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Thomas Ustick Walter


Witness Post: Under the Dome


Thomas Ustick Walter may be one of the most famous American architects no one has ever heard of. He was an architectural genius in a time of Greek and Roman revival in this country.


Born in Philadelphia to a lower income family, his father was a bricklayer and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. The year was 1804. Joseph Walter, Thomas’ father, had modest aspirations for his son; he wanted him to follow in his footsteps and enter the order of masons. An alternative career that Joseph had considered was for Thomas to become a general contractor. The young Walter exceeded his father’s wildest dreams. Through hard work, disciplined study of the principles of architecture, and encouragement from some of the great mathematical minds of his time, Thomas Walter was able to build a company and create one of the most iconic structures in the United States today: the Dome of the Capitol in Washington, DC.


Picturing that classic white dome in my head, lots of questions come to mind: What do we really know about the man who designed this magnificent structure? Where did he come from? What inspired him?What inner confidence made him believe that he could supersede the great architects of his time and build a better symbol of democracy? These and other questions lie at the heart of this Witness Post.


This is my Witness Post of Thomas U. Walter, the first man to stand ‘Under the Dome’ that symbolizes the heart and station of the US government. 



T.U. Walter (Family Plug)


Thomas Ustick Walter is an ancestor of the Evans family (on our mother’s side of the family). My children will ask: “Dad, how are we related to this Walter guy, anyway?” To make a long story short, my Grandfather and namesake was Henry Cotheal Evans. His mother was Olivia Walter Cook. Her grandfather was Thomas U. Walter. That would make T.U. Walter my great, great, great grandfather (three greats). By adding “one more great” my daughter’s can cite their connection to this famous man.


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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey 

The World of Domes


Aside from soccer venues, football stadiums, and convention structures, among the largest and most famous domes in the world are the Pantheon of Rome (diameter 43.4m, built in 128), Hagia Sophia of Istanbul (diameter 31.8m, built in 563), the Duomo of Florence (diameter 45m, built in 1436), St. Peter’s Basilica of Vatican City (diameter 42.3m, built in 1626), the Taj Mahal of Agra, India (diameter 17.7m, built in 1641), and St. Paul’s Cathedral of London (diameter 30.8m, built in 1710). The US Capitol dome is certainly well-know, but that wide-spread notoriety needs lots of asterisks***: The Capitol is one of the *youngest domes in this list (1864); it is neither the *largest (29m diameter), nor the *most famous (except perhaps in Google search hits). It was, however, for limited time (about 17 years), the *heaviest dome in the world.


The former US Capitol buildings had burned to the ground enough times that Congress favored a fire resistant cast-iron design to the traditional wood structures. When measuring the cast-iron infrastructure alone, without the marble masonry or plaster, the Capitol dome reportedly weighs 8,909,200 pounds or 4,455 tons! No other man-made structure in the world had weighed as much. The Capitol held the world weight record until 1881, when Robert Rippon Duke designed and built the Devonshire Royal Hospital dome in Buxton, England. At 46.9m diameter, the Devonshire Hospital cast-iron dome is more than 60% wider than the US Capital dome and much heavier.[1]


Let the Thomas Walter story begin.


T.U. Walter – Early Years


Thomas Ustick Walter was born in 1804 in Philadelphia. He was the third born son of Joseph S. Walter and his wife, Deborah Wood Walter.[2] Joseph worked as a mason and bricklayer. Thomas U. Walter was named after the Reverend Thomas Ustick, the former pastor of his parents’ church congregation. Thomas’ early education included an apprenticeship with his father, who had hoped his son were ambitious enough to become a bricklayer and a contractor. Thankfully, there were some other educational professionals and tutors who encouraged Thomas to be expansive in his professional dreams. In his years at school Thomas showed keen interests in mathematics and architecture. His teachers felt his interests gave promise toward a future in the arts, or in design and construction. 


Thomas Walter described his own early education as “liberal but not collegiate.” This was an era where the quality of the teacher, the tutor, and the apprenticeship made all the difference in one’s career. For several years Walter was taught by John Haviland, who trained his students in “general academic studies,” which included mathematics, drafting, masonry, drawing and art.


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 T. U. Walter (John Neagle, 1835)

From the Thomas Ustick Walter Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia.[3]


In 1819 Thomas Walter suspended his academic pursuits with John Haviland and entered the office of William Strickland as a student of architecture. Strickland had been a pupil under the tutelage of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the renowned British architect. Latrobe had designed the Basilica in Baltimore, Maryland, the White House and the US Capitol in Washington, DC, and many buildings in New Orleans, Richmond and Philadelphia. William Strickland was one of Latrobe’s prized students.


