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“Respective [sic] View of the Federal House,” by Andrew Mayfield Carshore, 1792

Many submissions to the Capitol design competition failed to impress President Washington, including this one.

1976.88.23 Courtesy of The Maryland Historical Society

View of the Federal House

Designing the Capitol

Pierre L’Enfant laid out the streets of Washington, D.C., but failed to produce designs for public buildings as requested. To fill this gap, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson proposed an architectural competition for the new Capitol in 1792. The contest offered entrants a city lot—and a cash prize of $500. It drew about thirteen applicants, including soldiers, teachers, judges, and craftsmen originally from Ireland, France, England, Germany, and America.

The competition entries disappointed President Washington. The designs lacked the dignity and stateliness he had expected. No prizes were awarded until, early in 1793, Dr. William Thornton presented a plan that President Washington praised for its “grandeur, simplicity, and beauty.” Thornton had envisioned a Capitol with the classical elegance, sophistication, and grand scale that Washington wanted.