state, as president, and in retirement Jefferson nurtured these

high-minded aspirations in a variety of ways. He thought that by examining the Capitol,

for instance, Americans could acquaint themselves with correct examples of Roman and

Greek architecture, and apply the lessons at home. Thus, the Capitol would help spread

classical architecture across America. During his retirement, Jefferson approached the

design of the University of Virginia with the same regard for its potential for architec-

tural education. (1971 photograph.)

Jefferson and Latrobe 51

given him experience in hydraulics. Jefferson

thought the dry dock would save the expense of

maintaining a large fleet by having ready fewer but

better maintained ships. A huge structure 175 feet

wide and 800 feet long would be built with a roof

modeled on that of the Paris grain market, the

Halle au Bled. Ships raised and lowered in the dry

dock would use technologies similar to those

employed by Latrobe at the waterworks.6

Congress never funded the dry dock, but Jef-

ferson was doubtless struck by Latrobe’s beautiful

drawings for it and the project afforded him ample

opportunity to observe architectural talents that

were complemented by a keen and sympathetic

mind. Writing from Philadelphia, Latrobe replied to

the president’s offer, saying that the recent failure

of his business partners made it impossible for him

to give an answer immediately. He would, however,

come to Washington soon and give his reply in per-

son. He left little doubt what the answer would be

when he concluded: “My sincere wish is to be

employed near you, and under your direction.” 7

Jefferson’s decision to hire Latrobe to build

the south wing was the beginning of one of the

most fascinating collaborations in the history of

American architecture. It was, however, a blow to

George Hadfield, who wanted to be restored to his

former position at the Capitol. Hadfield’s hopes

were raised after Jefferson’s election brought to

the presidency a man who had over a decade pre-

viously enjoyed an intimate friendship with his sis-

ter, Maria Cosway. Within weeks of his inaugural,

Jefferson received a letter from Hadfield pleading

“the case of an artist.” Hadfield recounted his suf-

fering at the hands of the old board of commis-

sioners, and his mortification at seeing his

buildings credited to the board when its members

were responsible for his ruin. He wanted the presi-

dent to know that he would endeavor to make him-

self useful, and “obtain a substance in a country

which I have chosen to spend the remainder of my

life in.”8 Commissions for a barracks, an arsenal,

and a jail were awarded to Hadfield during Jeffer-

son’s term, but the prized commission for the Capi-

tol’s south wing was given to Latrobe.

Portrait of B. Henry Latrobe

by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1804

The White House Collection

Born near Leeds, England, Latrobe (1764–1820) studied

engineering under John Smeaton and architecture under Samuel

Pepys co*ckerell. During Latrobe’s early career he designed a few

large houses and was offered other work, but future prospects in

Great Britain were hampered by an economy stagnated by the

Napoleonic Wars. After the death of his first wife, Latrobe set

sail for America in 1795. A few years in Virginia were followed by

a move to Philadelphia, where he designed the Bank of Pennsyl-

vania, the country’s first neoclassical building displaying a Gre-

cian order and one of his best works. He later provided the city

with its first municipal water system.

At the invitation of President Jefferson, Latrobe became the

fourth architect to test his skill at the Capitol and was the first

to develop a comprehensive vision of the building’s architectural

potential. Though he disliked the exterior, he found plenty of

opportunities to improve on it. He devised a new interior plan

that was spectacularly inventive, overcoming numerous obstacles

imposed by the existing work. During restoration work following

the War of 1812, he created a series of neoclassical interiors that

are among the finest in the history of American architecture. His

designs for the House of Representatives (now Statuary Hall),

the Senate, and the Supreme Court brought the antiquities of

Athens to the Capitol and helped associate the young republic

with that ancient cradle of democracy.

Three years after leaving the Capitol, Latrobe died of yellow

fever in New Orleans and was buried there in an unmarked grave.

52 History of the United States Capitol


On April 4, 1803, Latrobe made his first

report on the conditions at the Capitol

and the problems with the arrangement

of the south wing. Like Hadfield’s seven years

before, Latrobe’s first observation concerned the

relationship of the building’s plan to the exterior

elevation, which produced a “radical and incurable

fault.” The problem was the location of the House

and Senate chambers in the basem*nt. A grand

stair on the west would lead to the principal floor

but would force legislators to immediately descend

an interior stair to reach the main rooms. The por-

tico on the east front seemed to require a grand

flight of steps, but that too would lead only to a

narrow passage to the galleries overlooking the

two chambers. A “poverty of design” plagued the

Senate, the House, and the rotunda, because each

was formed on the same idea: a one-story arcade

carrying a colonnade. One was semi-elliptical (the

Senate), one was fully elliptical (the House), and

one was circular (the grand vestibule or rotunda),

but their different shapes could not compensate

for the monotonous repetition of arches and

columns. These problems worried Latrobe, but he

had no solutions to offer quite yet.

Turning to the south wing’s plan and accommo-

dations, Latrobe said they were inadequate, expen-

sive, inconvenient, unsafe, and unattractive. There

was nothing about the interior arrangement that

warranted approval. The plan did not provide any

committee rooms, nor were there offices for the

Speaker, the clerk, the engrossing clerks, or the

doorkeeper. There were no fireproof storage rooms

for records or “closets of convenience” (a common

euphemism for privies). The plan did not provide

adequate lobbies or galleries. All of these facilities

would be necessary for the smooth operation of

business in the House of Representatives. External

walls of the south wing were sixty-five feet high and

could not be supported from within due to the

absence of interior partitions. The dome over the

chamber would exert dangerous pressure on these

high, thin walls, and Latrobe said that he did not

have the courage to build it. He admitted that the

chamber’s thirty-two columns would be visually

striking, but he questioned the effect of arranging

the colonnade on an elliptical plan. After working on

a schematic design for an elliptical ceiling he found

it impossible to devise suitable decorations. He esti-mated the cost of the columns and the entablature,all made of sandstone, at $62,000. The entablaturewould be disproportionately expensive because halfof all the stones had to be cut on different radii. Ifthe entablature were circular, by comparison, allstones would be cut on the same radius. So muchmoney would be spent on the columns and the ellip-tical entablature that the rest of the wing wouldhave to be built with inferior materials and wouldnot be as permanent or magnificent.

Occupying fifty-six handwritten pages,Latrobe’s first report was a devastating evaluationof the Capitol’s plan, particularly as it concernedthe south wing and the elliptical colonnade. (It isclear that the architect was unaware of Jefferson’ssignificant role in the design of the House chamberdeveloped during the conference of July 1793.)Latrobe proposed an alteration to the plan thatwould save money and better provide for the busi-ness and comfort of the House. To illustrate thealternative scheme, Latrobe presented a groundplan (now lost) of the new arrangement. Thedesign was in the form of a half-domed semicirclewithout columns. Windows in the south wall and alarge lantern in the center of the ceiling would pro-vide the room with light and air. Three hundredsixty members could be accommodated, a numbersomewhat larger than provided in the ellipticalplan. The configuration of the room was “that ofthe ancient theater (exedra), a form which theexperience of ancient and modern times has estab-lished as the best for the purpose of speaking, see-ing, and hearing.” A lobby eighty feet long behindthe Speaker’s chair could also be used as a retiringroom for members. Access to the galleries was pro-vided by separate lobbies and stairs that kept thepublic from interfering with members. Committeerooms, offices, storage space, and privies were pro-vided around the perimeter of the hall or in the“recess,” Latrobe’s term for the hyphen connectingthe wing to the center building.

Latrobe’s report concluded with an evaluationof the structural problems plaguing the north wing.He discovered that no provisions had been made toventilate the foundations and warned that unlessopenings were made the wooden timbers, flooring,and joists would be consumed with dry rot. Theroof and its shingle covering were sound, but leakscould be traced to bad gutters. He condemned the

Jefferson and Latrobe 53

quality of the lead lining the gutters and foundtheir defects difficult to pinpoint due to the tar andsand coating. Some gutters discharged into arooftop cistern that was not provided with a drain.Latrobe could find no purpose for the cistern andrecommended its removal. He also suggested plac-ing new down spouts discretely on the outsidewalls to replace those built into the walls. The fourskylights leaked badly and should be protected bylanterns with vertical sashes and closed tops. InLatrobe’s opinion, the skylights were a disgrace tothe men who built them. He generally disliked sky-lights, calling them “great evils,” because “in sum-mer they heat the house, and in winter theybecome darkened and often broken by the snow.”9

While Jefferson studied the report, Latrobeappointed John Lenthall clerk of the works. Thisappointment, dated April 7, 1803, was necessarybecause Latrobe anticipated long absences fromthe city overseeing work on the Chesapeake andDelaware Canal. He needed a trustworthy deputyto take charge of the day-to-day operations at theCapitol, and in Lenthall he found a perfect partner.With approvals from both Jefferson and Munroe,Latrobe empowered his clerk of the works withcontrol over all workmen, to hire and fire themwithout appeal. Contractors’ performance wouldbe evaluated by Lenthall, who would bring anyproblems to the attention of the superintendent.There were already contracts for freestone fromAquia, local building stone, and scaffold poles. Amason named Timothy Caldwell had been hired totear out the foundations left over from the 1790s.Contracts for sand, lime, lumber, and hauling werestill needed. Lenthall was to supervise the foremenof laborers and masons and to serve as the headcarpenter. Work paid by measurement was meas-ured by Lenthall. Accounts paid by Munroe wereauthorized by his signature. In short, Lenthall wasinvested with all powers necessary to make himabsolute master of the works.

Construction of the south wing began with thedemolition of the old foundations. Latrobe discov-ered that stones had been loosely thrown in thefoundation trench without mortar and withoutbeing made to bear upon each other. He deter-mined that they would have to be removed downto the “first offset,” which he was told was wellbuilt.10 The existing footings were five feet eightinches thick and would be increased four more feet

to measure a total of nine feet eight inches. Whilethe final plan had not been settled, Latrobe’s pen-chant for vaulted construction required massivefoundations to bear the loads that would beimposed on them.

Just two weeks after his appointment, Lenthallwas summoned by Jefferson to discuss the pace atwhich demolition was proceeding. The presidentthought that the work did not have sufficient“spirit,” but he was assured that all the oldstonework would be removed in two days and thenew foundations would begin soon. Twenty-threeweeks remained in the building season and Jeffer-son suggested dividing the stonework into twenty-three portions to ensure that it did not fall behindschedule.11 The outside walls would rise, fencingin the “oven,” while the president consideredwhether to retain the original plan or to approveLatrobe’s revisions.

Writing from Philadelphia, Latrobe instructedLenthall on May 5, 1803, to “pull up or knock down”the stonework in order to build “my plan.” The badstonework in Thornton’s plan was “new proof ofthe stupid genius of its Author.” 12 This characteri-zation of Thornton was the first of many times thearchitect denounced the doctor, whom he consid-ered nothing more than a charlatan. Latrobe tendedto blame Thornton for all the faulty constructionhe encountered at the Capitol in addition to thecountless faults he found in its design. For his part,Thornton tended to take credit for all aspects ofthe Capitol design, even Hallet’s plans for the wings.Both strong-willed and self-assured, Latrobe andThornton embarked upon a collision course thateventually landed them in court and would ulti-mately reflect little credit upon either man.

A discrepancy that Lenthall noted in the eleva-tions of the north wing added to Latrobe’s alreadylow opinion of Dr. Thornton. The west elevationwas sixteen inches shorter in length than the east.For the sake of appearance and consistency,Lenthall wanted to know if it was best to repeatthe mistake in the south wing. Latrobe determinedthat unless his east and west walls matched pre-cisely, the internal vaulting would be thrown off. Itwould be better to suffer a small evil on the out-side in order to have the advantage of working sym-metrically on the interior. And since the centralconference room (a feature not yet discarded)would project beyond the western walls of the two

54 History of the United States Capitol

wings, the fact that they did not exactly match

would hardly be noticeable.13

Just when Jefferson and Latrobe decided to do

away with the conference room is not precisely

known. Both surely recognized the architectural

problems that room created, chiefly how to cover it

with a roof that did not conflict with the dome over

the rotunda. Design issues aside, the president had

no use for the conference room because of his

republican views and his aversion to speaking pub-

licly. Unlike his two predecessors, Jefferson chose

not to deliver his annual message before joint ses-

sions of Congress. Instead, his secretary carried

the message to the Capitol where a clerk read it to

representatives and senators. This saved Jefferson

the necessity of making a speech and avoided the

annoying spectacle of legislators coming to the

President’s House en masse to make their reply.

Endless speeches, courtly bows, tedious protocol,

and pointless ceremony were all things the third

president found objectionable in the previous Fed-

eralist administrations, and he intended to eschew

them as far as possible in his. The trappings of

monarchy had no place in a democracy, where all

citizens were supposed to be equal. As his biogra-

pher Dumas Malone pointed out, Jefferson may

have promoted classical public buildings as “civic

temples,” but he wanted no part in “glorification of

rulers.” 14 Because the conference room in the Capi-

tol was intended as a stage for presidential pomp

and pageantry, it would crumble to dust before Jef-

ferson would appear there. His notions of republi-

can decorum were better served by simply staying

home. (Jefferson’s policy continued until 1913,

when Woodrow Wilson went to the Capitol to

deliver his annual message in person.)

In the fall of 1803, the wife of Congressman

Samuel L. Mitchill heard that the Senate adjourned

for three days so its members could attend the

horse races that were such a popular pastime in

early Washington. Without an apology her husband

replied: “The Senate actually did adjourn for three

days, not on account of the races . . . but merely to

admit a mason to plaster the ceiling of their cham-

ber, which had fallen down a few days before.”

Mitchill then confessed that he and a number of

ladies and clergymen were at an “exhibition of the

speed of horses,” but claimed the recreation was

needed because members had worked so diligently

on the “Louisiana business.” 15 Latrobe asked

Lenthall about the ceiling’s tumble and wanted to

know the cause of the accident.16 Luckily, the room

was empty at the time the ceiling fell and no

injuries were reported. It was, however, yet

another indication of the shoddy workmanship

plaguing the north wing.


Latrobe reviewed his first year’s accom-plishments in a report to Congress onFebruary 20, 1804. He had been in

Philadelphia or Delaware during much of the previous summer and fall but did not believe hisabsence from Washington affected the workthere. The building season had not produced dra-matic results and he blamed the slow progress onwet weather, which flooded the freestone quarry,and the lack of workmen, who were not easilyreassembled for the resumption of the Capitol’sconstruction. Work ceased when Congress con-vened in mid-October, cutting short the buildingseason by six weeks. The perimeter walls of thesouth wing reached only half the height of the

The Capitol As ItAppeared in 1803


Reconstruction, 1989

During Jefferson’s

first term, the Capitol was

a peculiar patchwork of

unfinished pieces. The

north wing was joined to

an elliptical hall (nick-

named the “oven”) by a

low wooden gangway. The

little brick structure was

a temporary accommoda-

tion for the House of

Representatives that was

so hastily and badly built

that Latrobe propped

its walls with strong

wooden braces.

Jefferson and Latrobe 55

ground floor, yet were high enough to block someof the light to the “oven.” Lenthall added a rooflantern to help compensate for the loss. He alsorelaid the floor to accommodate the 142 membersof the Eighth Congress. Stout braces were installedto shore up the walls, which threatened to col-lapse under the weight of the roof. In all, $555 wasspent to repair the temporary House chamber. Forthe Senate, a stove was added under the floor tohelp heat the room, the cellars were plastered tocontrol dampness, and vents were cut through thefoundations to expel trapped moisture that threat-ened to destroy the wooden joists and flooring.The roof and skylights were also repaired.17

Soon after the House of Representatives

received Latrobe’s first annual report, it responded

with questions about plans for its future accommo-

dation in the south wing. A committee asked Latrobe

to describe the original plan of the Capitol,

specifically the part that was intended for the House,

and to give his opinion regarding opportunities for

improvement. Latrobe replied with a description of

the original plan for the south wing as a three-story

room, about 108 by 84 feet with an elliptical arcade

supporting columns that in turn helped support the

A Section of the House of Commons Dublin

by Rowland Omer,

Engraving by Peter Mazell, 1767

The first building designed specifically to

accommodate a bicameral legislature was the Parliament

House in Dublin (1728–1739) by Sir Edward Lovet

Pearce. The House of Commons consisted of a one-story

arcade supporting two-story columns supporting, in

turn, an entablature and a domed ceiling. This

arrangement was cited as the prototype for the House

chamber depicted in the “conference plan” of 1793.

Jefferson envisioned the ceiling with tapering skylights

like the ones he admired at the Paris grain market.

Ecole de Chirurgie[School of Surgery]

Engraving by Claude-

Rene-Gabriel Poulleau

In Jacques Gondoin’s

Description des

ecoles de chirurgie:

Paris, 1780

Boston Athenaeum

In Latrobe’s opinion,

the best form for a leg-

islative chamber was

semicircular in plan cov-

ered by a half-domed ceil-

ing. One of the precedents

cited was the surgical

theater in Paris, consid-

ered an excellent room

for speaking, hearing,

and seeing. It was also an

appealing classical form

that recalled the architec-

ture of ancient Rome

and Greece.