Strickland thought Walter had promise and kept him on as a pupil until he had perfected the art of linear drawing and gained a general knowledge of architecture. Soon after acquiring these skills, Walter suspended his instruction with Strickland and resumed his general studies, undertaking an elaborate course in mathematics. The next seven years of his life were devoted to several disciplines: the study of the physical sciences, the cultivation of the arts of drawing and painting, and the attainment of practical knowledge of mechanical building construction. During this period Walter also studied landscape painting in water colors with William Mason, a celebrated art teacher in Philadelphia. Walter learned well from Mason and he applied his fine art skills for the rest of his professional life, skills which are evident throughout his architectural drawings and illustrations.[4]


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“Perspective of Iron Consol Supporting Ceiling,”

Thomas U. Walter, 1852


In May, 1824, Thomas Walter was 20 years old and he became engaged to Mary Ann Elizabeth Hancocks, who was the daughter of Robert Hancocks and Marian Hendel. They were married in Philadelphia proper, and soon after their courtship and honeymoon the stork arrived with a passel of children.


Whether it was the influence of the Hancock’s, one can never be sure, but just 60 days after his marriage to Mary Ann, Thomas U. Walter “found religion.” He made a public profession of his faith in Philadelphia on July, 1824. He was baptized by Rev. John L. Murphy with a full immersion dunking in the Schuylkill River at Spruce Street. On the same day he was received into full membership by the nearby Spruce Street Baptist Church. Taking his new faith commitment seriously, Walter served as Clerk of the Church and also Superintendent of the Church’s Sunday School for many years.


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Mary Ann Elizabeth Hancocks Walter
From the Thomas Ustick Walter Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


In 1828 Thomas U. Walter returned to study with William Strickland, under whose instructions he remained for two more years. During this second period of study with Strickland, Walter devoted himself exclusively to the study of architecture. 



The Local Practice of Architecture


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We usually hear the adjective “struggling” in front of newly minted architects, but that does not appear to be the case with Walter. In 1830, a short while after leaving his studies with Strickland, T.U. Walter “hung a shingle” and opened his own architectural office. He began his practice slowly and deliberately by doing some graphic design work for the love of the people of Philadelphia. Interestingly his first public commission was to design the “Philadelphia County Prison” in Moyamensing, which proved to be one of his most important works.


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Lithograph of Moyamensing Prison, Philadelphia


After drawing the architectural renderings for the prison, Walter was invited to submit drawings for the design of the “Girard College for Orphans.” His drawings were extraordinary in their grandeur and detail. The Select & Common Councils of Philadelphia were thrilled with the drawings and adopted them in 1833.  The cornerstone of the main building at the College was laid on the 4th of July of that same year. The construction work was executed, with some lengthy pauses between phases, over the next 14 years. The American Society of Architects called Walter’s designs for Girard College “the last word in American Greek Revivalism and unquestionably its grandest monument,” which brought him local and national recognition.[5]


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Girard College, Philadelphia, PA.


Throughout the project at Girard College, Walter meticulously drew the expanded blueprints for his designs and supervised the construction, which was successfully completed in 1847. As soon as his duties as Architect were accomplished, Walter was elected to the Board of Directors of the College, and he served in that capacity for three years.


Walter did not restrict his work to the public good, but his fame certainly spread from those early works. Once fully established in his practice, he earned healthy commission for the designed private homes, banks, churches, courthouses, and the revered Hotel at Brandywine Springs. He designed some of the prominent buildings in West Chester, Pennsylvania, including the Bank of Chester County and the Chester County Courthouse, recognized for its Greek Revival style. Walter won commissions from many states outside of Pennsylvania, particularly North Carolina, where he planned two Gothic Revival style Episcopal churches: St. James Episcopal in Wilmington and the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill.[6]


Among the notable residences designed by Walter were his own home, located at High and Morton Streets in Germantown Philadelphia, the Nicholas Biddle Estate, called Andalusia, the Inglewood Cottage, and the St. George Hall, residence of Matthew Newkirk, president of the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. Walter also designed the Garrett-Dunn House in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania.


In 1838, in the middle of the phased construction projects at Girard College, the Building Committee sent Walter to Europe. His mission was to examine “the practical workings of the various devices and appointments for health, convenience and comfort in the principal seats of learning in Great Britain and on the Continent, with a view to derive such information on these subjects as would be likely to prove useful in fitting up and furnishing the buildings of the College.” He was also instructed to investigate architectural improvements to the buildings he found there.[7]  Thus began Thomas U. Walter’s grand tour abroad.


