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William Thornton

first architect of the U.S. Capitol

William Thornton

William Thornton was born on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands on May 20, 1759. When he was five he was sent to Lancaster, England, where he was raised and educated by Quakers. In 1777 he was apprenticed for a term of four years to a practical physician and apothecary in the Furness district of Lancashire (now Cumbria). He subseqeuently continued his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh and in London, and received his medical degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1784. He returned to the West Indies in 1785, emigrated to Philadelphia in 1786, and became an American citizen in 1786.

Although Thornton did practice medicine, his true passions were far different. While completing his apprenticeship, Thornton's notebooks and journals were filled with more drawings (flora and fauna, portraits, landscapes, historical scenes, and studies of machinery) than anatomical notes, and while in Edinburgh he expanded his "studies" to include architecture. After moving to Philadelphia he became involved in the abolitionist cause. He also invested in John Fitch's steamboat venture, and even contributed designs for the cabin of the boat as well as mechanical improvements.

Thornton's first serious foray into architecture came in 1789, when he submitted a design to the architectural competition for the Library Company of Philadelphia's new hall. His drawings were awarded the premium, but were not strictly followed during actual construction.

During a visit to his birthplace between October 1790 and October 1792, Thornton learned about the design competitions for the U.S. Capitol and the President's House to be built in the new Federal District. Although the deadline had officially passed by the time he returned to America, a design for the Capitol had not been chosen and Thornton was allowed to compete. Painter John Trumbull delivered Thornton's plan to President George Washington on January 29, 1793, and they were officially approved on April 2, 1793. Thornton received $500 and a building lot in the new city for his winning design. In September of 1794, President Washington named Thornton as one of three "Commissioners of the Federal District" in charge of laying out the new federal city and overseeing construction of the first government buildings, including the Capitol, of which he became supervisor and remained in charge until 1802.

model of the Capitol as designed by Thornton
model of the Capitol as designed by Thornton

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Thornton head of the Patent Office, an office he held until his death in 1828. During this period Thornton also designed homes for Colonel John Tayloe (the "Octagon House"), Major Lawrence Lewis (nephew of George Washington), and Thomas Peter (husband of Martha Washington's granddaughter Martha Parke Custis). William Thornton died in Washington, D.C., on March 28, 1828.

Architect of the Capitol
Library of Congress

John Fitch
John Trumbull
President George Washington
President Thomas Jefferson
Martha Washington

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This page was last updated on 03/27/2018.