Philadelphia-born architect Thomas Ustick Walter, son of bricklayer Joseph Saunders Walter and his wife Deborah Wood Walter, has proved to be the most important American architect between Benjamin Henry Latrobe
and Henry Hobson Richardson. Trained in the office of William Strickland
and schooled by John Haviland
and the landscape artist William Mason -- what Walter called a "liberal but not collegiate" education -- he also served an apprenticeship with his father with the ambition of becoming a bricklayer/contractor. By 1831, however, Walter had begun to practice architecture, first gaining local recognition with his gothic-style Moyamensing Prison (1831-35) and then winning national recognition for the design of Girard College for Orphans (1833-48), "the last word in American Greek Revivalism and unquestionably its grandest monument."
Hundreds of commissions followed in the 1830s and 1840s, including those as far-flung as Venezuela and China. It was in 1850, however, when Walter entered the competition for the design for the extension of the United States Capitol, that his place in American architecture was firmly established. The wings and the dome of the Capitol shaped the image and iconography of American governmental building for a century to come. Had Walter executed no other design save the Capitol, his place as a key figure in American architecture would be assured. But the full body of his public and private commissions, together with his role as a founder of the American Institute of Architects, established him in the view of his contemporaries as the dean of American architects.
In 1865 Walter resigned as architect of the Capitol and retired to Germantown in Philadelphia, where he had built for himself an Italianate villa in 1861. Financial reverses in the early 1870s caused him to return to the practice of architeture, but he failed to capture major commissions. When his friend and younger colleague John McArthur, Jr. won the Philadelphia City Hall competition, Walter was appointed his second in command. He held this post for over a decade until his death in 1887.
Throughout his life, Walter had been concerned about the place of architecture in society and the development of the architectural profession. In 1838 he wrote to John C. Loudon, "if the mass of the people were generally well informed on the subject of architecture, assuming pretenders would be frowned into oblivion -- true genius would be fostered, and the nations would look to their Architects and not to their arms for the means of handing down to ages yet unborn the story of their power and greatness." In 1836 he had suggested the formation of an "American Institute of Architects" (later changed to American "Institution" of Architects) with A. J. Davis as president and himself as secretary. Unfortunately, the "Institution" did not long survive, but it paved the way for the formation of the AIA a few years later. Walter was elected first Vice-President of the AIA in 1857 and served as President from 1876 until 1887.