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Grand Tour of Western Europe[8]


T.U. Walter sailed from New York in July, 1838, arrived in Liverpool, and proceeded to London to start his investigations. After visiting and examining Oxford and Cambridge and other leading colleges and universities in England, he crossed the Straits of Dover to France and the rest of Europe. He went to Paris, Dijon, Geneva, and crossed the Alps at Mount Simplon. He spent time in Milan, before taking an extended visit to Florence. From Florence, he went to Rome. We can only imagine that Walter’s eyes were alive and inspired with the sights of the Duomo, St. Peter’s, the Pantheon and the other great monuments and places of learning in Europe. If he wanted to follow in the footsteps of the best dome architects in the world, he could not have found a better place to start.


    Dome 8Duoma (Florence)


Dome 9  St. Peter’s (Vatican City)


Walter next traveled to the ancient town of Civitavecchia, where he boarded a Mediterranean steamer bound for Marseilles. The steamer stopped in Genoa and Leghorn. From Marseilles, he went by horse and wagon to Paris, as there were no railroads in France at the time. After further architectural research in Paris, Walter returned to London by way of Boulogne-Sur-La-Mer. He boarded a steamer in Liverpool and crossed the Irish Sea to Dublin. Once in Ireland, he studied the universities there, before heading to Scotland and other towns such as New Castle-upon-Tyne, Dunbar, York, Durham and Manchester. He made his return sail to New York in October, 1838. His return passage took 32 days.


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The Roman Pantheon – exterior (top); interior (bottom)


Shortly after his return to Philadelphia, Walter submitted an elaborate report to the Building Committee, embracing a full account of the “state of the art” college homes of the era. He included personal descriptions of many improvements and devices the Europeans were using to upgrade the cleanliness, comfort and convenience of the universities. The Building Committee appreciated the report and adopted these improvements, incorporating all of the suggestions Walter included in his report. There were some 500 orphan boys, teachers and aides at Girard College at the time, and they appreciated the detailed improvements to their living conditions.


Walter’s reputation spread very quickly, after he was awarded the Girard College contract, and hundreds of requests for proposal (RFP) came to his office from as far East as China and and as far South as Venezuela.



Viva Venezuela

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Walter Family Photo, circa 1843

From the Thomas Ustick Walter Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


In 1843 Walter received an invitation from the Government of Venezuela to visit the coastal town of LaGuaira. The Venezuelan engineers wanted an architect to examine the port city to help them shelter the harbor from the violence storms that arose from the Caribbean. They had drawn some designs on the construction of a Mole or Breakwater to shelter the quay, but sought second opinions. How Walter was picked for this trip, is a mystery, but he fully embraced the opportunity. In July, 1843 he departed from the States and arrived at LaGuaira 20 days later. He proceeded to Caracas, conferred with the governmental authorities, and returned to LaGuaira. With the local engineers he surveyed the harbor, examined the roadstead, took soundings of the bay, studied the currents, winds and tides, and analyzed the historic storm phenomena of the port. After further research he drew designs, specifications and estimates for the construction of a Breakwater. Walter’s drawings were approved by the Government in October, 1843. He entered into contract for the execution of the work and two weeks later sailed home to Philadelphia to make further plans and preparations. His stormy return passage took 33 days.

In February of 1844, Walter left Philadelphia with approximately 50 workmen and assistants. They also bought the tools and provisions he felt they needed for the construction. The work party landed safely in LaGuaira after a voyage of 16 days. The construction commenced immediately and proceeded rapidly to completion. Walter and his men encountered serious difficulties every step of the way, but they met each challenge with creativity and overcame them.  


The trip was not without tragedy. Walter had invited his eldest son, Joseph S. Walter III, to accompany him as Assistant Engineer to Venezuela. Joseph was 19 years old. Suddenly upon his arrival in LaGuaira, he developed an intense and painful fever, which knocked him off his feet. He was diagnosed with Typhoid. He died from the disease, shortly after the construction crews arrived in LaGuaira. Joseph was buried in a grave plot in LaGuaira.


Despite the tragedy, the work on the Breakwater proceeded without delay. Construction was finished and officially accepted for final payment by the Government in October, 1845. Walter exhumed the body of his son, Joseph, and sailed with his remaining men back to Philadelphia. The crew arrived in Philadelphia harbor near Thanksgiving, 1846, having been absent from their homes and families for 19 months.