56 History of the United States Capitol

roof. To visualize the design, he told his readers to

imagine the Senate chamber doubled and formed

into a complete ellipse. The description was fol-

lowed by a list of eleven objections, including the

absence of committee rooms or offices, and the need

for such things as privies and fireproof repositories

for records. All of these objections had been

expressed to the president, but now Congress

learned of them as well. Major improvements to the

plan, which the president was then considering,

involved raising the hall of the House to the second,

or principal, floor and devoting the first floor entirely

to offices and committee rooms. The change would

not alter the exterior appearance of the wing.18 The

idea of moving the hall of the House to the second

floor occurred to Latrobe after the president

rejected his semicircular plan as too great a depar-

ture from the original elliptical configuration.

President Jefferson had the authority to

approve the changes that Latrobe proposed, but he

did not want to exercise that authority without Dr.

Thornton’s concurrence. To smooth the way,

Latrobe arranged a meeting with Thornton to

explain his proposals. It was not a pleasant

encounter. Using a defense first employed against

Hallet, Thornton dismissed Latrobe’s objections

to the plan by saying that any and all difficulties

could be overcome unless those in charge “were

too ignorant to remove them.” He abruptly refused

to discuss the subject further except to say that he

considered Latrobe unfit to execute the plan. His

manner, tone of voice, and expressions were highly

offensive to Latrobe, who had not expected to be

treated so rudely. Latrobe left with a determination

to resign but thought better of it by the time he

wrote Jefferson an account of the meeting.19 The

president regretted that it had been a failure. He

was still ambivalent about the proposed changes to

the plan and observed (from firsthand experience)

that “Nothing impedes progress so much as perpet-

ual changes of design.” He also thought the cham-

ber devised in the “conference plan” would be

“more handsome and commodious than any thing

which can now be proposed for the same area.” The

Halle au Bled dome would doubtless make it the

finest room in America. And while its structural

problem presented “difficulties to the Executor,”

the president said that “it is to overcome difficulties

that we employ men of genius.” 20

Jefferson’s letter was meant to coax the archi-

tect into giving up his quest for changing the plan

of the south wing. Latrobe’s mind, however, was

made up. His job now was to demonstrate how a

domed chamber could be accommodated in a two-

story space built atop a floor devoted to offices and

committee rooms. On February 28, 1804, Latrobe

promised Jefferson that he would soon send draw-

ings of the south wing and pleaded for the office

story: “If the house be raised to the level of the top

of the basem*nt story, I will withdraw all further

opposition to the colonnade and its elliptical

form.” 21 He began working on the drawings soon

after returning to Delaware. Latrobe bemoaned his

latest challenge in a letter to Lenthall:

I am laboring at the plan, retaining the ellipticalcolonnade. My conscience urges me exceed-ingly to throw the trumpery, along with myappointment into the fire. When once erected,the absurdity can never be recalled and a pub-lic explanation can only amount to this, thatone president was block headed enough toadopt a plan, which another was fool enoughto retain, when he might have altered it. Theonly discovery which I have made in elaborat-

ing the thing . . . is that the Doctor was bornunder a musical planet, for all his rooms fallnaturally into the shape of fiddles, tambourines,and Mandolins, one or two into that of a Harp.22

It is evident Latrobe was unaware that Dr. Thorn-

ton did not draw the plan of the wings that included

so many rooms shaped like musical instruments.

Most of the credit (or blame) for that belonged to

Stephen Hallet. Latrobe also thought the domed

rotunda was George Hadfield’s idea, when in fact it

was the one part of the plan that Thornton could

rightly claim as his own.23 Such was the confused

state of attribution, even at that early date.

On March 16, 1804, the House of Representa-

tives passed an appropriation of $50,000 to con-

tinue work on the south wing. The appropriation

was sent to the Senate, where dissatisfied members

sought to kill or amend it. Robert Wright of Mary-

land proposed removing the capital to Baltimore as

a means to scare local citizens into making more

comfortable accommodations available to legisla-

tors. After a day of debate, Wright’s bill was

defeated. Soon, another proposal was offered by

Joseph Anderson of Tennessee. He wanted the

President’s House transformed into the Capitol and

a house rented for the president. The Senate

Jefferson and Latrobe 57

agreed, but the House refused and the appropria-

tion languished in congressional deadlock.24

When Latrobe learned of the proposal, he

blamed the “Blockheads” in the Senate.25 On the

last day of the session, Anderson reported that the

conference could not agree on his recommenda-

tion and advised deferring it until the next session.

Faced with causing work to stop, the Senate dis-

agreed with Anderson’s report and dropped its

objections to the appropriation. It was approved

on March 27, 1804. Construction would continue

on the Capitol and Jefferson could stay in the Pres-

ident’s House.26

Two days after the appropriation was signed,

Latrobe sent Jefferson a roll of drawings for the

south wing illustrating his latest idea for the House

chamber. The most important drawing showed the

elliptical colonnade converted into “two semicircles

abutting upon a parallelogram.” The slight alter-

ation offered several distinct advantages: it would

be less expensive; it could better accommodate

chimney flues rising from below; and it could give

the location of the Speaker’s chair a “decision of

character.” Yet, the curving colonnades preserved

“the principal, and the great feature of the origi-

nal design.” In the first story, Latrobe provided six

committee rooms and a large room for clerks. The

spaces deep within the wing, without access to

natural light and ventilation, were devoted to

fireproof record storage vaults, privies, and fur-

nace rooms. The principal way to the chamber

would be through a series of domed vestibules,

vaulted lobbies, and a staircase closely confined by

thick masonry walls. Proceeding along this path,

encountering a variety of spacial experiences,

lighting conditions, and “scenery,” would be one of

the special architectural treats offered by Latrobe’s

new plan.

Along with the plans, Latrobe sent two sec-

tions of the wing, both of which showed the House

Plan of the Second, or Principal Storyof the South Wing

by B. Henry Latrobe


Library of Congress

In place of an ellipti-

cal chamber, Latrobe

designed two semicircular

colonnades connected by

a “parallelogram.” In the

area between the wing

and the rotunda he

planned a committee

room, a parlor, a court-

yard, and a circular

vestibule ornamented

with stone columns.

58 History of the United States Capitol

chamber in its newly proposed configuration. One

drawing illustrated the ceiling held by columns

based on the ancient Tower of the Winds in Athens.

He suggested that the capitals be made of cast iron

with the lower range of leaves attached to the bell

by rivets or screws. (Such an idea was prophetic,

but metal column capitals would not appear at the

Capitol until 1828.) A second section showed the

chamber in the Doric order, which the president

apparently preferred, accompanied by a long

explanation regarding the difficulties with its

entablature. It was impossible to regulate the

metopes and triglyphs without violating the rules

governing their disposition. The Tower of the

Winds order was easier to work with, and would

produce a richer effect in any case. Latrobe placed

the drawings into the president’s hands asking him

to acknowledge his hard work even if he did not

approve the results.27 Working in his temporary

quarters in New Castle, Delaware, Latrobe took

just three weeks to conceive the new design for

the House chamber, arrange an office story, and

consider which order to use. Communicating these

ideas through beautifully rendered drawings made

Latrobe’s efforts all the more remarkable.

Jefferson received the drawings at Monticello

on April 6, 1804, and wrote Latrobe three days

later with his general approval. Moving the cham-

ber to the second floor was finally accepted, but he

wanted more time to think about the shape of its

colonnade. The plans for the recess were also

approved, but its construction was postponed

Plan of the Ground Story ofthe South Wing of the Capitol

by B. Henry Latrobe


Library of Congress

Latrobe’s plan pro-

vided six committee

rooms, a large office for

the clerk, indoor privies,

and other useful facilities

not found in earlier plans.

Committee rooms were

placed along the east

(bottom) and west (top)

walls with windows that

provided light and air. The

middle parts were occu-

pied by furnace rooms,

record vaults, and pas-

sageways. Structural con-

siderations imposed by

the chamber above

resulted in an unusually

complex arrangement.

Despite British

incendiaries and minor

remodeling, most of the

office story survives

today, containing some of

the Capitol’s oldest inte-

rior features.

Jefferson and Latrobe 59

Section of the South Wing, Looking South

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1804

Library of Congress

Shown in the center of the drawing is a seated figure of Liberty later modeled by

Giuseppe Franzoni. The statue presided over the Speaker’s rostrum (not shown) and,

along with the drapery and carved eagle, helped give the chamber a strong focal point.

Sketch of a Sectionof the South Wingof the Capitol ofthe United Statesat Washington, ofthe Doric Order,Roman style

by B. Henry Latrobe


Library of Congress

To demonstrate that

the Doric order would

not work for the House

chamber, Latrobe drew

this section showing the

distribution of metopes

and triglyphs belonging

to the entablature. He

could not make the

metopes square, as dic-

tated by the rules of clas-

sical architecture, and

felt therefore that the

Doric order was unwork-

able. President Jefferson,

also a stickler for archi-

tectural rules, subse-

quently abandoned Doric

in favor of Corinthian.

60 History of the United States Capitol

because the appropriation covered the south wingonly. On the matter of what order to use in thechamber, Jefferson acknowledged the problem withthe Doric entablature and concluded that “we mustmake this [room] Corinthian, and do the best wecan for the capitals and modillions.” The drawingswere returned to Latrobe with the president’s appealto push mightily and finish the outside by summer.28


Soon after Jefferson approved therevised plan of the south wing, the“oven” was demolished. Pulling down

the unsightly and unsound building was a victoryfor Latrobe and his aspirations for a House cham-ber that would be a credit to himself, the presi-dent, and the country. Dr. Thornton, however, sawmatters quite differently. The Capitol’s originaldesign had been sanctified by George Washington’sblessing and was being altered for no reason.Thornton did not appreciate the improvementsmade to the interior architecture or the practicalaccommodations provided in the revised plan. Norcould he remain silent when criticism was heapedupon the Capitol’s plan, which was one of Latrobe’sspecial talents. Latrobe’s report to Congress con-taining the scathing (and entirely justified) cri-tique of the original plan was too much forThornton to take. On April 23 he responded bydeclaring Latrobe’s report insulting, uncivil,ungentlemanly, and false.29

On April 28, Latrobe poured out his scorn andanger in a letter to Thornton. He reminded the doctor of his rude, insulting behavior when they discussed alterations to the plan of the south wing, a pattern of conduct that was repeated wheneverthey met. Despite “the confusion of your conversa-tion, and the rubbish of your language” Latrobe tried to keep Thornton informed about histhoughts regarding the Capitol but was continuallyrebuffed. “Those who despise you most in Wash-ington,” Latrobe wrote, “can bear witness to myperseverance in this resolution.” In one of itscalmer passages, he said:

Open hostility is safer, than insidious friend-ship. I cannot therefore regret the declaration

of War contained in your letter . . . I now standon the Ground from which you drove Hallet,and Hadfield to ruin. You may prove victoriousagainst me also; but the contest will not bewithout spectators.30

Each man continued to pelt the other with

insults for nine years until a court of law put the

matter to rest. Confident in his professional skills

and prerogatives, Latrobe was matched against a

master of slander whose attacks occasionally took

the form of sarcastic little poems that were circu-

lated around Washington. One such rhyme

involved the grave of a woman of ill repute named

Moll Turner, whom Thornton imagined had been

led to ruin by Latrobe:

The monument of poor Moll Turner!Whose clay so soak’d that Hell can’t burn her.How died poor Moll?—Moll died of spleen,Because she found Latrobe too keen:In other words, he broke Moll’s heart,He so out play’d the blackguard part!What! Out-matched Moll?—yes, rough or civil,He can out-jaw—out-lie the Devil.Hell dries the clay of poor Moll Turner,And waits Latrobe as fuel to burn her!31

As if Thornton were not making life miserable

enough, Latrobe’s relationship with the president

faltered during this period. The architect convinced

Jefferson that the “oven” had to be removed before

work resumed on the south wing in the spring of

1804. Jefferson was hesitant to approve demoli-

tion, thinking the House of Representatives could

meet in the little building for one more session.

But the arguments in favor of its removal were

strong and the president relented. The House

would be returned to the library in the north wing

for its next session. Jefferson spent the summer

away from Washington and upon his return in the

last week of September he found no progress at

all on the interior walls, which were supposed to

have been built simultaneously with the outside

walls. That was the premise upon which he had

permitted the “oven” to be demolished. According

to Lenthall, who took the brunt of the president’s

displeasure in Latrobe’s absence, the problem was

sickness among the workmen. Jefferson dismissed

the excuse, saying that replacements should have

been employed.

The real problem was the result of a misun-

derstanding of the president’s wishes. Lenthall

thought Jefferson wanted work concentrated on

Jefferson and Latrobe 61

the outside walls, which were then up to the attic

window sills. With little time remaining in the

building season, Jefferson ordered all efforts redi-

rected at the cellar walls so there would be some-

thing new to show where the old building had once

stood. Overall, more effort would be needed to

finish the south wing, which was falling behind

schedule: “Nothing but the greatest exertion can

render possible the completion of the work the

next year, and the cramming of the Representa-

tives into the library a second and long session,”

Jefferson wrote.32

Jefferson ordered Latrobe to return to Wash-

ington as soon as possible. He arrived on October

11 and immediately wrote the president an apolo-

getic letter to explain his long absence. His wife’s

mother had died suddenly. Commitments had

detained him in New Castle. When traveling with

his son to Baltimore, where the lad was enrolled in

a “French Academy,” sickness detained them en

route. Such were the circ*mstances surrounding

Latrobe’s summer away from the Capitol. Having

sent letters and drawings to Lenthall, he did not

believe that he had neglected his duty, but he sus-

pected that his absence had cost him the presi-

dent’s confidence.33 Despite the apologies and

explanations, Latrobe’s part-time approach to his

Washington work was beginning to cause problems.

The second session of the Eighth Congress con-

vened on November 5, 1804. A week later Jefferson

instructed Latrobe to write a report on the progress

made at the Capitol, giving an estimate of the prob-

able cost of finishing the south wing. He detected

opposition in Congress to further appropriations

due to the slow pace of construction. After the

report was submitted, Latrobe was expected to

brief key members to give them the information

necessary to secure the appropriation.34 Writing

from Wilmington, where he was attending a meet-

ing of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal Com-

pany, Latrobe promised to have the report ready

upon his return to Washington.35

Latrobe’s report was finished on December 1

and, after some judicious editing by Jefferson, trans-

mitted to Congress five days later. After discussing

the repairs made to the roof of the President’s

House, Latrobe turned to the Capitol, beginning

that section with a long explanation of the reasons

why more progress had not been made during the

past building season. “The first and principal of

these,” he wrote, “have been the time, labor, and

expense of pulling down to the very foundation all

that had been formerly erected.” Sickness and rain

were retarding factors as well. While he acknowl-

edged it would have been best to carry up the inside

walls along with the outside ones, he explained that

building the outside walls kept the stone cutters

from being idle. (This excuse may have been valid,

but was not what the president wanted.) He

reported that the southern half of the cellar was

finished, and while it might not appear significant,

the work there had been considerable.36

Latrobe’s report did not contain an estimate

for completing the south wing, but it asked for an

appropriation exceeding the usual annual stipend

of $50,000. In a letter to the chairman of the com-

mittee to which the report was referred, Congress-

man Philip R. Thompson of Virginia, Latrobe stated

that $109,100 would be needed to finish the wing

and $25,200 to build the recess. He reasoned that

Seating Plan of the House of Representatives in the Library of Congress, 1804

Library of Congress

Following demolition of the “oven” in the spring of

1804, the House of Representatives was again obliged to

hold its sessions in the north wing. This plan (with west

at the top) shows the Library of Congress arranged to

accommodate 142 members of the House.

62 History of the United States Capitol

one appropriation of $100,000 would guarantee

that the House would occupy its new chamber in

December 1805.37 Latrobe would soon regret mak-

ing a promise that he could not keep, but it helped

secure the appropriation because no representa-

tive wanted to be crammed into the library any

longer than necessary. On January 25, 1805, Jeffer-

son approved $110,000 for the south wing and

another $20,000 to repair the north wing and other

public buildings.38


Encouraged by the generous appropriation,

Jefferson and Latrobe now acted upon the

idea of using allegorical as well as archi-

tectural sculpture in the House chamber. Skilled

modelers and carvers were needed to carry out the

scheme. It would be necessary to look to Europe

for artists who might be enticed to Washington by

the promise of steady and reasonably well paid

employment. Two days after Jefferson’s second

inaugural, Latrobe wrote Philip Mazzei asking for

“assistance in procuring for us the aid of a good

Sculptor in the erection of public buildings in this

city, especially the Capitol.” Mazzei was an old Ital-

ian friend of the president who had come to Vir-

ginia in 1773 and settled near Monticello. Mazzei

was interested in growing Italian olives and grapes

in America, and became friends with his famous

neighbor. He returned home in 1785 but saw Jef-

ferson occasionally in Paris. Now, twenty years

later, Mazzei was the person Jefferson thought best

able to recruit sculptors for the Capitol.

