American Architecture Series
William Thornton

Biography of American Neoclassical Architect: Designer of US Capitol Building.

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US Capitol Building, Washington DC.
(1792-1827) Thornton's design for this
icon of Public art in the capital of the
young republic called for a large
neoclassical structure with wings and
a dome. After the fire of 1814, the
building was restored by Benjamin
Latrobe, who reworked its interior.

William Thornton (1759-1828)


Early Life
Architectural Design for US Capitol Building
Domestic Architecture

Art of American Architecture Series
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The Octagon Building (1799-1802)
Washington DC.

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One of the earliest American architects, William Thornton achieved early fame for his design of the US Capitol Building in Washington DC, in the style of neoclassical architecture. He was also active in domestic architecture, being responsible for the John Tayloe town house, known as The Octagon (1799-1802) and Thomas Peter's villa, Tudor Place (1808-16). His other buildings included Woodlawn Plantation, Fairfax County, Virginia (1805), and Library Hall, Philadelphia (1789-90). In addition, he submitted a number of architectural drawings for building a pavilion at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, from which Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) designed Pavilion VII (1817-21). Thornton also served as the first Architect of the Capitol and Superintendent of the United States Patent Office. A serious and sophisticated, if, strictly speaking, amateur artist, Thornton is significant for his experimentation with classicism and his efforts to express the meaning of the new American political order in the language of late-18th century architecture. For more about the origins and development of building design, see: History of Architecture (3000 BCE - present).

Early Life

William Thornton was born on a sugar plantation on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, but grew up among his Quaker relations in Lancashire, England. Although a young gentleman of fortune, he was apprenticed to an apothecary and then studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, receiving the M.D. degree in 1784. He continued his studies in London and Paris and travelled in Europe and Scotland before coming to the United States in 1786.

Thornton established a medical practice in Philadelphia but found the fees small and the nature of physicians' work there "laborious" and "disgusting." His scientific accomplishments, however, gained him election to the American Philosophical Society, and his visionary turn of mind attracted him to the cause against slavery and to prospects for John Fitch's steamboat, to which he contributed designs as well as financial support. His "long attention to drawing and painting" and inclination for design led him to submit competition drawings for Library Hall for the Library Company of Philadelphia; his entry was selected in 1789. In 1790 he sailed for Tortola with his young bride, Anna Maria Brodeau, hoping to restore his dwindling fortune with a lucrative medical practice. (See also: American Colonial Art: 1670-1800).



Architectural Design for US Capitol Building

On Tortola he learned of the competition for the public buildings in Washington, DC., and began a design for the proposed U.S. Capitol, which he carried with him on his return to Philadelphia in October 1792. After gaining additional information about requirements and site, he modified his initial plan (calling for a 500-foot front) and submitted drawings that, on the enthusiastic recommendations of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and President George Washington, were awarded the premium. Thornton received a prize of $500 and a plot of land in the city. While Library Hall exhibited features characteristic of British Palladianism, Thornton's Capitol was inspired more by the French tradition of neoclassical art, particularly the east front of the Louvre Palace (1667-70) and its 18th-century heritage, as derived from classical Greek architecture. For the central part of the design he was inspired by the Parisian Pantheon.

After disagreements erupted between Thornton and the two individuals responsible for the execution of the design, Stephen Hallet and James Hoban [Note: Hallet (1755–1825) tried to remove the rotunda under which George Washington was to be enshrined upon his death; Hoban (1762-1831) was the Irish-American architect of the White House 1791-1800] - the President appointed Thornton to the three-member Board of Commissioners of the Federal District from 1794 to 1802, and in that capacity exercised some sway over the execution of the Capitol and other public works. Although generally accepting of changes in the Capitol proposed by Jefferson or dictated by circumstances, he clashed sharply with superintending architects George Hadfield (1763-1826) and Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) when they sought to depart substantially from the basic design. Latrobe's alterations of the interiors - completed after the fire of 1814 - eventually prevailed, as did the wooden dome (replaced by an iron version in the 1860s), wings and western portico designed in the 1820s by Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), but the configuration, the design of the central facade and, more important, the conception of the Capitol remain Thornton's enduring contribution to public American art of the early 19th century.

Domestic Architecture

In 1802 President Jefferson appointed Thornton superintendent of the Patent Office, a position he held (and needed for income) until his death, 26 years later. Although government service proved demanding and a wide range of interests absorbed him, Thornton produced innovative designs for two Washington DC, residences that exemplify the ideal of republican simplicity in the domestic architecture of the new nation. The first was the John Tayloe III town house, known as The Octagon (1799-1802). This building served as the "Executive Mansion" after the 1814 burning of the White House, and in 1899 it was purchased by the American Institute of Architects, whose headquarters building stands behind it. The second house designed by Thornton was Thomas Peter's villa, Tudor Place, completed in 1816. Another of Thorton's architectural designs was for Woodlawn Plantation, Virginia, which he produced for Major Lawrence Lewis (a nephew of George Washington) and his wife, Eleanor Parke Custis (granddaughter of Martha Washington), on 2,000 acres in Fairfax County.

Interestingly, one of two elevation drawings that Thornton prepared for the University of Virginia, influenced Thomas Jefferson's design for Pavilion VII, notably his decision to employ rounded columns rather than square pilasters in the colonnade that unites the principal university buildings.

In the 1820s, now established as a figure in 19th century architecture of the young Republic, Thornton was elected a member of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, whose members included former presidents Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, as well as a number of representatives of the army, government, and other professions.

For details of later 19th century Gothic Revival architecture, see the careers of Richard Upjohn (1802-78) and James Renwick (1818-95).

More Nineteenth Century American Architects

Henry Hobson Richardson
Champion of Romanesque designs for public buildings.
Richard Morris Hunt
Dean of American architecture, best known for sumptuous private houses.
William Le Baron Jenney
Famous for his commercial high-rise buildings in Chicago.
Chicago School of Architecture
The foremost group of skyscraper designers in America.
Cass Gilbert
Beaux-Arts architect of the Minnesota State Capitol.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Highly influential architect, noted for his Prairie School houses.

20th Century American Skyscraper Designers

Second Chicago School of Architecture (c.1940-75)

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