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Mary Ann Elizabeth Hancocks Walter (John Neagle, 1835)
From the Thomas Ustick Walter Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

Another Walter Dies


Less than a year after Walter’s return from Venezuela, and the reburying of his son at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, tragedy struck again. This time T. U. Walter’s wife, Mary Ann Walter, died unexpectedly. Pregnant with their eleventh child, she had serious trouble with the delivery. Her death in July, 1847, occurred just nine days after the birth of Agnes Boulton Walter. Mary Ann Hancocks Walter was 40 years old. T.U. Walter was 43 years old and a widower with 10 surviving children.


Evans Family Sidebar


The Evans family, including the VanMetre’s, Chatard’s, Hooper’s, and Evans’s are direct descendants of Thomas U. Walter and Mary Ann Hancocks Walter. Their eleventh child, Agnes Boulton Walter (1847 – 1915), is our direct ancestor. Two of the Walters’ children died: one in child-birth, another, Thomas, died in Venezuela of Typhoid. The other eight survived to adulthood. Agnes Boulton Walter married John Glenn Cook, who was from Maryland. John Cook brought his young family from the Philadelphia area to Baltimore shortly after their marriage. Agnes Walter Cook and John Cook had five children. Their oldest child, Olivia Walter Cook (1865 – 1906), is our direct ancestor. Olivia Cook married Frank Garrettson Evans (1863 – 1931) and they had three children: Olivia Walter Evans (1893 – 1898), Henry Cotheal Evans (1894 – 1976) and Frank Garrettson Evans (1899 – 1986). Our Evans link is through Henry Cotheal Evans, who was affectionately known in the family as “Pa.” More formally though in public, having served valiantly in both World Wars I and II, and been decorated and promoted over the decades, he was known as “General Evans.”


Fullfilling Social Duties


T.U. Walter seems to have respected his wife, Mary Ann, tremendously, but the comments about their marriage at the time were devoid of emotion and passion. In some family records the story was reported that Thomas said, “[Mary Ann] was a lady of estimable qualities of mind, and of genial and engaging manners, fulfilling her duties to society with exactness, and propriety, and to her family with tenderness and love. She managed well the affairs of her household and trained her children with prudence and affection.”[9]  Hardly an endorsement of their love and endearment.


With at least a half dozen young children still remaining in the house and a busy architectural practice to run, T.U. Walter was in trouble on the home-front, so he went searching for a wife. In short order he met and became engaged to Amanda Gardiner, the daughter of Richard and Hannah Gardiner of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. The couple was married in 1848, less than a year after the death of Mary Ann.  Amanda raised all of her stepchildren in the Walter household, and gave birth to two more children over the next several years.


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Amanda Gardiner Walter (Emanuel Luetze, 1852)

From the Thomas Ustick Walter Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


In 1850, Walter heard of an international competition that had been announced in Washington, DC.  Members of Congress had sent out a request for proposal (RFP) for design drawings to extend and expand the United States Capitol. Walter was excited about the project and he dove head-first into the design work. He spent the next few months locked in his Philadelphia office, going back through his world of drawings to develop a new facade and dome.



Expanding the Capitol


With the Census of 1840, the members of Congress realized they had to expand the number of representative seats to accommodate the growing population; however, it took a decade for much to change. By 1850, with a ‘tip of the hat’ to the California Gold Rush, and the quickly changing demographics of the United States, Congress adopted the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise was orchestrated by Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas: it reset the boundaries of many free and slave states and territories. With the death of President Zachery Taylor, Millard Fillmore ascended to the Presidency.  Having served as President of the Senate, Fillmore recognized that changes in the work space for representatives were long overdue. He commissioned the RFP to redesign the Capitol. The competition was broadcast to the international architectural community and the drawings poured into Washington from around the globe.[10]


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Preliminary Design for a New Dome, by Thomas U. Walter, 1855

Thomas Ustick Walter Collection, The Athenaeum of Philadelphia.


Walter worked efficiently and submitted his drawings to the Capitol committee with some bold new recommendations. His plans were grand: they doubled the size of the existing building and added an enormous cast-iron dome to the top. After some long debates, Walter’s drawings were selected by the committee in 1851 and the work began immediately.


Walter in DC


Walter moved his family to Washington in the summer of 1851. While he was setting up shop in a makeshift house not far from Capitol Hill, Amanda Walter took charge of the eight Walter children. Thomas got down to business on the project that would define the rest of his life, the Extension of the Capitol. 