Latrobe described the kind of work that would

be expected from the persons engaged in the

sculptural program. First, he needed someone to

carve twenty-four Corinthian capitals, two feet,

four inches in diameter and an “enriched” entabla-

ture 147 feet long. Next was a colossal eagle for

the frieze with wings extending twelve feet, six

inches. Wages offered the best carvers ranged

from $2.50 to $3.00 a day, while assistants could

expect $1.50 to $2.00. Although only skilled sculp-

tors would do, he also wanted men who would feel

comfortable in Washington:

There are however other qualities which seemsso essential, as to be almost as necessary as

talents, I mean, good temper and good morals.Without them an artist would find himself mostunpleasantly situated in a country the languageand customs of which are so different from hisown, and we could have no dependance on aperson discontented with his situation. Forthough every exertion would be made on mypart to make his engagement perfectly agree-able to him the irritability of good artists iswell known and is often not easily quieted.39

The American consul in Leghorn would arrange

passage for the sculptors, who should be prepared

to sign a two-year contract. Single men were pre-

ferred, but if married men were selected they were

welcome to bring their families to America. Upon

conclusion of the work return passage would be

provided by the American government.

Before closing his letter Latrobe asked Mazzei

if he could find out how much Antonio Canova

would charge for a seated figure of Liberty nine

feet high. If the marble were too heavy for a

transatlantic voyage, perhaps Canova would model

a plaster statue that could be more easily shipped.

It could later be carved in American marble. If

Canova refused the commission because of his age,

could he recommend another first-rate sculptor?

Jefferson had not always approved the notion

of stone columns with stone capitals for the House

chamber. Just a year earlier he asked Latrobe if it

would be possible to make the interior columns of

brick with a coating of plaster. He cited Palladio as

one authority who approved of this practice and

indicated that there were such columns in Virginia

twenty feet tall that were executed by a “common

bricklayer.” 40 Such shortcuts were anathema to

Latrobe, who strove to build with only the finest,

most long-lasting materials available to him. While

he won the fight for stone columns, his preference

for capitals modeled after those at the Tower of

the Winds was overruled. Jefferson preferred the

Roman order of the Temple of Jupiter Stator

(known today as the Temple of Castor), which

came highly recommended by Palladio. Its sculp-

tural complexity helped create the need to import

skilled carvers.41 A final decision on which order to

use had not yet been made, and Latrobe still hoped

that he could introduce a Grecian order in the

House chamber.

Jefferson and Latrobe 63


While Jefferson was satisfied with

construction progress, he was dis-

appointed to learn of Latrobe’s

concerns regarding the Halle au Bled dome over

the chamber. Of all the things Latrobe could object

to, the ceiling based on the Parisian grain market

was the most dear to the president. It had made an

indelible impression upon his mind while he was

living in France, and from his earliest involvement

in the Capitol he had hoped to recreate it over the

House chamber. The long, tapering ribbons of glass

set between the ribs of the dome would dazzle the

room with light, surprising the visitor with unex-

pected brilliance. Latrobe wrote the president on

August 31, 1805, with a list of reasons to abandon

the scheme and drawings to illustrate his points. He

showed how light would enter the hall during dif-

ferent times of the day and at different times of the

year. Sunlight would be annoying during the winter

and troublesome in summer. But the real problem

was the difficulty of preventing leaks. Each of the

twenty skylights was five feet wide, fifteen feet long,

and made up of forty panes of glass. With a total of

800 panes and 2,400 joints, the skylights were guar-

anteed to leak. It would take just one leak dropping

water on the head of a congressman to disrupt the

whole House. Frost would make leaks unavoidable,

while “careless servants” clearing snow off the roof

would surely break the skylights. A hail storm would

break the glass in a minute. Even if the skylights

did not leak, condensation would drip from the

cold glass. Other difficulties were mentioned, such

as the price and quality of glass or the use of blinds

to control sunlight, but keeping water off members’

heads was Latrobe’s primary concern.42

Jefferson was distressed to learn that Latrobe

thought it impossible to build a watertight dome

over the House chamber with the skylights that he

so admired. Yet, despite a deep sense of regret, he

was prepared to yield the point. He reiterated his

contention that the Halle au Bled dome would have

made the chamber the handsomest room in the

world.43 But, uncharacteristically, Jefferson left the

decision to Latrobe. This put the architect in the

unenviable position of choosing either to disap-

point the president or to soak members of the

House. He declined to make the choice, suggestingto the president that they review the topic in thenear future.44

Latrobe spent most of the fall of 1805 inDelaware. While there, he searched his mind for asolution to the skylight problem and by mid-November had developed a variation of the Halleau Bled dome that he thought just might prove sat-isfactory. Instead of a continuous expanse of glassbetween the ribs, Latrobe proposed a range of fivegraduated skylights resembling coffers but withglass backs. Twenty ranges would be necessarybringing the total number of “panel lights,” as hecalled them, to 100. Because each panel was smallenough to be covered by a single sheet of glass, theproblem with joints was virtually eliminated. Wire

Halle au Bled

In L. V. Tiery’s

Guide des amateurs et des etrangers vouageurs a Paris (1787)

Jefferson was “violently smitten” by some of the newer buildings in Paris when

he was American minister to France (1785–1789). He was particularly taken by the

grain market and its wooden dome, finished just before he arrived in France. He

regarded the Halle au Bled as “the most superb thing on Earth.” Its dome and tapering

skylights literally dazzled him. Jefferson proposed such a dome for the President’s

House (in his anonymous competition entry of 1792), the Capitol (over the House

chamber), and the Washington Navy Yard (over the dry dock). A variation of the

Halle au Bled dome for the Capitol’s south wing was the only one built.

64 History of the United States Capitol

screens could protect the glass from hail or care-less servants. The new arrangement approximatedthe visual effect that the president wanted butavoided many of the problems. Latrobe sentLenthall a detailed drawing of the proposed ceilingon November 25 but wanted to wait until hereturned to Washington before telling Jeffersonabout the new plan.45

Just before the roof drawing was sent, Lenthallreceived detailed drawings for the wooden trim ofthe rooms in the office story. The paneled windowjambs in the “squint eyed” committee rooms (mod-ern day H–109 and H–153) were troublesome, andLatrobe encouraged his clerk to come up with bet-ter designs if he could. Due to the thick mass ofmasonry at the southeast and southwest corners ofthe wing, Latrobe was obliged to connect end win-dows with interior rooms via jambs that weresplayed at a steep angle, earning the rooms their“squint eyed” nickname. The architect wanted topave the corridors with marble and floor the officesand committee rooms with wood, but he fearedthat he might have to yield to Jefferson’s prefer-ence for French tiles. Window shutters would notbe made to match those in the north wing, whichLatrobe considered “ill framed and ill paneled.”Shutters with three equal flaps worked best, but,again, he left the details for Lenthall to decide.46

Designs for the window sash, frames, doors, andtrim were settled and the carpentry work couldproceed while Lenthall tinkered with details.47

On December 22, 1805, Latrobe finished histhird annual report. He began by blaming the “lim-ited resources of this City” for disappointing hishope of seating the House in its new chamber. Heexplained that a number of large construction proj-ects in Washington and Baltimore were competingfor a limited supply of materials and workmen.Problems with the quarry also delayed the work.Yet, the cellars and the office story were finished,and most of the columns for the chamber werereceived although none had been installed. Of the$110,000 appropriation, a balance of $34,605remained, and Latrobe wanted an additional$25,000 for the wing and $25,200 for the recess.48

Annoyed by the architect’s broken promise, a com-mittee of the House instructed the president tohave their new chamber ready next year withoutfail.49 Congress then appropriated $40,000 for com-pleting the south wing and the recess.50

House Chamber Ceiling and Roof Details

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1805

Library of Congress

Latrobe struggled to reconcile Jefferson’s desire to recreate the Halle au Bled

dome over the House of Representatives with his own hopes for a watertight ceiling.

In the fall of 1805, he hit upon the idea of using “panel lights,” which promised to give

much the same effect but could be made watertight. This sheet shows a reflected plan

(bottom) of half of the ceiling with fifty individual “panel lights” along with water-

proofing details.

Jefferson and Latrobe 65


While in Philadelphia, Latrobe

learned that Giuseppe Franzoni

and Giovanni Andrei, two sculp-

tors recruited by Phillip Mazzei, had arrived in

Washington at the end of February 1806. Mazzei

turned out to be a diligent agent who was

delighted to help his old friend Jefferson. He

scoured the Italian countryside looking for sculp-

tors to work in America, traveling to Rome and

Florence before finding two excellent artists

whom he thought would exceed all expectations.

Mazzei described them as well tempered, not too

old or too young, and “republicans at heart.” They

had good morals and even tempers, and they were

more than capable of performing the work

expected of them. Both Andrei and Franzoni could

model and carve marble. On the matter of the figure

of Liberty, Canova did not have the time to make it,

but Mazzei mentioned it to Bertel Thorvaldsen, the

great Danish sculptor who worked in Rome. (He

later discovered that Thorvaldsen’s fee was astro-

nomical.) Franzoni could certainly make the statue

of Liberty as well as anyone, but Mazzei thought

that it should be carved in Rome, “where the mind

of the Artist is sublimed . . . by the sight of so many

and so grand Objects.” 51

Latrobe immediately set Franzoni to work on

the enormous eagle for the frieze above the

Speaker’s rostrum. Having never seen an American

eagle, he modeled the body and head from

memory, producing a distinctively un-American

–looking bird. To give Franzoni a better idea of the

appearance and character of an American eagle,

Latrobe wrote Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia

asking if he could send a drawing of the head and

claws of the bald eagle, the “general proportions

with the wing extended and especially of the

arrangement of his feathers below the wings when

extended.” The eagle that Franzoni started looked

Italian, Roman, or Greek, but Latrobe knew that

unless it became authentically American it would be

“detected by our Western Members.” 52 Peale

promptly sent a box containing the head and neck

of the “American white head eagle, that was not

bald, ‘tho commonly called so.” Peale promised that

a drawing of the wings and feet would soon follow.53

After working on the sculptural decorations for

two months, Andrei and Franzoni had proved them-

selves complete masters of their art. Jefferson andLatrobe were delighted with the prospect of fur-ther enrichments for the House chamber. Unso-licited, the sculptors were given a pay raise, freehousing, and the right to take apprentices. Thepresident ordered these extraordinary measuresto make them content in their new jobs.54 Latrobewrote Mazzei an especially warm letter of thanksfor his efforts on behalf of the Capitol and art inAmerica. Mazzie was told that Andrei would modelthe “roses and foliage and capitals” while Franzoniwould do the figural sculpture, although much ofthis would not be needed for some time. Betweenthe two, Latrobe “distributed the department ofanimals to Franzoni and of vegetables to Andrei.”The letter concluded with a “very prolix” accountof the federal city, in which the author heapedscorn on the designs of the Capitol and President’sHouse that were selected by the first president.“General Washington knew how to give liberty tohis country,” Latrobe wrote disdainfully, “but waswholly ignorant of art.” Thornton and Hoban weretreated in a similar fashion: the first was “veryignorant in architecture,” while the second pro-duced “a badly mutilated copy of a badly designedbuilding near Dublin.” Further, L’Enfant’s plan hadin it everything that could retard the city’s growth.According to Latrobe, the only reason the govern-ment moved to the federal city was to win south-ern votes in President Adams’ reelection bid. Thehistory of the city preceding the Jefferson admin-istration, particularly before 1803, when Latrobebecame the surveyor of the public buildings, was a“Gigantic Abortion.” 55 It was not unusual forLatrobe to vent his opinions among family or closeassociates, but unloading such indignation onMazzei, whom he had never met, was unwarranted.

In an effort to keep construction on schedule,Jefferson asked Latrobe to predict the progressthat would be made from May 1 to October 1, 1806,and to report actual progress every two weeks. Thearchitect projected that by the first of July all thecolumns on the east side of the House chamberwould be installed, the west architrave would beup, and all of the first-story window sash would bein place. The report filed for that period, however,shows that although the columns were in placeonly half of the architrave was up and none of thesash was in.56 Work was falling behind schedule.Blagden could use at least six more stone cutters

66 History of the United States Capitol

and the president urged Latrobe to hire them in

Philadelphia, paying traveling expenses and begin-

ning their wages from the day they started off for

Washington. But Latrobe soon discovered that

master stone cutters were hard to find at any wage

and thought that he might have to hire less skilled

hands. He also tried to recruit cutters from New

York but held out little hope for success.57 Five

stone cutters were eventually found in Philadel-

phia, three came from New York, and six more

were expected from Albany.58 Yet, despite these

successes, the president found the stone work

falling more and more behind and holding back

the carpenters and plasterers. He now wanted at

least twelve cutters, saying that “every day’s delay

in their arrival still must add to the number to be

sent on. Price must not be regarded.” 59 Unfortu-

nately, the president’s last statement gave Latrobe

an excuse to overspend his accounts.

By mid-August all the columns were set in the

House chamber and only one rough capital

remained to be hoisted. Part of the frieze was also

completed. The increased number of stone cutters

placed a greater demand upon the quarry, which

could not keep up with orders. The recess was

under way at last, its first story complete and the

centerings struck for the second-floor rooms.60

(Centerings are the temporary wooden frames on

which masonry arches and vaults are constructed.)

A great deal of progress could be seen; however,

only a miracle would finish the new chamber by

December as promised.

After an absence of ten weeks, Jefferson

returned to Washington at the beginning of Octo-

ber. He soon went to the Capitol to inspect the

roof of the south wing and was dismayed to find

that no provisions had been made for the panel

lights. Instead, the roof framing was prepared for a

central lantern. Jefferson and Latrobe had agreed

that a lantern could be used temporarily if the

glass for the panel lights did not arrive in time for

the meeting of Congress in December. But now it

was obvious that the room would not be occupied

that soon, and Jefferson saw no reason to build

the lantern. He wrote a stern note to Lenthall

ordering the lantern abandoned and the panel

lights built. Upon learning of the president’s dis-

pleasure, Latrobe wrote another apologetic letter

saying that the roof framing would accommodate

the panel lights but hoped the president would

reconsider using them. Twenty years of experi-

ence convinced the architect that the panel lights

would permit unpleasant light to fall upon mem-

bers’ desks every sunny day and water to drip upon

their heads when the weather changed from warm

to cold. The glass for the skylights, ordered from

Germany in December 1805, had not yet arrived

and Latrobe postponed making the frames. His

apology concluded with two more objections to

this method of lighting the House chamber: it

View of the Capitol from the Northeast

by B. Henry Latrobe, ca. 1806

Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland

This unfinished sketch shows the south wing under

construction standing next to the mostly completed

north wing. Although identical on the exterior, the inte-

rior finishes of the two wings were very different.

Since the end of the north wing is shown as five

bays wide, instead of seven, this otherwise charming

sketch testifies to an imperfect memory.

Jefferson and Latrobe 67

would give the room an inappropriate “air of thehighest gaiety,” and would lack a “unity of light”that was necessary to show architecture and sculp-ture to advantage.61

Despite all the appeals, Jefferson refused toabandon the Halle au Bled dome. He was delightedwith the architect’s substitution of glass panels forthe continuous skylights because the lighting wouldbe milder, the light could be easily controlled byvenetian blinds, the chance of leaks was far less,and the arrangement was original. The beauty ofthe ceiling could not be doubted because the worldhad already handed down its verdict in Paris. If theexperiment failed, the lantern could be built, butJefferson was not willing to abandon the panellights without a trial.62


Latrobe’s 1806 annual report was anotherexplanation of the reasons why thesouth wing remained unfinished.

Difficulty with stone delivery was cited as the prin-cipal cause of disappointment, although “everyencouragement was offered to the quarriers tomake extraordinary exertions.” The roof framing,plastering, and carpentry, which depended onfinishing the interior stonework, also lagged behindschedule. Lack of an established building industryin the infant city put a strain on those who under-took large projects such as the Capitol’s southwing. The need to bring in materials from distantplaces, such as lumber from Maryland’s EasternShore or lime from New England, also tended toretard progress. And while he had already beengranted two appropriations for completing thesouth wing, Latrobe asked for more money to finishthe work in 1807.63

Latrobe had promised the president that thewing would be ready for the House by December 1,1806, and now found that promise impossible tokeep. Jefferson, too, was chagrined at not beingable to seat the House in its new chamber. Whenthe president transmitted Latrobe’s report to Con-gress he claimed to have taken every step possibleto complete the room and deeply regretted that itwas not possible to fulfill the commitment.64

Fearing that his annual report would not ade-

quately explain the matter, Latrobe spent three

nights writing a pamphlet that he printed with the

title Private Letter. It was ready to distribute to

members of Congress when the session began but

was not shown to Jefferson because it had to be

rushed to the printer.65 Latrobe anticipated the

disappointment that was sure to be felt by those

who expected to occupy the new hall and knew he

would be blamed for cooping them up in the library

for yet another session. Latrobe was attacked in

the press for purposefully drawing out construc-

tion in order to keep his salary, and he was accused

of neglecting his duty during long absences from

Washington. These accusations were, in Latrobe’s

words, “extremely scurrilous.” 66 His Private Letter

was the best way to defend himself against the

storm of criticism that was brewing and sure to

break once Congress convened.

