George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton were patrons of architecture. Washington and Jefferson also designed buildings. Washington supervised the building of Pohick Church, a gentle, red-brick structure near Mount Vernon; after this obeisance to the past, Washington, as well as Hamilton, turned away from the Georgian architectural style, which came to be regarded as symbolic of a colonial status (and presumably boring besides). Nor did Washington and Hamilton endorse any so-called Federalist architecture, as opposed to Jeffersonian-Republican architecture. Hamilton might have done so after Washington's death but in fact showed no inclination to the severe Doric style of Arlington House, designed by George Hadfield for George Washington Parke Custis, Martha Washington's son by her first husband. In this house, begun in 1802 practically as a Federalist monument looming over the federal city, which Jefferson had captured in the election of 1800, the Custis family created a shrine to Washington. Like Washington himself, however, this first Washington memorial had no direct heirs until a generation, and the Federalist Party, had passed.
The architects of the 1780s and 1790s were non-partisan. Except for Charles Bulfinch, considered the first professional American architect, the only trained talents were French, Irish, or English. Major Charles L'Enfant designed the balconied presidential mansion for the government installed in New York in 1783 and remodeled its Congress building, Federal Hall—both gone and unmemorable. Joseph François Mangin did much better with his design for New York's City Hall—light, airy, plastered, and modern for its time. Mangin's sponsor was Hamilton, triumphing over Burr and his favored architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Mangin also designed the first St. Patrick's Cathedral, on Mott Street, and the city's first public theater. His most formidable competitor before the arrival of Latrobe had been Pierre Pharoux, who designed city and country mansions for the Livingstons, two abortive towns west of the Adirondacks, and a splendid plan for Esperanza (now Athens) on the Hudson. Had Esperanza been built as Pharoux intended, the world would have a neoclassical city hall, market, porticoed church, and triumphal arch in the spirit of the French architects Claude-Nicolas Ledoux and Étienne-Louis Boullée.
Burr had previously favored Marc Isambard Brunel, an indifferent architect though a great engineer. Brunel, a French-born Englishman who fled to New York during the French Revolution, proposed to remodel a country house for Burr in a peculiar neo-Baroque style; Burr became occupied with other things and then turned to Latrobe, another engineer-architect, before the place was torn down by the financier John Jacob Astor. The closest equivalent to Brunel's taste was that of Bulfinch in Boston, though he was vastly more competent in the execution of his projects. Brunel, like Bulfinch, used the bombé (having outward curving lines) front to impart grandeur
even to row houses, and he, too, drew versions of pantheonic public buildings. But Bulfinch built them, as did Jefferson. The great Virginian's most famous structures were the rotunda library at the University of Virginia, the mansion for his friend Governor James Barbour, and, one might say, the subsumed pantheon at Monticello. Bulfinch provided the more traditional English-Palladian format for the Massachusetts State House and the Cambridge City Hall.
Upstate New York had its counterpart to Bulfinch in Philip Hooker, whose stone Hyde Hall in Cooperstown was the grandest country house away from the Hudson and whose Albany Academy picked up where Pharoux had left off. Both these (stillstanding) upstate buildings would have been eclipsed had ironworks and the grazing of merino sheep rewarded the expectations of David Parish and the French architect Joseph Jacques Ramée. Parish, a financier, brought Ramée to America in 1811, and the two created the only neoclassical factories in the United States, set picturesquely beside waterfalls in the brushy backwoods around Parishville, a village named after Parish near Ogdensburg on the St. Lawrence River. Along with Parish's neoclassical country villa, these factory buildings are gone, though Ramée's neoclassical church stands in the hamlet of Antwerp. Iron ore proved less than perfect for the task they had assigned to it, and the winters were too ferocious for the sheep. Ramée moved on to design Union College, in Schenectady, New York, the first college campus built around a rotunda library.
Four years later, Jefferson and Latrobe made the University of Virginia a constructed curriculum of red-brick, porticoed, Gallo-Palladian-Romanism, guiding the taste of graduate planters all across Tennessee and Arkansas into Texas. Jefferson worked in several other styles, some of them, such as that of the marble, porticoed temple design for the Capitol and Monticello itself, derived from direct observation of French buildings during his tenure as minister to France.
The founders also felt an affinity for Ireland and the Irish hunger for independence, particularly as embodied by the member of the Irish parliament famed for his oratory, Henry Grattan. Real estate agents sometimes refer to buildings of the 1790s in
Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, or Salem, with fanlights over their front doors in the Dublin townhouse style of the time, as "Federalist." This is to conflate a period with a party. It would be better to speak of these buildings as "Grattanite." The White House was a specific testimonial to the American-Irish affinity; its Irish designer, James Hoban, derived the design from the Duke of Leinster's Dublin mansion, itself indebted to James Gibbs's Book of Architecture. L'Enfant, by contrast and by nature, had proposed something far too big. His presidential mansion would have been four times the size of the plan submitted by Hoban, as adjusted by Jefferson and Latrobe.
It must have given the elderly Jefferson satisfaction to see Latrobe produce a masterpiece on his own—no remodelings this time, as at the Capitol and White House. The Baltimore Roman Catholic Cathedral for Bishop John Carroll is the best building of the early American Republic, though it is challenged by another French neoclassical wonder nearby, Maximilien Godefroy's exquisite Unitarian Church. (Latrobe and Godefroy had been collaborators on a third masterpiece, the Baltimore Exchange, now lost to the wrecking ball.)
The city of Washington owed L'Enfant not only its overall plan but also the concept of a huge, centrally domed Capitol building as its centerpiece. The plan was that of Versailles, with the Capitol, only sketched, where the château of Louis XIV was situated, the White House in the place of the Petit Trianon. The winner of the commission to build the Capitol was William Thornton, physician, botanist, and amateur. When Thornton was unable to make a building out of a plan, Jefferson turned to the recently arrived Étienne Sulpice Hallet (who became known in America as Stephen Hallet). Like Thornton, Hallet was soon run off the job, as was, after him, George Hadfield, brother of Maria Cosway, Jefferson's inamorata in Paris. Hadfield retreated from the Capitol wars to the patronage of Custis. After Arlington House, Hadfield worked quietly on jails, banks, and federal buildings until his last great work, the Washington City Hall, in 1820, which was much admired by the architects Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, associated with the Greek Revival, and by hundreds of first-rate successors. The so-called Greek Revival came later, after Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans, and then was Greek in only a handful of antiquarian examples. In fact, the style was Roman-Jeffersonian—and it came after the early American Republic had become the rising American Empire.
Kennedy, Roger. Architecture, Men, Women and Money in America, 1600–1860. New York: Random House, 1985.
——. Greek Revival America. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1989.
——. Orders from France: The Americans and the French in a Revolutionary World, 1780–1820. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Pierson, William H., Jr. American Buildings and Their Architects. Vol. 1: The Colonial and Neoclassical Styles; Vol. 2: Technology and the Picturesque. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1970–1976.
Roger G. Kennedy