Not wanting to lose his Christian faith community, Walter moved his church membership to the E Street Baptist Church in Washington, DC, where he started a Bible Class for 50 or more young men. Walter honored the Sabbath and kept the classes going during most of the time he resided in Washington.[11]

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In Philadelphia and Washington, Thomas Walter was a prolific writer and public speaker. He took many opportunities to speak about the enduring value of architecture icons of the world. Walter’s lectures were edited by Jhennifer Amundson and published by the Philadelphia Athenaeum in 2006. The lectures include several that Walter wrote during his years of architectural work on the US Capitol.[12]

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To mention one key person in Walter’s DC office (he employed at least six draftsmen at one time) that would be August Schoenborn, who served as the head draftsman and Walter’s chief assistant. Schoenborn was a German immigrant who had learned his profession from the ground up. It is believed that he was responsible for some of the fundamental ideas in the Capitol structure. These ideas included the curved arch ribs and an ingenious arrangement used to cantilever the base of the columns. These design elements made it appear that the diameter of the base exceeded the actual diameter of the foundation, thereby enlarging the proportions of the total structure.

The U.S. Capitol’s dome, which was made of cast-iron, was designed by Thomas U. Walter and constructed over an eleven year period (from 1855-1866). Finished at the total construction cost of $1,047,291, the dome consisted of 8,909,200 pounds of ironwork. People have said that the dome was bolted together in a masterpiece of American will and ingenuity.


The Capitol Dome may well be the most famous man-made landmark in America. It is a fitting finale for the building it crowns, so familiar and dignified, that it seems surprising that its design and construction came so late in the Capitol’s architectural evolution. Only the West Front terraces (1884-1892), the East Front extension (1958-1962), and the Capitol Visitor’s Center (1991-2008) are more recent additions to the Capitol than its dome (1855-1866).


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Monty C. Meigs

Montgomery Meigs and T.U. Walter


Montgomery “Monty” C. Meigs is another key character in the story of the construction of the Dome. Meigs, who was a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, served as the principal superintendent of the construction phases of the Capitol building. Together Walter and Meigs oversaw the creation and building of the Capitol’s most iconic features. Walter added scores of columns, pilasters, brackets and windows to the Dome. He also added the crowning Statue of Freedom to the top. The relationship between these two men, however, was a rocky one. Monty Meig’s tempestuous feud with TU Walter is an important part of the saga, as it added time and anguish to the construction process for both men.

The story of the original dome of the Capital, pictured below, which was artfully designed by Charles Bulfinch, and the subsequent modifications to that building by other architects, is well documented on the world wide web. References to the US Capitol on Wikipedia and on the website of the US Capitol are excellent. The paragraphs below are gleaned and edited from those two websites.[13] [14]

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In what became a surprise to TU Walter, in 1854 he hung a drawing in his office of the U.S. Capitol as it would appear once the newly designed extensions were finished, but without Charles Bulfinch’s dome. The drawing showed all of the finishing details that Walter wanted to suggest to the law makers. While they were only suggestions, the drawings caused an immediate sensation among Congressmen and Senators who visited the Architect’s office. Within 10 weeks, without committee hearings and after little debate, the House of Representatives appropriated $100,000 to begin construction of a new Capitol dome. The Senate agreed a few days later, and President Franklin Pierce signed the legislation on March 3, 1855.

The speed with which the new Capitol dome was authorized was unprecedented. On the strength of a single drawing Congress committed itself to one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of American architecture. Although some Members thought the $100,000 would cover the entire cost of the work (it cost 10X that number), Walter knew it would only get the job started and that the place to begin was at the drafting board, where details would be worked out over the next few months.

Charles Bulfinch’s wooden dome was removed in the fall of 1856.  A temporary roof was installed over the Rotunda to protect it during construction. A wooden scaffold standing on the Rotunda floor passed through the eye of the temporary roof and held a boom and derrick that would lift, by steam-powered engines, the ironwork into place. In the mode of recycling, wood salvaged from the old Capitol dome fueled the steam engines.


Work on the dome progressed at a rapid pace in 1857. Nearly all the columns of the peristyle were set on brackets embedded in 5,214,000 pounds of masonry built on top of the old Rotunda walls. In 1858 work slowed to a crawl due to heated and protracted conflicts between Walter, the architect, and Montgomery Meigs, the supervising engineer. The two men squabbled acrimoniously over designs and drawings and payment to workers. While progress on the dome suffered badly, the dispute between the two men allowed Walter an important ingredient: time. He needed that time to revise the original design of the upper parts of the dome. The revisions were necessary because of the statue that was delivered for the top of the dome was significantly larger and heavier than originally designed statue.


Construction during Civil War, Trinity Episcopal Church (in foreground) was demolished in 1936

Walter’s original commissioned a statue 16 feet 9 inches tall. The statue, which was finished in the Roman studio of American sculptor, Thomas Crawford, was 19 feet 6 inches, or nearly 10% larger than the original design. There was no time to get a new statue from Crawford, so Walter was stuck with the delivered piece. The added weight of the statue was much heavier than the commissioned piece; it called for architectural changes.