Why the south wing remained unfinished was

the main topic of Latrobe’s letter. Despite a painful

and dangerous illness he believed his duties had

not been neglected due to the hard work of his

zealous clerk, John Lenthall. As much work was

done to finish the south wing as could be done,

and no amount of money or manpower could have

done more. He regretted that anything he might

have said during the last session was construed as

a pledge to finish the hall. Latrobe apparently for-

got his letter to Philip Thompson, written at the

end of 1804, in which he stated that $100,000

would guarantee completion of the hall in 1806.

He also forgot that Congress granted $110,000 in

1805 and another $40,000 in 1806 on the strength

of that promise. Although the promises were in

writing, Latrobe now claimed the pledge was a

minor misunderstanding.

Switching to offense, Latrobe embarked on

yet another denunciation of the architecture of

the Capitol and the method employed to select its

design. Architectural competitions, such as the

ones held in 1792 for the Capitol and President’s

House, were common but self-defeating. Trained

architects would never think of entering such a

race, which attracts only charlatans who win

through influence. With Dr. Thornton in mind,

Latrobe wrote:

It brings into all the personal vanity of thosewho think they have knowledge and taste in anart which they have never had an opportunity

68 History of the United States Capitol

to learn or practice—of all those who enticedby the reward think that personal influence andinterest will procure it for them—and all thosewho know of design nothing but its execution:and it keeps out of the competition all who havetoo much self-respect to run the race of prefer-ence with such motley companions.

As for the style of the Capitol, Latrobe flatlysaid that it was hopelessly old fashioned. He real-ized that most people reading the Private Letter

would not understand matters of architecturalstyle, but he thought it worthwhile to instructthem. Unless his audience was aware of the pro-found change in architectural thought followingthe first published illustrations of Grecian antiqui-ties in the 1760s, there would be no way that theycould appreciate the rising preference for “gracefuland refined simplicity” inspired by the “chaste andsimple building of the best days of Athens.” Thisaesthetic was relatively new and contrary to theteachings found in publications written prior to the1760s. He was against the common practice of over-loading walls with useless wreaths, festoons, drap-ery, rustic piers, and pilasters. If ornament did notcontribute to the strength of a building, or conveya sense its function, it had no place in its design.He further observed that a reliance on ornamenta-tion was usually accompanied by a decline in artand a general increase in artistic ignorance.

Latrobe’s statement would be better under-stood a generation later by devotees of the Greekrevival. But to his audience in 1806, it may haveseemed little more than an artistic temper tantrum.Legislators were probably more interested inLatrobe’s final topic, which was money. He was ableto show that the south wing would ultimately cost$216,000 [sic]. While not an inconsiderable sum, itwas $61,000 less than what the board of commis-sioners had spent to build the north wing. And thesouth wing was completely vaulted, except for thewooden ceiling over the chamber, while plasterwas falling off rotting laths in the Senate chamber.Stairs were stone instead of wood. The roof wouldbe covered with iron instead of painted shingles.Freestone columns holding a stone entablaturecarved with an American eagle were found in thesouth wing, compared with decaying woodencolumns in the other wing. The architect’s abilityto provide such elegance, permanence, and con-venience in the south wing for less money thanwas expended to build its inferior counterpart must

surely acquit him of any blame for its slow con-struction. “What has been done, excepting thoseparts necessarily made of wood, will be as perma-nent as the hill upon which the building is erected,”Latrobe proudly proclaimed.

Despite his best efforts, Latrobe’s Private Let-

ter failed to quiet criticism. On December 15, 1806,one of the administration’s most acerbic critics,John Randolph of Virginia, called on the presidentto give the House a full account of the money spenton the Capitol, the President’s House, the cabinetoffices, the Navy Yard, and the Marine Barracks.Congressmen Willis Alston of North Carolina andGideon Olin of Vermont noted that such a detaileddisclosure might embarrass public officers, butRandolph said the information was necessary toform a standard of comparison when it came timeto vote another appropriation for the Capitol. Hewanted to know what “this sink of expense” hadcost the nation. In the case of the Capitol’s southwing, he recalled that each appropriation madeover the past several years was supposedly thelast. Latrobe was the culprit, Randolph thought,for it was he who had “always fallen short of thepromises made.” 67

On February 13, 1807, amid grumbles fromunhappy congressmen, the House of Representa-tives began debate on an appropriation of $25,000that would hopefully finish the south wing. A sepa-rate appropriation of $20,000 was sought to buynew furniture. Andrew Gregg of Pennsylvanianoted that Congress had been in the federal cityfor seven years, and from the look of things, itwould be another seven years until their hall wouldbe ready. And while the south wing was not yetfinished, the north wing was crumbling aroundthem. Philip Van Cortland of New York did notunderstand why some of his colleagues consideredthe appropriation unnecessary. If none were made,he pointed out, the building would not be finishedin “seventy times seven years.” John G. Jackson ofVirginia found it hard to believe that $20,000 wasneeded to furnish one room. If the money weregranted, he thought the surveyor of public build-ings would be obliged to buy “gilded chairs” and“plated tables.” The Speaker of the House,Nathaniel Macon of North Carolina, supported theappropriation for furniture which, considering thesize of the new hall and the number of committeerooms and offices, would require the full $20,000.

Jefferson and Latrobe 69

He thought reducing the appropriation might spoilthe room for want of one or two thousand dollars.Saying that sitting in the House of Representativeswas honor enough, Joseph Lewis of Virginiadeclared that he was willing to sit on a stool if nec-essary but supported the appropriation for newfurniture because the old would not suit. By thetime the votes were taken, the full $25,000 wasappropriated to finish the south wing and $17,000was voted to furnish it.68

The two main issues concerning Latrobe duringthe 1807 building season were decorating the vastceiling above the chamber and procuring glass forthe panel lights. On December 30, 1806, he wroteJohn Joseph Holland, a set designer and decoratorin Philadelphia, asking him to paint the ceiling.Latrobe described it as a “plain surface of stucco . . .to be painted in imitation of panels enriched withroses, and carved moldings.” Apparently they haddiscussed the matter before, but the artist was reluc-tant to come to Washington. Trying flattery, thearchitect declared that it would be a great honor tohave his building “overshadowed by Your ceiling.” 69

Holland first accepted the offer but later backed off.Latrobe turned to Boston architect Charles Bulfinchfor help in finding someone to paint the ceiling. Hesaid he eventually wanted a “first-rate hand in chiarooscuro” from Italy or England to paint the ceiling,but for now would settle for an artist to paint sim-ple panels and borders.70

It is not known if Bulfinch played a role in theoutcome, but the artist who painted the ceiling wasGeorge Bridport from Philadelphia, a native of Eng-land who was an architect as well as a decorativepainter. Although Latrobe wanted the paintingdone by the time the chamber was occupied in thefall of 1807, Bridport did not begin the work untilJune 1808. It took all summer to complete. Work-ing on a scaffold, Bridport suffered from the heat,which caused him to lose weight and groan loudly.71

Yet he survived, and the results of his labordelighted the architect. To the president, Latrobewrote: “Mr. Bridport’s ceiling will do him greathonor. I fear the Members will think it too fine, andI doubt not but Mr. Randolph will abuse it.” 72 Brid-port was paid $3,500 for the labor, paint, and goldleaf used in decorating the ceiling.73

Glass ordered from Germany in December 1805had still not arrived by January 1807. Latrobe gaveup hope and tried to find other sources for glass in

Philadelphia, New York, Albany, and Boston with-out success. He was obliged to order it from Eng-land and, failing a transatlantic disaster, expecteddelivery by July 1807. To compensate for breakage,he ordered exactly twice the quantity needed. Atthe same time, he ordered a chandelier and tenlamps for the chamber and more for the passages,offices, and committee rooms.74

While waiting for the glass to arrive, Latrobedirected that the panel lights be boarded over. Inmid-April heavy rains driven by high winds forcedwater through the openings into the roof structureand ruined a great quantity of the fresh plaster inthe hall. To prevent a recurrence of the problem,Latrobe proposed to replace the wooden coveringswith $1,000 worth of lead. Again Latrobe pleadedwith Jefferson to allow him to substitute a lanternfor the panel lights: “there is no order of yours thatwould add more to my happiness,” he wrote. Awatertight roof was a practical consideration thatshould, in his view, overrule all other considera-tions—including beauty. Latrobe asked: “Canbeauty still be sacrificed to the certainty of a prac-tical security?” 75

Jefferson would not budge from his oppositionto lanterns and lectured the architect on mattersof history, precedent, and taste. He could not recallseeing a lantern or cupola on classical buildingsand supposed them to be invented in Italy forhanging church bells. They were therefore “degen-eracies of modern architecture,” which he foundquite offensive.76

There could be no doubt that lanterns wouldnever appear on the Capitol as long as Thomas Jef-ferson was president. The whole episode showedJefferson rigidly bound to his books and, like thelawyer he was, devoted to the high authority ofprecedent. Latrobe replied with a discussion of thedifference between the buildings of the classicalworld and classical architecture in their epoch. Hewould copy Roman or Greek buildings if they wouldsuit the climate or could meet modern functionalrequirements. But modern churches were neces-sarily different from ancient temples, modern leg-islative assemblies and courts were different fromancient basilicas, and modern amusem*nts couldnot be performed in open-air theaters. Libertieswere sometimes taken to adapt classical architec-ture to the American climate and society and theissue of cupolas was one such case. He again

70 History of the United States Capitol

emphasized that it was not the visual effect of a

cupola that he wanted, but its usefulness.77 The

argument, however, fell on deaf ears.

July came and went without the arrival of the

glass shipment. In mid-August, Latrobe wrote the

president at Monticello to report on the leaking

roof over the House chamber, again despairing for

his reputation and his standing among members

who would soon be seated under it. He was already

unpopular and did not want to aggravate the situa-

tion by appearing to be insolent. “To place Con-

gress at their next session under a leaky roof,”

Latrobe warned, “would be considered almost as

an insult to the Legislature after what passed at

the last Session.” Latrobe traced the leaks to brit-

tle putty and a large buckle in the iron. Water enter-

ing through cracks caused small streams to run

down the ceiling, staining it with the rust from

thousands of nails.

Latrobe feared for Jefferson’s reputation as

well. A leaking roof over the heads of congressmen

would put them in no mood to support the presi-

dent’s ambitions for the public buildings in Wash-

ington. “The next Session is to decide,” he told the

president, “not my fate only, but the whole depen-

dance which congress shall in the future place upon

anything which may be proposed by you on the

subject of public works.” And what a pity it would

be, he suggested, to deprive the nation of Jeffer-

son’s taste in the arts:

It is no flattery to say that you have plantedthe arts in your country. The works alreadyerected in this city are the monuments of yourjudgement and of your zeal, and of your taste.The first sculpture that adorned an Americanpublic building, perpetuates your love and yourprotection of the arts. As to myself, I am notashamed to say, that my pride is not a littleflattered, and my professional ambition roused,when I think that my grandchildren may atsome future day read that after the turbulenceof revolution and of faction which character-ized the first two presidencies, their ancestorwas the instrument in your hands to decoratethe tranquility, the prosperity, and the happi-ness of your Government.78

Despite Latrobe’s eloquence, Jefferson

retained the panel lights. The leaks would be fixed

by shingling between them, preserving the sky-

lights and securing the dazzling effect of the Halle

au Bled dome.79 Persistent in the cause of a roof

that would not leak, Latrobe was thwarted at every

turn by Jefferson, who was equally persistent inthe cause of beauty.

In mid-August 1807 the glass for the panellights at last arrived in Philadelphia. With it camean invoice for $4,130, a great sum that promised tocripple the Capitol’s accounts.80 But at least theglass could be installed, and the House would finallyhave use of its new chamber. Jefferson had calledCongress into session on October 26 to considerAmerica’s response to the outrages inflicted byGreat Britain on the nation’s neutrality during theNapoleonic Wars. British warships routinelystopped American vessels on the pretext thatdeserters from her navy were on board. Withoutproof of citizenship, American seamen were rou-tinely forced into British service, and the call forretaliation and justice grew stronger every day. Inan effort to avoid an open conflict with a superiorenemy, Congress and the Jefferson administrationenacted an embargo that closed American ports toforeign trade. The legislation passed in December1807, as members of the House of Representativessat under 100 skylights glazed with British glassreceived a few months before the embargo tookeffect. Had the sequence of events been slightlydifferent, Jefferson would have been forced toabandon his skylights and allow Latrobe to lightthe chamber with a lantern glazed with small panesof American glass.


Following discussions about whichorder to use in the House chamber,Jefferson abandoned his initial pref-

erence for Doric and decided it should beCorinthian. Which example to draw upon wasanother matter. Latrobe preferred Grecian mod-els, while Jefferson was decidedly partial to Romanones. Eventually a compromise was struck. Forthe columns, Jefferson approved using the exqui-site Grecian order from the Choragic Monument ofLysicrates, but he urged Latrobe to design theentablature with modillions—something headmired in Roman architecture. Latrobe obligedand modeled a Roman entablature to go with theGrecian columns.81 Before the chamber opened

Jefferson and Latrobe 71

Andrei had time to finish only two capitals andwould attend to the rest as time permitted. Fran-zoni completed a figure of Liberty, and while it wasonly a model, it did the artist “infinite credit.” Healso began carving four allegorical figures to bemounted opposite the Speaker’s chair representingArt, Science, Agriculture, and Commerce. Marblemantels from Philadelphia were installed in thefirst-floor offices and committee rooms. As the wingwas being finished, it became something of a touristattraction, drawing unwanted visitors who inter-rupted the work and souvenir hunters who carriedoff whatever they could. Latrobe asked Jeffersonto order the building off limits to anyone notemployed there. If presidential intervention wasconsidered too high a sanction, Latrobe was pre-pared to issue the order himself.82 Scaffolding wasremoved from the chamber in mid-September, butwhile the hall was ready for use, Latrobe thought itstill looked somewhat incomplete.83

To celebrate the virtual completion of the Capi-tol’s south wing, Latrobe hosted a banquet for work-men. The treat was a custom expected by theworkmen as a reward for their labors and “con-tributed considerably to the good humor and alacritywith which they performed their duty.” Held on Sat-urday, October 17, the supper was attended by 167people and was marred only by the conspicuousabsence of John Lenthall, who boycotted in a dis-pute over the guest list. All skilled hands wereinvited, as were men from the Navy Yard who helpedout occasionally, but Latrobe deliberately did notinvite the lower-class laborers. Lenthall felt that allworkers should have been included and his boycottgreatly embarrassed Latrobe.84

Reaction in the press to the new House cham-ber was mixed. Newspapers sympathetic to theadministration ran favorable reviews, while theFederalist press focused on the room’s faultyacoustics. Samuel Harrison Smith, editor of Wash-ington’s National Intelligencer, called it “the hand-somest room in the world occupied by adeliberative body.” He recalled that on entering thehall, the spectator was overwhelmed with a “strongsensation of pleasure, from the splendor and ele-gance of all that surrounds him.” 85 But the True

American and Commercial Advertiser ofPhiladelphia noted that the room suffered from a“very material defect.” A speaker’s voice was lost inechoes and nothing could be distinctly understood.

Only by close attention was it barely possible to

gain an idea of what was happening amid the cham-

ber’s “floating reverberations.” 86

The Washington Federalist reported that

John Randolph considered the room “admirably

suited to every purpose which would be required

except one . . . that of debate.” According to this

anti-administration paper, hearing in the House

chamber was so difficult that only a forge, a mill, or

a coppersmith’s shop would offer a less hospitable

environment for debate.87

Latrobe complained privately to Lenthall (who

had returned to the architect’s good graces) that

his original proposal for a half domed semicircular

room of a lower height would have made a much

better speaking room. He also noted that while

newspaper writers condemned the chamber’s

acoustics, “they report the debates as regularly and

minutely as if they caught every word.” 88 To his

brother, Latrobe admitted the room had an acousti-

cal problem, but he planned to “go to work with

Tapestry &C. to destroy the echoes.” 89 Draping the

Corinthian Orderof the ChoragicMonument of Lysicrates, Athens

From the 1825 edition of

The Antiquities of Athens

by James Stuart and

Nicholas Revett

Jefferson approved

using the Grecian

Corinthian order of the

Choragic Monument of

Lysicrates in the House

chamber. (A different

entablature was designed

by Latrobe so that it

might have modillions,

which the president

admired in Roman archi-

tecture.) The details of

the order were illustrated

in The Antiquities of

Athens, published in three

volumes in London in 1763,

1790, and 1795. Jefferson

owned the first volume

and the Library Company

of Philadelphia had a copy

as early as 1770.

