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Born: 5/27/1761, Died: 3/28/1828

Physician and amateur architect William Thornton was born on the West Indian island of Tortola, the son of William and Dorcas (Zeagers) Thornton. As a child he was sent to England and later (c.1781-1784) studied medicine at the College of Edinburgh. After taking a grand tour of Europe, Thornton returned briefly to Tortola before coming to the United States. He became an American citizen in Delaware on January 7, 1788, was elected to the American Philosophical Society the same year, and moved to Philadelphia in 1789. In July of 1789, the Library Company of Philadelphia, having determined to erect a building to which it could move from Carpenters' Hall, advertised for "ingenious Artists, and Friends to the Institution, to favour them with Designs and Elevations for the purpose." Thornton appears to have been challenged by the opportunity, even though he lacked experience. He later stated, "When I travelled I never thought of architecture, but I got some books and worked a few days, then gave a plan in the ancient Ionic order which carried the prize" (quoted by Fiske Kimball in his Dictionary of American Biography entry, v.9, p. 504) The building on Fifth Street south of Chestnut was erected to his design (1789-1790; demolished 1887; reconstructed to house the library of the American Philosophical Society).

In 1790, Thornton married Anna Maria Brodeau and returned to Tortola for two years. When he learned of the United States Capitol competition, Thornton later wrote, "I lamented not having studied architecture, and resolved to attempt this grand undertaking and study at the same time. I studied some months and worked almost night and day." The story of Thornton's winning design has often been told and need not be repeated here. It is adequate to say that President Washington favored its "grandeur, simplicity and convenience," and Secretary of State Jefferson called the design "simple, noble, beautiful, excellently arranged and moderate in size." For all this praise, Thornton would spend the next decade defending his Capitol design that proved in the execution to be difficult and controversial. In 1793, for example, Stephen Hallet and James Hoban attacked Thornton's design. President Washington, at his wits' end over the bickering between these three, sent Hallet and Hoban to Philadelphia to meet with Samuel Blodget, Superintendent of Public Buildings, and Thornton. Since Blodget also thought Thornton's plan "impracticable," Thornton arrived at the meeting with William Williams and Thomas Carstairs as his advisors. Jefferson presided over this extraordinary meeting that resulted in some minor changes but left the design in place. A few years later, Thornton would again lock horns over his design, this time with Benjamin Henry Latrobe--here the amateur would finally meet his match.

Among Thornton's other designs are a house for John Tayloe (1798-1800) called The Octagon--now headquarters of the American Institute of Architects--and Tudor Place (c.1805-1816), both in the District of Columbia. Woodlawn Plantation near Mount Vernon, VA (c.1800-1805) is usually attributed to him, and for Thomas Jefferson he designed Pavilion 7 at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville (1817-1821).

Written by Roger W. Moss.

Clubs and Membership Organizations

  • American Philosophical Society


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