The Capitol Dome

Summer 2013

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of the by Don Alexander Hawkins ". . . the great circular room and dome made a part of the earliest idea of the Capitol, as projected by Major L'Enfant, drawn by Doctor Thornton, and adopted by General Washington.You will see it so marked on the plan of the city engraved by Thackara and Vallance in Philadelphia, 1792. John Trumbull to " Charles Bulfinch, January 28, 1818 2 THE CAPITOL DOME p SUMMER 2013 LIBRARY OF CONGRESS "Pray get me by some means or other a compleat set Piranesi's drawings of the Pantheon . . . I wish to render them useful in the public buildings now to be begun at Georgetown. " (fig. 1) Thomas Jefferson to Wm. Short, March 16, 1791 RESIDENT WASHINGTON WAS DISAPPOINTED with the results of the competition for the design of the United States Capitol; therefore, the commissioners of public buildings he had appointed were also disappointed.1 The competition had been announced in March 1792,2 and over a dozen sets of drawings had been submitted by mid-July. None was acceptable, and by November, the architect of the least unacceptable competitive drawing was struggling with his fifth attempt at a design.3 French-born architect Stephen Hallet had every right to expect that, with the active support of the commissioners and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, he would eventually succeed. He may have heard that William Thornton, a doctor from the West Indian island of Tortola, had been in communication with the commissioners, requesting permission to make a very late submission.4 He also may have heard of their politeness and vague encouragement of Thornton, while letting him know that Hallet was well advanced with his drawings. Hallet never saw the drawings Thornton brought from Tortola, but if he had, he is unlikely to have been much concerned: the amateurish inadequacy of Thornton's proposal would have been obvious to him.5 But then Thornton made another design, and in a matter of weeks he had displaced Hallet as the potential architect of the Capitol.6 His prize-winning design is unlike any that had come before it, even his own first attempt.7 So how did Thornton-the-Newcomer manage to leapfrog over Halletthe-Industrious, who had been working so closely with both the secretary of state and the commissioners? First, by not officially submitting his first weak design, he avoided being eliminated in the first round of the competition. Second, the official plan of the federal city, produced just before his arrival in Philadelphia, gave him graphic clues to the desirable scale and massing of the building on the crest of its pedestal-like hill. Third, he conferred with someone who had useful insights into the

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