The intricate capitals

were carved in the House

chamber by Giovanni

Andrei. After the room

was destroyed in 1814,

Andrei supervised replica-

tion of the capitals in mar-

ble during a trip to Italy.

72 History of the United States Capitol

colonnade would muffle the echoes and add evenmore texture and color to an already splendid room.

Latrobe wrote a detailed description of thesouth wing for the National Intelligencer. Thenewspaper asked for the article in order to satisfythe public’s curiosity, but Latrobe used the occa-sion to defend the work against slanders printed inthe Federalist press.90 Latrobe’s essay began with ashort history of the Capitol, its dimensions, and adescription of its exterior appearance and the orig-inal plan. Before describing the alterations made tothe internal arrangements of the south wing,Latrobe thought it necessary to pay Dr. Thornton aleft-handed compliment for his talents “which aregular professional education, and a practicalknowledge of architecture would have ripened intono common degree of excellence.” Thus, the onlythings missing from Dr. Thornton’s potential as areal architect, Latrobe said, were training and expe-rience. More sincere praise was given GeorgeHadfield’s contribution to the exterior design. His“exquisite taste” was responsible for the introduc-tion of the “impost entablature,” which gave “anharmonious character to the whole mass.” WhileLatrobe wanted to publicly acknowledge Hadfield,he was probably mistaken in the instance cited.The Capitol’s belt course (carved with a guilloche)was more likely part of Thornton’s original design.But this was not the first time Latrobe was mis-taken about who designed what in the building’smurky past.

With the preliminaries dispensed with, Latrobebegan a description of the wing as it was redesignedand built: “All the apartments are vaulted with hardbricks, and scarcely anything in the whole buildingis of timber, excepting the doors, windows andtheir dressings, the platforms of the House and gal-leries, and the roof of the Hall itself.” He was par-ticularly proud of the plan and accommodations ofthe office story because of the difficulties that wereovercome. The size of the challenge made his suc-cess all the more gratifying.

Upstairs, the House chamber “consists of twosemi-circles 60 feet in diameter . . . united bystraight lines 25 feet in length . . . so that the inter-nal space . . . is nearly 85 by 60.” A wall seven feethigh carried the twenty-four Corinthian columns,which were twenty-six feet, eight inches high; thesein turn, supported an entablature six feet high.Latrobe paid high compliments to Andrei for the

skillful carving shown in the two completed capitalsand to Franzoni for his “colossal eagle in the act ofrising.” Franzoni’s personifications of Art, Science,and Agriculture in the frieze above the mainentrance to the hall were finished; the figure ofCommerce was incomplete. They were carved inhigh relief and, in Latrobe’s opinion, were “exquis-itely beautiful.” The statue of Liberty behind theSpeaker’s chair was a hastily completed plastermodel that Latrobe hoped would soon be repro-duced in Vermont marble. It was a seated femalefigure, eight and a half feet tall, holding a libertycap in one hand and a scroll in the other. An eaglestood guard to one side of the figure, its foot restingon a crown and other emblems of monarchy andbondage. Above the statue was a crimson silk cur-tain with green lining. “The effect of this curtain, ofthe statue, and of the Speaker’s chair and canopy,”Latrobe wrote, “is perhaps the most pleasing assem-blage of objects that catches the eye in the wholeroom.” Other subjects were covered in the article,but the sculptural decorations seem to have beenthe architect’s greatest source of satisfaction.91

A “sound committee” of the House approvedLatrobe’s plan to combat echoes by hanging heavyflannel drapery—with black, yellow, and redfringe—between the columns.92 Lenthall wasasked to devise something from which to suspendthe curtains, preferably a strong plank held by theabacus of the column capital. Latrobe wanted thecurtains to hang down nearly twenty feet, reach-ing within seven or eight feet of the column bases.“The thing will be handsome,” Latrobe wrote, “andtake half the echo.” He did not care if those behindthe curtains could see or hear: “Why should therenot be an embargo on Sound as well as onFlour?” 93 The curtains were in place by the end ofFebruary and were, according to Latrobe, bothbeautiful and effective.

Usually the annual report of the surveyor ofpublic buildings was transmitted soon after theopening of Congress. The 1807 report, however,was not submitted until March 25, 1808, only fourweeks before the end of the first session of the10th Congress. Latrobe excused the delay by say-ing he was unable to close the accounts becausework was still going on at the Capitol and the Pres-ident’s House. In the part of the report concerningthe south wing, he listed those few details thatwere needed to finish the building. The woodwork

Jefferson and Latrobe 73

Vestibule of the House of Representatives

The earliest example of a Greek order extant in America is exhibited in this small

circular vestibule, located between the rotunda and the old House of Representatives.

The vestibule was completed in 1807 and left undamaged by the fire of 1814. Paint

analysis indicates that a light straw color was originally used on the dome, coffers,

and ornaments. (1999 photograph.)

Capital Detail

Latrobe modeled the columns after the ancient

Tower of the Winds but added a stem between the upper

water leaves. (1999 photograph.)

Tower of the Winds, Athens

From the 1825 edition of The Antiquities of Athens by James

Stuart and Nicholas Revett

74 History of the United States Capitol

was only primed and needed to be painted. Twenty-two column capitals in the chamber and two in thecircular vestibule (today called the “small Houserotunda”) still needed to be carved and the cornicein the chamber was not yet finished. Ten mantelsawaited installation and the pavement along thesouth front needed to be laid. Latrobe praised thework of Franzoni and Andrei and reminded hisreaders that their work would take time to finish.He asked for funds to erect the western part of therecess containing three committee rooms and anapartment for the doorkeeper. In addition to pro-viding these internal accommodations, this part ofthe recess was necessary to buttress the wing’snorthwest corner. Settlement in that area had beennoticeable for some years, and while there was noimmediate danger of collapse, it required “counter-poise” for stability. (It remained without “counter-poise” until 1818–1822.)

Without a hint of modesty, Latrobe’s reportasserted that the House of Representatives sat in aroom less “liable to an objection as any other hallof debate in the United States.” After minor adjust-ments were made, it would be “second to none inevery legislative convenience.” But such high praisefor his own work did little to shield him from thefurious storm that broke over his accounts. Latrobenonchalantly reported that he had incurred a deficitof more than $35,000 for work on the south wingand another $4,000 deficit for furnishing it. (Hehad also overspent the President’s House and pub-lic highways accounts.) At the beginning of the1807 building season, Congress had appropriated$25,000 to finish the south wing—all that Latrobeasked—yet he managed to spend more than$60,000. His success with the $17,000 furniturebudget was better, but that overrun was a graveembarrassment as well. Latrobe soon learned thatfiscal mismanagement, whether real or perceived,could damage a reputation beyond all that allegori-cal statuary and crimson drapery could redeem.

Overspending the appropriations put Latrobein the unenviable position of defending himselfa*gainst the administration’s friends as well as itsenemies. On April 5, 1808, the House of Represen-tatives considered an appropriation to cover thedeficits. John Randolph condemned Latrobe’sactions as “illegal and unjustifiable.” Joseph Lewis,a Federalist from Virginia, took an opposite view ofthe issue. He understood that Latrobe and the

workmen proceeded on their own to finish the halldespite the lack of funds. In doing so, they wereonly motivated by a desire to complete the room sothat the House could use it and be free of the tightquarters of the library. The honorable intentions ofthe surveyor of public buildings and the generosityof the workmen justly demanded Congress repaythem promptly. The president’s son-in-law, JohnWayles Eppes of Virginia, thought that Latrobe had“grossly abused his trust,” but worried that inno-cent tradesmen and merchants would be ruined ifthe government failed to fund the deficits. Ran-dolph replied that he too wished to see creditorspaid but thought the accounts should be presentedto the Committee on Claims. And while he thoughtthe House chamber did Latrobe “great honor,” hereminded his colleagues that “artists were not verynice calculators in money matters.” David R.Williams of South Carolina, an administration sup-porter, gave a long speech in which he severelycondemned Latrobe and his “outrageous audacity.”Others spoke either of Latrobe’s bad judgment orof his devotion to duty, as the case might be viewed.By the end of the day’s business, the House couldnot agree on how to treat the deficits. On a motionoffered by Eppes, the House asked Richard Stan-ford, chairman of the committee handling Latrobe’sannual report, to inquire into the circ*mstancesthat produced the deficits. It also asked his com-mittee to look into the wisdom of abolishing theoffice of the surveyor of public buildings.94

Latrobe replied to the committee’s inquiries ina long letter written on April 8, 1808.95 It was anadmirable defense, free of the pontifical rhetoricthat occasionally showed up in his writings. Hebegan by saying that he held no government officeas such, but that the surveyor’s position was neces-sary to carry out the appropriations for the publicbuildings. As long as these appropriations weremade, it would be necessary to have an architect incharge. He then compared his work to that of the“unprofessional,” but “patriotic” commissionersand showed that the south wing cost $61,000 lessthan the north wing. The saving was a result ofprofessional management. To explain how heincurred the deficits, and justify his actions in thematter, Latrobe referred to the desire of the Houseto occupy its chamber, its resolution asking thepresident to do all in his power to have the roomready, and his efforts to obey the command.

Jefferson and Latrobe 75

Because he was not able to have the room ready in

1806, it would have been unforgivable not to finish

it in 1807. The appropriation was fully spent by

September but the hall was still not finished, leav-

ing the architect few options. He could dismiss the

workmen and leave the hall unfinished or advise

them of the financial situation and trust that their

labors would not go unrewarded for long.Completion of the south wing was Latrobe’s first

duty. To his way of thinking he had not expendedunappropriated public funds but, rather, incurreddebt in the public interest. To show that the work-men fully understood the situation, he presented anaffidavit signed by George Blagden, stonecutter,Thomas Machen, stonemason, Simeon Meade, fore-man of carpenters, Henry Ingle, cabinetmaker andironmonger, and Griffith Coombe, lumber merchant.The document verified Latrobe’s forthright dealingswith the men building the south wing.

On April 21, 1808, Stanford reported the

findings of his committee to the House.96 It was a full

and absolute vindication of Latrobe and his actions

that incurred debt. According to the committee

members, Latrobe pursued his duties with “laudable

zeal” and “integrity.” Considering the circ*mstances,

questions regarding the legality of Latrobe’s actions

were groundless.

Four days after the Stanford report was issued,

the House discussed an appropriation to cover the

debts. John Randolph, of course, spoke at length

against the measure. If the bill passed, Randolph

warned that “they might as well open the Treasury

and dismiss their accounting officers at once.” But

Stanford stated that Latrobe had acted in accor-

dance with their resolution and had done his duty

by finishing the chamber. His actions were, there-

fore, fully justifiable. By a vote of seventy-three to

eight, the House appropriated $51,500 to cover the

Latrobe Committee Room

Latrobe’s plan for the

south wing’s office story

provided meeting rooms

for some of the five stand-

ing committees and for

the various select commit-

tees that were appointed

from time to time. Struc-

tural constraints prohib-

ited large rooms, but

committees did not

require much space.

Shown here is a typical

committee room, which

retains its original marble

mantel and woodwork.

Today the room

(modern day H–153)

serves as the office for

the clerk of the House

of Representatives.

(1998 photograph.)

76 History of the United States Capitol

debts.97 On the same day, a vote was taken on fund-ing the remaining part of the recess. That measurefailed, but $11,500 was given for finishing andpainting the interior of the south wing.98

While Latrobe enjoyed his partial victory in the

House, his financial dealings placed a cloud over

his relationship with the president. Jefferson nei-

ther claimed responsibility in the affair nor did he

blame Thomas Munroe, who was supposed to keep

track of accounts. The day Congress made good on

the deficit, Jefferson wrote the architect:

The lesson of last year has been a serious one,it has done you great injury & has much beenfelt by myself—it was so contrary to the princi-ples of our Government, which makes the rep-resentatives of the people the sole arbiters ofthe public expense, and do not permit any workto be forced on them on a larger scale than theirjudgment deems adopted to the circ*mstancesof the Nation.99

Latrobe considered resigning. He felt that the

attacks in the House by the president’s son-in-law

might as well have come from Jefferson himself.

Blame for the deficits had been “copiously and

coarsely heaped upon me by the friends of the

administration in the house as well as by the feder-

alists and the third party.” Latrobe claimed that the

state of the accounts was unknown to him because

Munroe had spent the summer in upstate New York.

He had been guided solely by Jefferson’s order to

hire more workmen and finish the chamber.

Writing from Monticello, Jefferson replied that

Latrobe had no one to blame for the deficits other

than himself. Appropriations were made from his

estimates, and because these were defective, he

had not enough funds to finish the wing. When he

urged Latrobe to hire more workmen, it was on the

assumption that “it would cost no more to employ

100 hands 50 days, than 50 hands 100 days.” He

never intended to suggest that money was no

object. And as John Eppes was too independent to

be influenced by his father-in-law, Latrobe should

not consider him the president’s mouthpiece. With-

out mentioning Latrobe’s hint at resignation, the

letter ended on a friendly note.100

Small appropriations were made in 1809 and

1810 to keep Andrei carving the capitals in the

House chamber. With the room virtually complete

Latrobe turned his attention to rebuilding the inte-

rior of the north wing, which would be a more

difficult, and in some ways a more satisfying, task.

The arrangement of the office story in the south

wing, and the many conveniences it provided

within a difficult space, was an accomplishment

that made Latrobe proud. Although later altered in

small ways, the rooms continue to be used by the

House of Representatives to this day. The House

chamber upstairs, however, perhaps the most beau-

tiful room designed by Latrobe, can only be viewed

in the architect’s drawings. Used only six years, it

was destroyed by fire in the summer of 1814.


From the time he was appointed the

surveyor of the public buildings,

Latrobe was alarmed by the north

wing’s structural problems. Despite its recent con-

struction, the north wing had defects more usually

associated with an older building. He condemned

the gutters lined with tar and sand, which disguised

fissures that allowed rain to pour into the building.

He disliked the skylights and wanted to protect them

with lanterns, not yet having learned of Jefferson’s

dislike for these “degeneracies of modern architec-

ture.” In addition to water penetration, the wing was

plagued by rotting timbers and falling plaster. Each

year Congress granted for repairs a small sum that

was split between the north wing and the Presi-

dent’s House. Latrobe could barely keep up with the

progressing decay he found in both buildings.

At the end of August 1805, Latrobe told the

president about the sundry repairs made in the

north wing and stated his belief that one day the

entire interior would have to be removed and

rebuilt. The ceiling in the northwest committee

room (modern day S–143 and S–144), where the

Senate had met during the second session of the

Eighth Congress (1804–1805), threatened to col-

lapse. (Ironically, it had been the dangerous condi-

tion of the Senate chamber’s ceiling that forced the

lawmakers to seek refuge in that committee room.)

Now, the room’s ceiling was cracked and Lenthall

was asked to examine it. Because the laths were too

closely spaced to allow the plaster to grip properly,

the ceiling was deemed unsafe and was taken down.

A new ceiling was installed, but it soon sagged six

inches. Latrobe climbed on the scaffold and discov-

ered a girder riddled with dry rot. He had it propped

Jefferson and Latrobe 77

up with a strong wooden partition that divided theroom in half. The situation could not wait for Jef-ferson’s approval: if the girder failed during theapproaching session of Congress, members of theHouse meeting in the library above would havebeen thrown down into the committee room, caus-ing certain injuries and deaths.

While saving the lives of congressmen, the par-tition created two small committee rooms wherethere had been only one before. With the SupremeCourt set up in one committee room (modern dayS–146 and S–146A) and clerks using another,rooms for Senate committees were in short supply.Only one room was available, and it was comman-deered by the first senator who laid claim to it.Other committees huddled together in the Senatechamber in whatever space they could find. “Thusa Committee on a trifling business were in posses-sion of the room,” Latrobe informed the president,“while the most important affairs were transactedin a corner amidst the bustle, usually precedingthe opening of the house.” Another room could becreated by partitioning the north vestibule, a semi-elliptical lobby with a central door flanked by twowindows. Latrobe asked permission to build a wallthat would capture a third of the space for a com-mittee room.101 The plan would result in two oddlyshaped rooms, and the president was unwilling tosacrifice the beauty of the vestibule for the accom-modation of Senate committees.102

Repairs were also needed in the Senate cham-ber. Particularly bothersome were the columns,which were made of wood covered with a thin coatof plaster. Cracks half an inch to an inch wideappeared down the length of three shafts. To repairthese, Latrobe wrapped the columns with stronglinen tied in the back. Secured by these improvisedcorsets, the column shafts were then freshly white-washed. After a piece of the ceiling fell (barelymissing the vice president’s chair), Latrobeinspected the damage and repaired the plaster.

