Thornton, William


1818 twice signed MsDS of the designer and 1st Architect of the Capitol as District of Columbia Justice of the Peace while also 1st Patent Office Superintendent


Autograph ID: 7208
Condition: Very Good, some light toning at folds, one small tear at bottom, minor fold separations
Description: “(1759-1828) American physician, inventor, painter and architect. Designed US Capitol, 1st Architect of the Capitol, 1st Superintendent of the US Patent Office.

Born in the British Virgin Islands, educated in England, apprenticed 1777-81 to a physician and apothecary, medical student at Edinburgh 1781. Continued medical studies in London from 1783 and received 1784 medical degree at the University of Aberdeen. Active in cause of anti-slavery, emigrated to Philadelphia 1786, lodged with James Madison, who was aware of his abolitionist activities, 1787-88. US citizen 1788, in 1789 submitted design to the architectural competition for the Library Company of Philadelphia’s new hall. His design won but was somewhat departed from in construction.

Thornton learned of design competitions for the US Capitol and the President’s House to be erected in the new federal city on the Potomac and was allowed to compete upon his return to Philadelphia. From July-Nov. 1792, the Washington administration examined closely designs submitted by Etienne Sulpice Hallet and Judge George Turner who were summoned in August 1792 to present their ideas to the District of Columbia Commissioners and local landholders. In early November Turner’s new designs were rejected. Artist John Trumbull handed in Thornton’s still “unfinished” revised plan of the Capitol building Jan. 29, 1793, the President’s formal approbation not recorded until April 2, 1793. After more drawings were prepared, Jefferson praised Thornton’s design as “simple, noble, beautiful, excellently distributed.” For his design, Thornton received $500 and a city lot. Execution of the design was entrusted to James Hoban and Hallet, who made numerous revisions including removing the rotunda under which Washington was to be enshrined upon his death.

On Sept. 12, 1794, the President appointed Thornton one of 3 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. Despite changes and additions by Latrobe and Bullfinch, much of the design of the facade of the central portion of the Capitol is his. He also designed the Tayloe House, also known as The Octagon House, in Washington. Erected 1799-1800, it served as a temporary “Executive Mansion” after the 1814 burning of the White House by the British, where President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812.

Around 1800, he designed Woodlawn for Major Lawrence Lewis (nephew of Geo. Washington) and his wife, Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis (granddaughter of Martha Washington), on 2,000 acres of Mount Vernon land. Around 1808, he designed Tudor Place for Thomas Peter and his wife, Martha Parke Custis (also a granddaughter of Martha Washington).

In 1802, President Jefferson appointed Thornton 1st Superintendent of the Patent Office, serving 1802-28. When Washington was burned by the British in 1814, Thornton convinced them not to burn the Patent Office because of its importance to mankind. He introduced innovations which survive today.

13 x 7 ¾ uncommon partly-printed MsDS as Washington DC Justice of the Peace and while 1st US Patent Office Superintendent, Washington, September 21 1818, 2pps (1st & 2nd pages of folded sheet docketed on 4th page). Thornton acknowledges a document between Andrew McCarran and James N. Edmondton, both of Washington DC, for the purchase and sale of a parcel of land in Washington DC. On the 2nd page, Thornton and fellow Justice of the Peace James M. Varnum attest to McCarren’s signature. At the bottom of the 2nd page is another MsDS whereby Thornton and Varnum acknowledge that McCarran’s wife Mariah has freely acknowledged the transaction.”
Type: Document

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