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To accommodate the additional weight, Walter had to lower the overall height of the dome from 300 feet to 287 feet, in order to strengthen and broaden the platform (tholos) which carried the statue. Walter also took the opportunity to redesign the interior of the dome, devising the double dome scheme. The redesign is now a hallmark of the Capitol Dome. Walter based the new double dome design on the Pantheon in Rome, which he had seen on his trip to Europe in 1838.

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Major General William B. Franklin

In the fall of 1859, with tensions rising, Montgomery Meigs was replaced by William B. Franklin as chief engineer. A few weeks after taking his post, Franklin received a proposal from the New York foundry of Janes, Fowler, Kirtland & Company. The firm proposed to finish all remaining work on the dome for 7 cents per pound “complete and put up.” The offer was accepted in February 1860, placing the work under a single contract. Due to this arrangement, construction of the dome was uninterrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. While work stopped on the Capitol extensions for a year, the dome continued to rise above the Rotunda.

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Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861,

is held beneath the unfinished capitol dome


Constantino Brumidi


On December 2, 1863, the engineers placed the last section of the Statue of Freedom on top of the dome amid a great celebration with military salutes. The interior of the dome was finished in January 1866 when the scaffolding was removed from below Constantino Brumidi’s fresco, called the Apotheosis of Washington.  The great fresco, that deifies George Washington, rises 180 feet above the floor of the Rotunda.


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The Apotheosis of Washington in the eye of the Rotunda of the Capitol was painted in the true fresco technique by Brumidi in 1865. The canopy fresco, his most ambitious work at the Capitol, was painted in eleven months at the end of the Civil War, soon after the new dome was completed. The commission for the fresco was $40,000. The fresco covers an area of 4,664 square feet. The figures, up to 15 feet tall, were painted to be intelligible from close up (with binoculars), as well as with the naked eye from the Rotunda floor below.



Dome 23The Apotheosis of George Washington


The Apotheosis depicts George Washington ascending into the heavens. In the center, Washington is flanked by allegorical figures representing Liberty/Authority and Victory/Fame; a rainbow arches through the clouds beneath him. He is surrounded by female figures in flowing robes representing the original 13 states. Some hold a banner with the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” meaning “Out of Many One.” Around the canopy’s perimeter, on the ground below, six groups represent War, Science, Marine, Commerce, Mechanics, and Agriculture. Each scene combines classical gods and goddesses, figures from American history, and the latest 19th-Century inventions.




While working in Washington DC, Walter took the notoriety and liberty to gather and execute many other major architectural projects, including designs of the East and West Wings of the Patent Office, the Extension of the General Post Office, the New Treasury Building, and the Government Hospital for the Insane. He was extraordinarily busy.


One can only imagine the collective exhaustion of war and construction and national strife took its toll on T.U. Walter, Monty Meigs, William B. Franklin, the construction engineers, the builders and all of the laborers who constructed the Dome.


Final DC Daze


Exhausted and emotionally spent, Walter officially resigned as chief architect of the Capitol on May 26, 1865. After 14 years on the project, Walter was succeeded by Edward Clark, who completed the last details of the Dome. The “punch list” was a short one.


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N. E. View of the United States Capitol. Washington, D. C., Drawn and Engraved by Henry Sartain, Hand-colored Engraving, 1863.  The artist took many liberties with this painting of the Capitol in 1863—at that time none of the porticoes had been finished, the dome was not complete, and the Statue of Freedom had not yet been mounted into place. The Capitol grounds were littered with construction materials and work sheds instead of the strolling citizens depicted here. In this view, unpleasant realities––particularly the horror of the Civil War––were purposefully set aside as the artist anticipated the return of peace and prosperity. Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Barber B. Conable, Jr.


Another Evans side-bar

The records are also devoid of the financial arrangements that were struck with Thomas U. Walter for his time, labor, and talent on behalf of this country. There is an Evans family legend, however, that is worth recounting: it is purported that after the exhaustive international bake-off to select the chief architect of the new Capitol, T.U. Walter was paid the handsome upfront lump sum of $200 for his architectural drawings. He was owed a final payment of $100,000, after he finished construction. For 14 years of work building the Capitol, for moving his life and family to DC, for putting up with the challenges of government appointed builders, and for the opportunity costs he might have lost from other commissions, T.U. Walter received nothing. The government’s alibi was that because of the Civil War, the Federal Government could not pay the debt. He was expected to deliver the completed structure and give it to the country as part of war reparations.