Such patching and mending made Latrobe impa-tient for the day he would rid the north wing of itsrotting timbers and rebuild it with brick arches andvaults. Only such drastic measures would secure theinterior from the legacy of bad materials and work-manship. The rebuilding would also present anopportunity to reconfigure the floor plan to betteraccommodate the Senate and the Supreme Court.While he despaired for the structural integrity of the

Senate chamber, Latrobe told the president that helooked forward to “the period at which your idea ofraising it up to the next story can be carried intoeffect.”103 Now that the House chamber was on theprincipal floor, Jefferson apparently wanted the Sen-ate raised to that level as well. Raising the Senatefinally resolved the old disagreement betweenThornton’s exterior elevation and Hallet’s interiorplan. (One must wonder at Jefferson’s thoughts asthe chambers were relocated to the principal floorduring this period.) A one-story room for theSupreme Court would be built below the Senate,occupying what had been the lower portion of theold chamber. Other areas, such as the Library ofCongress, committee rooms, and lobbies, would beretained in place but reconfigured by the necessitiesof vaulted construction.

In his 1805 annual report, Latrobe informedCongress of the decayed state of the north wing’sinteriors, which hardly came as news. A survey ofthe structure revealed alarming failures in the floors and timbers that were the result of“extremely injudicious” construction methodsaggravated by widespread dry rot. Cracks in thelibrary ceiling were investigated, but no structuraldefect was found. Minor repairs were made butsubstantial work would be postponed until afterthe south wing was completed.104

By the end of 1806, the condition of the ceilingof the room in which the House sat rattled thenerves of more than one of its members seatedbelow. David R. Williams of South Carolina wassufficiently alarmed to offer a resolution to pull theceiling down or otherwise secure it from whatappeared to be imminent collapse. The motionstirred a lively discussion among the members,some of whom doubted Latrobe’s earlier assuranceof the ceiling’s safety when it looked so insecure. Asection of plaster had already fallen, while otherparts “swagged.” The clerk of the House made hisown investigation and found the ceiling mostlysecure, but some sections also looked dangerouslyweak.105 Adding to the mounting concern, the cor-nice and part of the ceiling over the central lobbyfell. More cracks appeared in the Senate columns,and the ceiling appeared ready to fall again. It wasbeyond repair and was accordingly re-plastered onnew laths. Disasters became routine and convincedeven recalcitrant legislators that reconstructionwas necessary. Members of the House were

78 History of the United States Capitol

anxious to leave the cramped and decayed library,

especially when they saw what awaited them in the

south wing.

Latrobe’s 1806 annual report gave the first

detailed account of what he and the president had

in mind for the north wing’s new interior. A set of

plans was submitted with the written report. The

whole ground floor (called the “office story” in the

other wing) was reserved for the Supreme Court.

The Senate would move upstairs, having use of the

second and third floors. Visitors to the Court would

enter through the north door, while those on Sen-

ate business would use the east door. Thus sepa-

rated, neither body would interfere with the

workings of the other.

The report also covered logistical matters. As

soon as Congress adjourned in March 1807, Latrobe

proposed to begin demolition of the eastern half of

the wing, preserving much of the brick partition

walls but removing all the laths, plaster, and timber

from the cellar to the roof. The first phase would

involve gutting the Senate chamber, the unfinished

room above it, the east vestibule, the staircases,

the central lobby, and the north vestibule. When

Congress reconvened in the fall, the House would

occupy the south wing, the Senate would meet in a

committee room, while the Supreme Court would

continue to use a first-floor committee room or the

library. With his usual optimism, Latrobe promised

that the work could be done quickly, particularly

because it would be protected by the roof. He

claimed that the eastern half of the wing would be

finished by the time Congress convened in 1808.

Work on the western half would begin in 1809 and

would be finished a year later. Thus, the entire

north wing would be rebuilt in only three years. To

get the job started, Latrobe asked for an appropria-

tion of $50,000.106

When the House reviewed the reconstruction

plans on February 13, 1807, confusion gripped

those who did not understand Latrobe’s report or

the drawings accompanying it. Some thought the

plans called for the Senate chamber to be divided

in half so that the Supreme Court would meet in

the upper part of the old room. Others thought a

new Senate chamber would replace the library in

the western part of the wing. David R. Williams of

South Carolina was certain the changes were pro-

posed so the Senate would be in a physical position

to send bills literally downward to the House. “If

the alteration really takes place . . . ” he said, “this

House will be about fifteen feet lower than the Sen-

ate.” 107 How he reached that conclusion is unfath-

omable, but it demonstrated the architectural

Ground Plan of the North Wing of the Capitol of the United States shewing it, as proposed to be altered, on the Ground Story

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1806

Retaining as much of the brick partition walls as he

could, Latrobe reconfigured the plan of the north wing

to accommodate a vaulted interior. This plan (with east

at the top) is a preliminary scheme that would be more

fully developed.

Latrobe separated those with Court business from

those attending sessions of the Senate. The north door

(left) was reserved for the Supreme Court and the east

door (top) was exclusively for the Senate. Although this

plan does not yet show columns in the east vestibule,

Latrobe later designed “corn cob” columns for that

space to support the weight of its vaulted ceiling.

Jefferson and Latrobe 79

illiteracy flourishing in the House that day. While it

is not surprising that some were unable to under-

stand the floor plans, Latrobe’s clearly written

report should have been intelligible to all.

At the end of debate, the House decided not to

vote for any alterations. Instead, it granted $25,000

for a new roof and other repairs to the north wing.

Alarmed, Latrobe wrote Pennsylvania Senator

George Logan warning that if the appropriation

passed in its current form, the Senate would be left

with all the problems plaguing its chamber and com-

mittee rooms. The chamber needed to be cleared of

arches and columns that obstructed views and

blocked voices, but this was beyond the scope of

repair work. He hoped the Senate would loosen the

wording of the bill to allow some alterations. Yet,

the Senate retained the language of the House

appropriation, and the bill was approved by Jeffer-

son on the last day of the session, March 3, 1807.

Finishing the south wing for the House of Rep-

resentatives kept Latrobe busy during the 1807

building season, and he could hardly spare carpen-

ters to re-roof the north wing until they were no

longer needed on the other building. Rainy weather

and a shortage of workmen meant that there was

only time and manpower enough to re-roof about

half the wing.108 When the center part of the roof

was stripped off, Latrobe found the timbers in an

advanced state of decay. All the floors and ceilings

of the Senate chamber, the library, and the lobbies

were discovered to be rotten as well. Because of

time constraints and the limits of the appropria-

tion, Latrobe could do nothing to the chamber or

the library, but focused instead on the central lobby

and oval stair hall directly under the part of the

roof being replaced. In those spaces, Latrobe

removed the timber floors and laid stone or brick

floors on new vaults carried by the old walls. The

coved ceiling and wooden skylight over the oval

stair hall were removed and replaced by a “solid

brick cupola . . . crowned by a lantern light.” (Con-

sidering the president’s silence, the lantern pre-

sumably could not be seen from the outside.) The

weak, decayed principal staircase was merely

propped up for the time being.109

What little was done to the north wing in 1807

was just enough to show how much work was

needed to put the building into first-class condi-

tion. Without debate Congress appropriated

$25,000 on April 25, 1808, “for carrying up, in solid

work, the interior of the north wing, comprising

the Senate chamber.” Congress granted these funds

at the same time it made the appropriations to

cover Latrobe’s public debts. While this period may

Plan, shewing the alterations proposed in the principal Story of the North Wing of the Capitol

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1806

By using a simple color code, Latrobe indicated

walls to be added or removed in rebuilding the north

wing’s interior. On this and companion plans, Latrobe

also showed early ideas about the center building. The

rotunda was depicted with heroic niches in the angles

and stairs leading to the room below, called variously

the “crypt” or the “lower rotunda.” Gone was the circu-

lar conference room from the Hallet–Thornton plans,

replaced by a square projection with a central colon-


80 History of the United States Capitol

have been a low point in the architect’s popularity,

the appropriation for the north wing was a small

but a welcome vote of confidence.


The day after the appropriation for

the north wing passed, Latrobe

opened the National Intelligencer

to find a letter from Dr. Thornton publicly attack-

ing him. Considering the unflattering way Latrobe

had depicted Thornton in print, this assault should

not have come as a surprise. But its severity and

fanatic assertions were shocking. Supposedly, the

letter was in response to Latrobe’s description of

the south wing, printed in the Intelligencer on

November 30, 1807, in which he “had the presump-

tion to assume the character of a public Censor.”

To defend himself Thornton described Latrobe’s

reports to Congress as “full of miscalculations and

misrepresentations.” He denied Latrobe’s assertion

that the design of the Capitol had been improved

by George Hadfield and defended the original

design and parts of the composition that Latrobe

criticized. In his writing, Thornton used a sort of

verbal smoke screen that is difficult to follow,

employing maxims and rules of his own invention

that had a ring of authority. For example, Thornton

wrote about a small feature of the Capitol’s eleva-

tion—the shallow arch in the center bay of each

wing—and greatly exaggerated its significance. He

said the arch was “bold” and so “neatly equidis-

tant” that it produced a “fine effect and great har-

mony.” Sounding profound, Thornton proclaimed:

“Minute beauty may terminate where grandeur and

Plan of the Principal Story of the Capitol. U. S.

by B. Henry Latrobe, ca. 1808

Library of Congress

Latrobe’s overall scheme for the Capitol was presented in this drawing. It

shows the south wing as finished, the north wing that was undergoing a partial

reconstruction, and the center building that was not as yet approved or funded. The

rotunda was labeled “Hall of the People” with the notation that it was intended for

“Impeachments, Inaugu[r]ations, Divine Service, General access to the buildings.”

Jefferson and Latrobe 81

sublimity commence.” Beneath the rhetoric, there

was no real meaning to the statement.

There was similar bombast about the oak

foliage above the arched windows. Next came the

matter of education and experience: “Because I

was not educated as Architect, am I therefore to

permit Mr. Latrobe to decide upon my merits or

demerits? —No.” After all, Thornton had traveled

in Europe, was acquainted with the best buildings

from antiquity, and knew something about the

orders of architecture. As a profession, medical

doctors examined a variety of subjects during their

course of study, and it was common for them to

pick up one or two other specialities later on.

Thornton proudly reminded readers of the Intelli-

gencer that Claude Perrault, the architect of the

Louvre, was also a doctor.

The latter part of Thornton’s attack was pure

fantasy. He claimed that Latrobe had been edu-

cated not as an architect but as a “carver of chim-

ney pieces in London.” Thus, an upholsterer had as

much right to call himself an architect. The next

fabrication was about Latrobe’s immigration to

America as a “Missionary of the Moravians.”

Rather than to design churches, Thornton said, his

rival was sent to this country to build up the Mora-

vian church. These silly taunts paled in comparison

to the story about George Washington’s lack of faith

in Latrobe. Thornton said that a “very respectable

gentleman now living” asked Washington why he

did not employ Latrobe and was told: “Because I

can place no confidence in him whatever.” Thorn-

ton’s next accusation was that the architect had

changed his name. Using satire, sarcasm, and wit,

Thornton then ventured into a wholesale condem-

nation of Latrobe’s south wing. The sculptural group

over the Speaker’s rostrum was ridiculed in a man-

ner that nicely illustrates Thornton’s style of attack:

To embellish the room, he had the Eagle carvedso often, that it equals the Ibis in the Tombs ofthe Egyptians, but they are as much like theHarpies as Eagles. The one on the Frieze of theEntablature is so flat, that the country peoplemistake it for the skin of an owl, such as theynail on their barn doors: Glumdalca, [queen ofthe giants in Fielding’s farce Tom Thumb] fab-ricated of straw, and plaster of Paris, to repre-sent the Figure of Liberty resting on the Eagle,is taken for a gigantic representation of Ledaand her Swan: and the minikin eagle over theSpeaker’s head, is taken for a Sparrow.

The gate at the Navy Yard, the wall around the

President’s House, the Bank of Pennsylvania, and

the Philadelphia Waterworks shared Thornton’s

scorn. His final ridicule was directed at the gate

into the president’s garden: “Though in humble imi-

tation of a triumphal Arch, it looks so naked, and so

disproportionate, that it is more like a monument

than a Gateway; but no man now or hereafter will

ever mistake it for a monument of taste.” 110

Latrobe’s response was swift and calm. Writ-

ing to the Intelligencer on April 26, 1808, he

characterized the abuse as “coarse” and regretted

that his previous references to Thornton had been

“too flattering.” People who knew Thornton would

pay no attention to his latest rant, but it was due

his family as well as himself to refute some of the

more atrocious accusations. The stories about carv-

ing chimney pieces and missionary work were both

groundless, although he would not have been

ashamed if either were true. He recalled his last

visit with Washington at Mount Vernon, during

which time he had no favors to ask nor did his host

have any to grant. “The whole story,” Latrobe

wrote, “is a malicious fabrication—impossible in all

its circ*mstances of time and place.” He defended

his design for the Bank of Pennsylvania against

Thornton’s assertion that it was nothing more than

a copy of a Greek temple. Thornton’s observations

were stupid and he was “too ignorant, vain, and

despicable for argumentative refutation.” 111

Strangely, President Jefferson did nothing to

stop these men from airing their differences in pub-

lic. Both held positions in the administration and

would have yielded to a presidential command to

desist. But Jefferson remained quiet. The next vol-

ley was lobbed by Thornton in the Washington Fed-

eralist of May 7, 1808, in what was an amplification

of his earlier letter. In it Thornton railed with gusto,

skewering Latrobe with his special brand of con-

torted sarcasm. In one passage, Thornton expanded

upon his assertion that Latrobe’s career in London

was spent carving mantels:

To call him a carver of chimney pieces wasmeant to shew that his high assumption of thecharacter of an architect has not been of longstanding. His mode of behavior to me must haveoriginated in his old habits of carving chimneypieces. He cut and hewed at me in a very roughmanner, in private (in his private letters to Con-gress) then polished and smoothed down togive a kind of gloss, in public; but I had not

82 History of the United States Capitol

forgotten the chisel strokes in private, andunderstood better than the public his subse-quent meaning.

The letter concluded with a story that stretchedThornton’s credibility to the limit. He said that hehad accepted a challenge to a duel, but when hewent to the field, Latrobe was no where to be found.For three days, Thornton waited with his secondand surgeon, unaware that Latrobe had been “boundover to the peace.” He returned to town and sent anote saying that while the matter was now settled,he was nonetheless ready to take up the challengeagain. Latrobe, the coward, failed to reply andThornton concluded: “I received no answer, anddespise his threats, as much as I despise the man.” 112

The Washington Federalist carried a shortreply from Latrobe saying no more would be heardfrom him due to a libel suit filed on his behalfa*gainst Thornton. Thus a jury would decide“whether the Doctor be an original inventor, oronly a second hand retailer of falsehood.” 113

Latrobe’s complaint, filed on May 28, 1808, askedfor $10,000 in damages plus court costs.


While lawyers prepared their cases,

Latrobe began work on the east

side of the north wing by demol-

ishing all the flooring and ceilings from the cellar to

the roof. As a public exhibit, he laid out rotten

girders, plates, and joists for all to see. Although he

had hoped to reuse it, Latrobe also tore out the

brick arcade in the Senate chamber after discover-

ing the piers were built on wooden plates, which

were rotten. The arcade was also found to be laid

out on a partly circular, partly elliptical plan and it

would have been nearly impossible to contrive a

uniform vault to spring from it.114 A month earlier,

Jefferson had told Latrobe to leave the arcade in

place and reuse the old wooden columns unless it

was clear that they could afford stone columns.115

Jefferson’s instructions were shaped by his dread

of incurring another deficit, a fear that surely

clouded his judgment. Impractical and unwise, the

shortcuts were mercifully ignored.

Latrobe’s plans for reconstructing the interior

of the north wing were as inventive and daring as

anything he had attempted before. Unlike build-

ing from the ground up, this job involved preserv-

ing the outside shell and most of the interior walls

and inserting a vaulted structure within that ten-

uous envelope. The new work could not depend

on old walls for support. Rather, the new skeleton

was used to strengthen the outside skin. Like

builders in the Middle Ages, Latrobe used the out-

side walls as screens that performed virtually no

structural function. Instead of transferring struc-

tural loads via exterior flying buttresses, the north

wing vaulting was supported on new interior

columns and piers built within inches of the old

walls. Each room presented its own challenge,

and Latrobe’s solutions were as ingenious as the

problems were difficult.

During the summer of 1808, while Latrobe was

in Philadelphia, Lenthall pushed the work with

Lower Plan of the Original Senate Chamber Prior toReconstruction (top). Supreme Court Vaulting Plan (bottom)

Comparing “before” and “after” plans illustrates the transformation that took

place within the existing walls of the north wing. In creating the Supreme Court cham-

ber, Latrobe built new masonry supports to hold heavy ceiling vaults while imposing

little additional weight or lateral pressure on the old walls.

Jefferson and Latrobe 83

great energy. By the second week in September all

the arches and vaults were in place, including those

over the Supreme Court and the Senate chambers.

To cover the Senate, Latrobe devised a half dome

sixty feet in diameter springing from a new, semi-

circular western wall to a stout arch built against

the old east wall. Thus, the room’s plan was similar

to the previous Senate chamber but was slightly

smaller and no longer had a flat ceiling. It was also

unencumbered by the former arcade that took up

space and blocked views and voices. At the crown

of the brick dome were one semicircular and five

circular skylights protected from the weather by a

wooden monitor roof. Latrobe planned to paint the

underside of the monitor roof with imitation cof-

fers, thus giving it the appearance of a second

dome. In a final sleight of hand, the source of light

feeding the skylights from the roof was hidden

from view.

The floor of the new Senate chamber rested

on the vaults covering the Supreme Court.

Because the Court was only one story high, the

rise of its dome was quite shallow compared with

its span. Latrobe planned to divide the semicircu-

lar dome into nine tapering sections with conically

shaped vaults between stone ribs. To build the

vaults, each section would require its own center,

which Lenthall thought was too expensive and

time-consuming. He devised a simpler, cheaper

plan by which a smooth half dome could be con-

structed without ribs and support the Senate floor

above by means of annular vaults built upon its

haunches. While Latrobe did not care for Lenthall’s

simplified structure, he approved it in deference

to his clerk’s experience. Lenthall had, after all,

devised the centerings upon which all the vaults,

arches, and domes in the south wing were built,

and he knew as much about this type of construc-

tion as anyone.

By the end of July, the carpenters completed

the centers in the Supreme Court. Once masons

finished laying bricks on the framework and the

mortar dried, Lenthall began removing the center-

ing but detected an unaccountable warp in the new

arch built against the old east wall. He immediately

raised the centering and allowed the masonry to set

for another two months. On Friday, September 16,

the framework was safely removed from under the

east arch and, despite some suspicious vandalism,

he began dismantling the large frame under the

half dome on Monday. Soon after the centering was

lowered, workmen heard a loud noise—a frighten-

ing cracking sound—that sent them scrambling out

windows and doors just before the whole ceiling fell,

bringing down tons of brick and mortar. Lenthall

was the only one who did not make it to safety.116

News of the fatal accident spread through

Washington like wildfire. Even before Lenthall’s

body was recovered rumors were being spread by

North Wing Principal StaircaseConjectural Reconstruction, 1989

This unusual stone stair was built in the north wing’s oval hall in 1808, heavily

damaged by the fire of 1814, and not rebuilt during the subsequent restoration.

Latrobe’s design was probably inspired by Sir William Chambers’ Navy Staircase

(also called the Oval Stair) located in Somerset House, London.

84 History of the United States Capitol

Latrobe’s enemies, and the editor of the Monitor,

a friend of the administration, wanted to publish a

true account of the accident.117 Latrobe wrote the

newspaper a few hours after the ceiling fell, saying

that men were at that moment clearing debris hop-

ing to find Lenthall alive—the chance of which

was faint. By the time the piece was published the

coroner had determined that Lenthall’s death was

an accident.118

Despite the tremendous force of the disaster,

the vaults over the Senate chamber were not

injured. The half dome stood firm, presenting an

extraordinary sight when viewed from below.

Latrobe began rebuilding the courtroom as soon as

the rubbish was cleared. Funds were low but a

number of private citizens were willing to cover

the unforseen expense and all the workmen offered

to donate a week’s labor to “render the Mischief

invisible by the meeting of congress.” Instead of a

single arch along the east wall, Latrobe built three

arches carried on stout stone columns and

pilasters. The dome was designed with ribs as he

originally intended. All the material was on hand,

and Latrobe felt the work could be finished in a

month.119 Like so many of his past predictions, this

one also proved overly optimistic.

On December 1, 1808, President Jefferson

transmitted Latrobe’s sixth annual report, the last

of his administration, to Congress. Most of the

report dealt with the north wing, its reconstruc-

tion, and Lenthall’s accidental death. Latrobe

blamed the disaster on the two annular vaults car-

ried on the back of the shallow dome that were

intended to support the floor above. These struc-

tures literally broke the back of the Court’s ceiling.

In allowing Lenthall to proceed, Latrobe claimed,

his better judgment yielded to arguments of econ-

omy. At the close of the 1808 building season, much

progress had been made on rebuilding the Supreme

Court vaults, but they were not finished until the

spring of 1809.120

To continue work on the north wing, Latrobe

asked for an appropriation of $20,000. He also

wanted $25,000 to reconstruct the west side of the

wing containing the Library of Congress as well as

various committee rooms, offices, and storage

rooms. This side of the wing was riddled with rot

and the library was too small for the books already

on hand, which were piling up in heaps.121

Details of the Supreme Court Chamber

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1808

Library of Congress

On September 26, 1808, one week after John

Lenthall was killed by the collapse of the vault over the

Supreme Court chamber, Latrobe finished this drawing

showing how the vault would be rebuilt. Instead of a

single arch along the east wall, the architect designed a

three-bay arcade carried on columns and piers as shown

in the upper half of this drawing.

Jefferson and Latrobe 85

Latrobe described the facilities provided in his

design for the Library of Congress. It would hold

40,000 books arranged in three tiers against the

walls while two rooms were available for unbound

books, pamphlets, and printed copies of the laws.

A private reading room was provided for members

of Congress. Not said was how magnificently the

library would be lighted through an arched window

facing north, which would not be seen from the

outside. Nor did Latrobe mention that his design

would employ columns with papyrus capitals, bat-

tered alcove openings, and other references to the

architecture of the ancient Egyptian world, which

nurtured the arts of paper making and writing.

Most members of Congress would have found the

library exotic and unfamiliar. It was the earliest

American design in what would afterwards be

called the “Egyptian revival,” one of the favorite

styles for nineteenth-century cemeteries, prisons,

and libraries. Latrobe’s library design, however,

never got off the drawing board.

On December 12, 1808, Senator James Lloyd, a

Federalist from Massachusetts, introduced a reso-

lution inquiring into the amount of money

expended on the public buildings in Washington

and asking how much more would be needed to

finish them. The following day, Stephen Bradley of

Vermont offered an amendment confining the

inquiry to the President’s House and Capitol. The

amended resolution passed and Bradley and Lloyd

Design of theLibrary of Congressof the United States

by B. Henry Latrobe


Library of Congress

A plan at the bot-

tom of the sheet illus-

trates structural

modifications to first-

floor rooms that were

necessary to accommo-

date Latrobe’s new library

room shown in the upper

plan. The most captivating

part of the drawing, how-

ever, is the section of the

library shown at the top

of the sheet. In this

drawing, exotic papyrus

columns, splayed openings,

and cavetto cornices give

the design its Egyptian

flavor. Latrobe indicated

sunlight from a large

north-facing window

spilling from right to left

across the room. To make

the drawing more appeal-

ing, there are books on

the shelves, a map above

the fireplace, and framed

pictures between the


86 History of the United States Capitol

joined Samuel Smith of Maryland as members of a

committee appointed to conduct the inquiry.

Thomas Munroe reported that the north wing had

cost $371,388, while $323,388 had been spent on

the south wing. These figures supported Latrobe’s

repeated contention that his professional skill was

responsible for delivering a better building for less

money. But the committee was more interested in

learning about future funding requests. Latrobe

presented these figures in the form of a chart,

which is reproduced below.122

Legislators found the figures frightening. The

country was in the throes of economic depression

brought on by an embargo that closed American

ports to foreign commerce. Customs receipts

dropped 55 percent: the loss to the federal treas-

ury has been estimated at $9.3 million.123 New Eng-

land was the hardest hit region and her citizens

stirred up loud protests against the administra-

tion’s policies. By the opening of Congress on

November 7, 1808, Jefferson had received more

than 200 petitions protesting the embargo; 90 per-

cent were from Massachusetts.124 The administra-

tion’s policies, meant to punish England and

France, were barely felt by those nations while

maritime interests at home suffered badly. While

hindsight would show its nurturing effects on man-

ufacturing and industry, the embargo was despised

as an economic and political failure.

The state of the nation’s finances was not

encouraging. On January 5, 1809, when Senator

Andrew Gregg of Pennsylvania reported on a fund-

ing bill to complete the wings, the part aimed at

rebuilding the west side of the north wing was

immediately struck out by a vote of twenty to ten.

Twenty thousand dollars was granted for finishingthe Senate chamber and Supreme Court, and anadditional $6,000 was given for carving columncapitals in the hall of the House. Thus, the Senatewithheld about two-thirds of the funds Latroberequested. The amended appropriation wasreturned to the House, which deferred action untilit passed legislation to strengthen enforcement ofthe embargo.

The 10th Congress adjourned on March 4,1809, but the press of business made it clear thatthe next Congress could not wait until fall to meet.The opening of the 11th Congress was pushed upto the fourth Monday in May. Anticipating a longsession that might extend well into the summer,the Senate asked Latrobe to investigate relocationinto a more airy chamber. When the request wasmade, the Senate was sitting in a small committeeroom on the first floor of the north wing (modernday S–146 and 146A). While the room was a com-fortable accommodation during winter, theprospect of using it in summer was unpleasant.Latrobe responded with the idea of building a pavil-ion in the library space constructed with light framewalls and boards covered with painted or paperedcanvas. Although dilapidated, the library was highand airy enough to accommodate such a pavilion,and the room only needed to be cleared of thechairs and benches left over from the last term ofthe Supreme Court.125 Ornamental painter GeorgeBridport designed and installed the temporarychamber, receiving $950 for his efforts.126


For the 1809 building season Latrobewas granted funds to continue workin the north wing, to pay for the Sen-

ate’s temporary pavilion, and to continue carvingcolumn capitals in the House chamber. Jeffersonsigned the appropriation on the last day of his pres-idency, March 3, 1809. The following day JamesMadison was inaugurated in the House chamber.Although Jefferson remained in the President’sHouse another week, he “vacated it without regret,and with unfeigned joy took the road back to Monti-cello.” 127 Latrobe’s correspondence with Jefferson

1809 1810 1811 1812 1813 Total

Finish South Wing $6,000 $4,000 $4,000 $5,000 $1,000 $20,000

Paving and Steps $5,000 $3,000 $8,000

Finish South Recess $18,000 $6,000 $24,000

E. Side, North Wing $20,000 $1,500 $21,500

W. Side, North Wing $25,000 $15,000 $40,000

Finish North Recess $30,000 $18,500 $48,500

Center Building $100,000 $100,000 $25,000 $225,000

Landscaping $5,000 $5,000 $5,000 $10,000 $25,000

Total $69,000 $66,500 $127,500 $113,000 $36,000 $412,000

Jefferson and Latrobe 87

did not end with the president’s retirement, but

the two men never saw each other again. While

Jefferson maintained his interest in the public

buildings in Washington, he never returned to see

them. His retirement ended the extraordinary

patronage of a president whose involvement in

public architecture remains unequaled in the coun-

try’s history. Latrobe’s dealings with subsequent

chief magistrates would be stilted compared to the

cordial, almost fraternal relationship he had

with Thomas Jefferson. And while they often dis-

agreed on such things as skylights and lanterns,

their six-year collaboration ended in mutual admi-

ration. In a memorable tribute to Latrobe, the

retired president wrote:

I shall live in the hope that the day will comewhen an opportunity will be given you of finish-ing the middle building in a style worthy of thetwo wings, and worthy of the first temple dedi-cated to the sovereignty of the people, embel-lishing with Athenian taste the course of anation looking far beyond the range of Athen-ian destinies.128

On June 12, 1809, Latrobe assured Vice Presi-

dent George Clinton that there was no doubt that

the Senate would sit in its new chamber at the

opening of the next session of Congress. But he

needed an additional $5,000 to cover the expense

of re-vaulting the Supreme Court and raising the

wooden passage connecting the north and south

wings. Now two stories high, the gangway allowed

passage between the wings on the principal floor

where both the House and Senate chambers were

now located. Ten thousand dollars would also be

needed to buy furniture, carpet, and new draperies

for the Senate. The old desks were not suited to

the new chamber and Latrobe wanted to replace

them with new ones that were double, one desk for

two senators.129 With unusual ease, an appropria-

tion for $15,000 was passed on June 28, 1809, the

last day of the session. Sixteen hundred dollars

was added to cover the higher-than-expected

expense of fitting up the temporary Senate cham-

ber and providing it with furniture.130

Temporary Senate Chamber

by George Bridport, 1809

Library of Congress

For what promised to be a long, hot summer session, Philadelphia architect and

decorative painter George Bridport designed a temporary chamber located in the mid-

dle of the Library of Congress. For four months, the Senate met in the elegant pavil-

ion, pitched like a tent in the center of the library room.

88 History of the United States Capitol

One likely reason for Latrobe’s success in

obtaining additional appropriations was the popu-

larity of his “corn cob” columns, which had just

been put up in the east lobby of the north wing. To

carry the weight of the vaulted ceiling, Latrobe

positioned sandstone columns a few inches from

the old walls and designed them with capitals

carved with American ears of corn. Bundled corn

stalks recalled the fluting of a conventional column

shaft and the necking was portrayed as rope. The

corn order was an instant success. It was univer-

sally admired because it was undeniably appropri-

ate and there was nothing esoteric about it. It was

beautiful as well. On August 28, 1809, Latrobe sent

the model of the corn capital to Jefferson and told

him that it generated more praise than other, more

splendid works at the Capitol. Congressmen nick-

named it the “Corn Cob Capital” for the sake of

alliteration, he supposed, but he did not think the

name very appropriate.131

Using the corn order in rebuilding of the east

lobby scored a public relations coup. Latrobe

turned a structural necessity into a popular attrac-

tion that continues to delight visitors to this day.

Interestingly, the lobby is rarely—if ever—com-

pared with its counterpart in the south wing, which

has no columns at all. There Latrobe was able to

build the vestibule with walls strong enough to

support the weight of its vault without columns. Its

geometry is strong and simple, and ornamentation

is restricted to a few plaster moldings. There are

Corn Column

Perhaps Latrobe’s most popular achievement during his years at the Capitol was his

design for corn columns. Carved by Giuseppe Franzoni from Aquia Creek sandstone,

they were installed in the east vestibule of the north wing during the spring of 1809.

The fluting of a conventional shaft was recalled by bundled corn stalks. On the capital,

husks were folded back to reveal the cob and kernels of corn. (1971 photograph.)


Jefferson and Latrobe 89

no eye-catching features, yet the spacial experi-ence is eminently satisfying.

By the end of June 1809, the second vault overthe Supreme Court was finished. Plasterers com-pleted their work two months later. Although theceiling in the Senate chamber was first reporteduninjured by the collapse of the Supreme Courtvaults, workmen were apprehensive about its security. To allay their fears, Latrobe had aboutone third of the vault rebuilt and reinforced thesupporting walls. With some of the boldest hands,his son Henry (who was appointed clerk of theworks following Lenthall’s death) removed the cen-tering on August 25, 1809, “an exertion of industryand courage which has seldom been equaled byany set of men.” Latrobe considered the ceiling adaring feat and told the president that it was oneof the most extraordinary vaults ever attempted.132

The Court was about to take possession of thefirst room designed for its use. Since moving toWashington in 1801, the Court had been accommo-dated in various ways. It first met in a poorly fur-nished and inconvenient committee room (modernday S–146 and 146–A). When work began to rebuildthe interior of the north wing in 1808, it moved tothe library on the second floor. That room was so“inconvenient and cold” that the Court moved inthe spring of 1809 to Long’s Tavern located justeast of the Capitol. When construction began on itsown room in the Capitol, there was alarm amongreal estate investors around Judiciary Square whohad supposed the Court would soon be locatedthere. Even Jefferson thought the Court’s accom-modation in the Capitol was temporary. He thoughtthe Court would eventually move to JudiciarySquare and its room in the Capitol would become acourt of impeachment.133 But the Court nevermoved to Judiciary Square and continued to bor-row space in the Capitol until 1935.