Walter was never penniless during these years, thanks to some other jobs he secured, and his wife’s family money, but it would be interesting if the extended Walter family had engaged a good lawyer to press their case for payment, before the statute of limitations ran out. $100,000 in today’s dollars would be a handsome fee. By one inflation calculator, costs have risen by over 1,300% since 1865. Using back-of-the envelope math, that $100K would have been worth over $1.4MM in 2017! Still a bargain, by this calculation: the repairs to the Capitol Dome in 2013 costs the US tax payers over $59MM.

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John McArthur, Jr., T.U. Walter, and James Sims (c. 1875)

T.U. Walter’s Last Acts


Thomas Walter left Washington, DC, and returned to Philadelphia, settling in the Germantown section of town with his family. He temporarily retired from the active practice of his profession. For the next five years Walter devoted his time to scientific and literary pursuits. He was also keenly interested in the advancement of art in Philadelphia. He was a 30 year member of the “American Philosophical Society” and of the “Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania” for over 40 years. He was one of the original members of the “American Institute of Architects” and was connected with many other scientific and literary associations. Financial reverses in the early 1870’s, however, forced Walter to return to architecture, but he failed to capture any major commissions. His close friend and younger colleague, John McArthur, Jr., won the competition to design Philadelphia City Hall. John McArthur appointed Walter as his second in command. Walter held this post for the next decade and was in that role when he died.


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” 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.


Over the years Walter received many honorary degrees, including Master of Arts (M.A. 1849) from Madison University, NY, Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D. 1853) from the University of Lewisburg, PA, and Doctor of Laws (LL.D. 1857) from Harvard University. He held a Professorship of Architecture in the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania and lectured on his art in that institution for two successive seasons. In 1860 he delivered a course of lectures on Architecture before the students of Columbian College, DC. He has also delivered from time to time many popular lectures on the same subject in Philadelphia and its vicinity.

Dome 17Thomas U. Walter c. 1880


Thomas Ustick Walter died in 1887.  He was 83 years old.


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Feb. 27, 2018 the late Rev. Billy Graham lies in the Rotunda of the Capitol. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Thoughts Beneath the Dome


Having stood in the Rotunda of the Capitol looking up at that beautiful, monstrous dome, it is easy to marvel at its magnificence. But there should be no illusions that Thomas U. Walter was the ‘god of American architects.’ His life was superlative in many ways, and it is also laced with heart ache and tragedy. The historical records does not delve into many of his feelings about his family or his trials or his thoughts.



He must have been a man of great faith, who took the next set-back as time to reconsider, change, and move on. Whether the loss of a spouse, or the death of a child, or the horrors of war, he soldiered on. I would like to know what made the man tick, but that is lost to time. Pure speculation is interesting, but it can also wrongfully distort the truth. What one can see from the public record is that Thomas Ustick Walter proved to be a man who loved the ancient and the avant-garde, the downtrodden and the supreme, the finial and the palisade. He committed his life to his native Philadelphia and enriched the country with his precision, love of mathematics, and his keen eye for bringing to life what is old. I will not think of Greek or Roman or Gothic Revival or the DOME, without honoring Walter with a nod. Especially with all of the recent renovations [16], it is a majestic monument to Walter’s ideals of the United States.


Thomas Ustick Walter? Thank you for the chance to know you.



Post Script: Other tales to tell

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Statue of Freedom on top of the Dome

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of side-stories about the building of the U.S. Capitol. From the fresco to the statuary, from the personnel squabbles to the success, from deaths to rebirth … the history is rich. And the origin stories are complicated and shamed by the injustice of the war-torn era.


The Story of Philip Reid

One of the most interesting stories honors the brains and brawn of a Black man. He could not read or write, he could not run free or take a break. He was an African American slave. His name was Philip Reid. The irony of the story is that we might not have that statue of Freedom, without the wits, ingenuity and labor of a slave.


When construction of the Capitol began in 1793, the city of Washington, DC, was little more than a rural landscape with dirt roads and few accommodations, beyond a small number of boarding houses. Skilled labor was hard to find or attract to the fledgling seat of power. Enslaved laborers, who were rented from their owners, were involved in almost every stage of the cities’ construction.


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Drawing of some slave laborers as they worked construction in DC


Born around 1820, Philip Reid was an enslaved laborer in the foundry run by Clark Mills, the self-taught sculptor, who cast the Statue of Freedom atop the Dome. Mills was a former resident of South Carolina, where he had purchased Reid at a slave auction in Charleston. Mills stated he purchased Reid, “many years ago, when he was quite a youth … because of his evident talent for the business in which your petitioner was engaged, and paid twelve hundred dollars for him.” Imagine a man’s worth = $1,200.