The usual scarcity of workmen and difficultywith delivery of materials caused a brief delay inthe opening of the new Senate chamber, which wasused for the first time on Saturday, February 10,1810.134 The semicircular chamber was essentiallyan indoor theater reminiscent of ancient Greeceand Rome. Latrobe had used a similar plan for theanatomical theater he designed for the Universityof Pennsylvania’s medical school, which was com-pleted in 1806. That, in turn, was based on JacquesGondoin’s 1769 anatomy theater at the Ecole des

Chirurgie (School of Surgery), the first á la

antique room in Paris. Latrobe thought Gondoin’stheater was “one of the most beautiful rooms andperhaps the best lecture room in the world forspeaking, hearing, and seeing.” 135 From a report byleading French architects, Latrobe learned thatthey considered the shape and form of a domedsemicircle “the best adapted for the purposes ofdeliberation.” 136 In 1803 he had proposed such aroom for the House of Representatives and wasoverruled by the president. But Jefferson approveda domed semicircle for the Senate because it wasnot too different from the original plan, and it mayalso have reminded him of a famous landmark inhis beloved Paris.

In his annual report for 1809, Latrobe againasked for funds to reconstruct the western half ofthe north wing; again he was denied. What wasalready under way could be finished, but the coun-try was in no condition to pour money into newconstruction when the federal treasury was undersuch a severe strain. On January 11, 1810, a com-mittee of the House reported that “it is not deemedprudent at this time, when a resort to loans maybe necessary for the support of the Government,that any improvements whatever should be made,which can be, with any sort of propriety, dispensedwith.” 137 Clouds of war gathered as efforts to forceEngland and France to respect America’s neutral-ity failed. First the embargo closed American har-bors to all foreign commerce. Then, at thebeginning of the Madison administration, the Non-Intercourse Act opened ports to all nations exceptEngland and France. In May 1810, the Macon BillNo. 2 reopened trade with these two nations butthreatened non-intercourse with one if the otheragreed to respect neutrality. This last measurepractically guaranteed war with one of Europe’sgreat powers. None of these efforts would preventwar, and the economic hardships they brought pre-vented Latrobe from proceeding much further withhis plans for the Capitol.

For the 1810 building season, Latroberequested $77,500 but was granted $27,500. Workwas limited to the columns in the House chamberand finishing work on the eastern half of the northwing. The appropriation passed and was signed inthe last hours of the session, so late that Latrobehad begun to fear that nothing would be given atall. With so little money Latrobe dismissed all but

90 History of the United States Capitol

six or seven workmen and supplemented the build-

ing fund by selling surplus sheet iron, old desks,

and other worn-out furniture. Aggravating the

money problems, Latrobe discovered that furniture

for the Supreme Court could not be charged to the

Court’s contingency fund, but was taken instead

from his building accounts.138

The Italian sculptors were kept busy despite

the scarcity of money. Andrei continued carving

capitals in the House chamber and Franzoni worked

on a figure of Justice for the Supreme Court and

caryatids for the Senate. With two orders of columns

and six caryatids Latrobe’s sculptural program for

the Senate was especially varied and ambitious.

Positioned along the east wall under the visitor’s

gallery, the caryatids were carved figures that per-

sonified national prosperity and accomplishment—

Arts, Commerce, Agriculture, Science, Military

Force, and Civil Government.139 Unlike the ancient

caryatids of the Erechtheion in Athens, Latrobe’s

figures did not support the structure above but

stood in front of sandstone piers that did. For the

western entrance to the chamber, Latrobe designed

a screen of four Ionic columns with monolithic

shafts. They were ordered from James Traquair’s

marble yard in Philadelphia and were probably

delivered carved and ready to install. The columns

President’s Chair &c. Senate U. S.

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1809

Library of Congress

This sheet of details includes front and side views of

the canopied rostrum, as well as its framing plans. What

seems to most interest Latrobe, however, is the design

for the tripods (top) intended to hold Argand lamps

flanking the vice president’s chair.

Details of theupper Columns inthe Gallery of theEntrance of theChamber of theSenate U. States

by B. Henry Latrobe


Library of Congress

S’pecial guests of the

Senate were accommo-

dated in a small gallery

over the western vestibule

that offered an intimate

view of the proceedings

below. The gallery was

screened by small marble

columns with magnolias

incorporated into the cap-

itals. Formerly thought to

be cotton, the magnolia

design was Latrobe’s sec-

ond American order. The

magnolia columns did not

survive the fire of 1814.

Jefferson and Latrobe 91

supported a small gallery intended for special

guests that was screened by four dwarf columns.

For these diminutive columns Latrobe designed

his second American order, drawing upon the mag-

nolia flower for the capital. Andrei carved them,

undoubtedly welcoming the change from the

Corinthian order that he had been working on for

three years in the south wing.

For the want of money, very little was accom-

plished in 1810. In his annual report Latrobe

alluded to some unidentified improvements made

in the Senate chamber, but the plastering on the

east wall was not up and the draperies still had not

been installed. Because the sculptors were mainly

occupied in the south wing, their work in the Sen-

ate remained incomplete.140

Despite the economic conditions of the coun-

try, Latrobe bravely asked Congress for more

money. The west side of the north wing was so

View of the Capitol from the Northeast

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1810

Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland

Latrobe’s elegant drawing illustrates his vision for the Capitol’s completion. A

variation of the center portico, flanking colonnades, and grand stair would eventually

be built. The dome, however, would ultimately be built from a different design.

92 History of the United States Capitol

A. West Elevation of the Capitol

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1811

Library of Congress

B. South Elevation of the Capitol

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1811

Library of Congress

C. West Approach to the Capitol

by B. Henry Latrobe, 1811

Library of Congress

D. Model of Latrobe’s Capitol Design, 1994

Made during the last days of his first Capitol campaign, Latrobe’s studies for the west (garden) front included a design to fill the 170–foot gap

that then existed between the north and south wings. He proposed a rectangular building with a central nine-bay colonnade. It did not shelter an

entrance like its counterpart on the east (carriage) front, providing instead a grand balcony overlooking the city and the Virginia hills beyond the

Potomac. Entrance from the west was through a gate house, flanked by a pair of residences for the doorkeepers of the House and Senate. This

entrance structure was inspired by the ancient Propylaea, the entranceway to the Acropolis in Athens. Between the doorkeepers’ residences and the

Capitol, were private yards where the families could dry laundry and grow vegetables. As seen in both the west and the south elevations, Latrobe

intended for masonry terraces to accommodate the Capitol on its sloping site.

Jefferson and Latrobe 93

riddled with decay that repair was impossible and

funds were sorely needed to begin reconstruction.

Money was also needed to finish the recess, which

was necessary to prop up the sagging corner of

the south wing. Stone platforms would also be

built at the north and south ends, and the sculp-

tors needed to keep working. He also asked that

the building fund be reimbursed the $2,432 spent

to furnish the Supreme Court. Money was needed

to buy glass, repair the grounds, and pay salaries

and contingencies. In all, Latrobe asked for

$47,432 and Congress denied the entire request.


On March 3, 1811, the 11th Congress

adjourned without making an appropri-

ation for the Capitol. Work stopped,

such as it was, bringing an end to the first phase of

Latrobe’s Capitol career. Near the close of the next

session, an appropriation was made to clear up

past debts, to complete the sculpture in the Sen-

ate chamber, and to pay the return passage of the

two Italian sculptors (which they did not take).141

Latrobe was granted $1,811 for his salary up to

July 1, 1811, when his duties as surveyor of the

public buildings ceased. The legislation styled

Latrobe as the “late surveyor,” which he unac-

countably took as a “public stigma.” 142 The appro-

priation was approved on July 5, 1812, less than

three weeks after the United States declared war

on Great Britain.

Latrobe’s standing among congressmen and

senators was never high. He was accused of extrav-

agance and wasting the public’s money, and all the

facts and figures supporting his claims of economy

could not erase the impression of undue excess.

His estimates, whether for construction costs or

completion dates, were generally misleading. The

commissioners had built a plainly finished wing

that suited the simple taste of most legislators.

There seemed to be no official dissatisfaction in

Congress with the style of the north wing’s interior

finish, but the grandeur of the south wing was

often construed as wasteful, contrary to the Amer-

ican notion of thrift. Legislators generally thought

luxury had no place in the seat of a republican

government. Criticism based on the perception of

extravagance caused Latrobe much uneasiness.

Outside Congress, the Federalist press

attacked Latrobe for a wide range of misdeeds,

including insubordination, incompetence, waste,

and complicity in Lenthall’s death. Latrobe tended

to attribute these articles to Dr. Thornton, but

some were written by other enemies, including

James Hoban and John P. Van Ness, a prominent

local businessman and civic leader. In October

1808, Hoban, using the pseudonym “A Plain Man,”

blamed Latrobe for the faulty design of the vault

that killed Lenthall. Latrobe’s absences from Wash-

ington while “arching experiments” were under-

way were unforgivable, and blaming Lenthall for

his own death was a “mean subterfuge.” He

accused Latrobe of forging ahead with the whole-

sale reconstruction of the north wing’s interiors,

while ignoring the president’s wish to preserve the

columns and arches from the former Senate cham-

ber.143 This charge was often repeated and trou-

bled Latrobe considerably. The charges appeared

again in 1809 in an article by John Van Ness, who

signed himself “An Humble Citizen.” He accused

Latrobe of not following Jefferson’s instructions in

regard to the north wing and simultaneously

demonstrated that the architect’s enemies did not

lack passion. Van Ness wrote:

Let it not be said that nothing can escape yourcovetous grasp. That whenever an appropria-tion is to be expended, there you are. By turnsthe architect; the importer, the commission-broker; the upholsterer; the carriage purchaser&c. &c. Now soaring aloft on the cleaving wingsof your transcendent genius; then crawling likea reptile through the humble dust: alternatelyacting the rampant lion, and the fawningspaniel. Unfortunate versatility, if you please! 144

To reassure himself that he had understood

Jefferson’s wishes, Latrobe wrote the ex-president

asking him to recall the instructions regarding plans

to rebuild the old Senate chamber. Jefferson replied

that inquiries of that nature made “appeals to mem-

ory, a faculty never strong with me, and now too

sensibly impaired to be relied on.” Details may elude

him but his general impression was that Latrobe

performed his duties with “ability, diligence, and

zeal.” He was not, however, sufficiently guarded

when it came to money. In the matter of the new

Supreme Court and Senate chambers, Jefferson

was certain that what had been built was from the

94 History of the United States Capitol

plans that he approved. Jefferson continued with

friendly remarks on the architect’s skill, which must

have lifted Latrobe’s spirits considerably:

Besides constant commendations of your tastein Architecture and science in execution, Ideclared on many and all occasions that I con-sider you as the only person in the U.S. whocould have executed the Representativeschamber or who could execute the Middlebuilding on any of the plans proposed. Therehave been too many witnesses of these decla-rations to leave any doubt as to my opinion onthis subject.145

Without building funds the post of surveyor of

the public buildings simply evaporated into thin air.

Informally, however, Latrobe continued to provide

counsel in matters regarding the Capitol. In 1812

he certified the account of John Rea, an uphol-

sterer hired by the Senate to make curtains for its

chamber. Blue and yellow cambric, silk fringe, and

tassels were used to make the window treat-

ments.146 In February 1813 Speaker Henry Clay vis-

ited the architect to discuss improvements for the

House chamber and was given a full explanation of

the events surrounding its design and construc-

tion. The Speaker was particularly concerned

about the approaching summer session and wanted

to know if something could be done with the sky-

lights. Past remedies for too much light and heat

included throwing canvas tarpaulins over some

skylights or closing others with blinds. During the

summer, nearly 90 percent of the skylights were

partially blocked and the one operable skylight

was totally inadequate for ventilation purposes.

Feeling vindicated, Latrobe said the roof framing

had been prepared for a lantern, and if it were

built, the problems would be solved. There was

also the matter of adding forty-four more seats to

accommodate the increased membership in the

House resulting from the 1810 census.147

Clay asked Latrobe to write his ideas in a

report, which the architect duly sent to the

Speaker on February 4, 1813. All of his sugges-

tions were approved and the House appropriated

$5,000 to put them into effect. But President Madi-

son hired someone else to install the new chamber

floor and nothing was done about the skylights or

lantern because funding would not permit it. Madi-

son told Latrobe that he could not engage him for

work because of his low standing with members.

Latrobe recalled the conversation in a letter writ-

ten to his business associate, Robert Fulton:

He then said at once, that I was so unpopular,and such strong prejudices existed against me,that he could not venture ever to employ me,altho’ he believed the prejudices to beunfounded: that nobody doubted my Skill ormy integrity, but that I was thought extrava-gant, a waster of public money, and all the restof the Trash that has as little foundation, as thestories told of yourself or any other man of tal-ents not generally understood.148


The first session of the 13th Congress

opened on May 24, 1813, with the

House sitting under the glare of the

noonday sun streaming through the skylights that

had given Latrobe so much worry. A month later,

in the splendid courtroom in the north wing,

another of Latrobe’s vexing problems was finally

settled. The case of Latrobe v. Thornton was

decided in the Circuit Court of the District of

Columbia on June 24, 1813, more than five years

after it was initiated. To give their lawyers the

facts of the case, both the plaintiff and defendant

wrote notes with their interpretations of the events

that led to the suit. Latrobe’s memorandum to Wal-

ter Jones and John Law was a brief account of his

first meeting with Dr. Thornton in 1798, his opin-

ions on the design of the Capitol, his appointment

as surveyor of the public buildings, and the ensu-

ing troubles. Some details were in conflict with the

sequence of events, but generally Latrobe’s

affidavit was direct and dispassionate. He wanted

his lawyers to concentrate on one particular aspect

of Thornton’s libel and “the rest would come in a

corroborative of the attempt to destroy that pro-

fessional reputation on which the support of my

family, as well as the peace of my mind, and my

acceptance in society depend.” 149

By contrast, Dr. Thornton’s twenty-three page

note to his lawyer, Francis Scott Key, was ram-

bling and not very helpful.150 Stories in Thornton’s

newspaper attacks, such as Latrobe the chimney-

piece carver or Latrobe the Moravian missionary,

were from men who either had recanted or were

Jefferson and Latrobe 95

now dead. To defend the missionary story, for

instance, Thornton wrote:

I heard that Mr. Latrobe came out to this coun-try as a missionary or agent to the Moravians, avery worthy and religious Sect; but Mr.Nicholas King being also dead prevents myproving this, and some other points that wouldhave borne very hard on Mr. Latrobe’s archi-tectural abilities. But Mr. Latrobe is notexcluded from being an architect by his mora-vian uniform. However I think I have ratherlibeled the moravians by supposing he couldbe sent on so honorable a mission.

In another passage Thornton made fun of

Latrobe’s unfortunate luck with vaults and arches

that fell. While accidents did occur, Thornton’s

exaggeration of them was used to question

Latrobe’s claims as a professional architect:

It is well known the arches of the PenitentiaryHouse in Richmond fell, the arches at the Trea-sury office of the U. S. fell twice, & the cost ofthat work was 13,940 Dolls. & the estimate only$8,000! Can an architect make such blunders?The arch at the Capitol fell, & killed poorLenthall! If Mr. King had lived the secret of thatwork would have been known & shown to beMr. Latrobe’s [fault] & not Mr. Lenthall’s asLatrobe pretended. The arch at the Secretaryof State’s office fell and after the failure in theconstruction of so many arches who can withpropriety call him an arch—itect?

Page after page of similar explanations and

excuses were lightened by puns and double enten-

dres. Thornton sometimes turned to verse:

DescriptionHe’s about six feet two,Of an ash coloured hue.His face is of brass—His Eyes cas’d with Glassnot to seeas do weBut, because they are green—To prevent being seen.

When e’er he walks byeHe looks in the sky,Like one in a wonder,As Ducks do in thunder.His manners are blunt, And his Laugh is a grunt.

A half dozen other poems of similar merit were

incorporated in Thornton’s defense, and it may

have seemed to Key that his client considered a

$10,000 libel suit nothing more than a joke. Indeed,

Thornton proposed to address the court in verse,

following a recital of his “Epitaph” of Moll Turner,

the woman supposedly ruined by the plaintiff:

Judges & Jury of the Court,I pray that you’ll excuse my sport,In giving poor Moll’s Epitaph,And hope I shall have no denial,In substituting in this trial,Instead of Fines—a General Laugh!

Year after year, Thornton and Key were able

to postpone the trial by claiming that one witness,

Ferdinando Fairfax, was unable to attend court.

Fairfax was Thornton’s witness to the claim that

Washington had no confidence in Latrobe. After

the delaying tactics could buy no more time, the

case was tried in the summer of 1813 and Thorn-

ton was found liable. For unexplained reasons

Latrobe did not press damages, but the moral vic-

tory was priceless. The court awarded Latrobe one

cent plus costs. Thornton was silenced at last. But

there would be little time to savor victory. In

November, Latrobe left Washington to embark

upon the next phase of his career, one he hoped

would bring the financial security he longed to

provide his family. As an agent of Robert Fulton’s

Ohio Steamboat Company, he would spend sixteen

months in Pittsburgh, enduring one of the most

disappointing episodes of his life.

JEFFERSON AND LATROBE - GPO · earn Latrobe additional income. 5 Although the pres- ... A grand stair on the west ... could not be supported from within due to the. Jefferson and - [PDF Document] (2024)


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