Dome 19

Clark Mills


When Mills moved to Washington, DC in the late 1840’s, he brought Reid with him. Mills had won the competition to build an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, which was commissioned for installation in Lafayette Park. In order to construct the Jackson statue, a temporary foundry was erected south of the White House and, through trial and error, Mills, Reid and other workmen produced the first bronze statue ever cast in America. The accomplishment was extraordinary due to the absence of any formal training of any of the participants. 



 Andrew Jackson on horseback, bronze by Mills and Reid, in Lafayette Park.


In 1860, the success of the Jackson statue prompted the Secretary of War to give Mills the commission for the casting of Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom, specifically chosen for the top of the Capitol’s new dome. A financial agreement was reached, whereby the government would rent Clark Mills’ Foundry, pay him $400 a month for his services, as well as pay for the necessary labor and materials.



Dome 20

Clark Mills’ Foundry, Photograph by Mathew Brady,

National Archives & Records Administration, Washington, DC

Philip Reid was the only known slave working on the Freedom statue. He worked alongside of four other white laborers: James A. Riddle, Peter Coyl, Rezin Offutt and Michael Sheedy. As an enslaved worker, Reid was paid directly for the work he completed only on Sundays; his owner, Mills, received the payment for his work the other six days. Reid was paid at $1.25 per day, higher than the other laborers who received $1 a day.


Reid worked most weeks without a break. He started on July 1, 1860, and ended on May 16, 1861. Over that near-year period, Reid was paid $41.25 for 33 Sundays, of “Keeping up fires under the moulds.” Although he was illiterate in written English, Mills described Philip Reid as, “aged 42 years, mullatto [sic] color, short in stature, in good health, not prepossessing in appearance but smart in mind, a good workman in a foundry…” Reid signed with a simple X by his name. There are no known images of Philip Reid.


Dome 21Statue of Freedom, refurbished


In June 1860, the bronze casting of the Statue of Freedom began. The first step was to disassemble the plaster model of the statue, and to lay it out in its main sections. The disassembly was needed to move the statue from the Capitol to the foundry. The model was shipped from Rome to the United States in five main sections, and upon its arrival, an Italian sculptor was hired to assemble the model. However, when the time came to move the plaster model from the Capitol to the foundry for casting, no one knew how to separate it’s pieces. The Italian sculptor, hired for the final assembly, refused to help unless he were given a pay raise. Fortunately, Philip Reid was there. He figured out that by using a pulley and tackle to pull up on the lifting ring at the top of the model, the seams between the sections would be revealed. The statue was successfully separated into its five sections and transported to the foundry.


Philip Reid received his freedom from slavery on April 16, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act. The Act released certain persons held to service or labor in the District of Columbia. No one knows if Reid witnessed the placement of the Statue of Freedom on the tholos platform on top of the dome, but we do know that Philip Reid was a free man, when the last bolt was secured to the US Capitol Dome. The date was December 2, 1863.


Author S.D. Wyeth wrote a tribute to Philip Reid in The Federal City in 1865, “Mr. Reed, the former slave, is now in business for himself, and highly esteemed by all who know him.” [15]


I hope we remember Philip Reid’s name and his contribution to the Capitol Dome, long after the Andrew Jackson statue is removed from LaFayette Square and the statue of Freedom gets replaced with something less symbolic and offensive to someone in power.


[2] Frary, Ihna Thayer, They Built the Capitol. Ayer Publishing, New York, 1940. p. 201.

[3] Behind the portrait of Walter, Nagle painted a fluted column of Girard College and a distant view of the Philadelphia County Prison.

[4] George C. Mason, Jr., “Memoir”. Proceedings of the … annual convention of the American Institute of Architects. 1888, 21-22: 101–108.

[5] Biography of  T.U. Walter, as taken from the American Architects and Buildings database.

[6] Philip A. Rees (published 2009)  http://ncarchitects.lib.ncsu.edu/people/P00019

[7]George C. Mason, Jr., “Memoir”. Proceedings of the … annual convention of the American Institute of Architects. 1888, 21-22: 101–108.

[8] Biography of  T.U. Walter, as taken from the American Architects and Buildings database.

[9] Notes from T.U. Walter, as recorded in the Thomas Ustick Walter Collection, Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

One thought on “Witness Post: Under the Dome

  1. Wow Dad! I had no idea how fabulous Walter was in his architectural skills. Well, to be frank, I didn’t know much about this man at all. I knew we were related to the architect of the Capitol, but I had no idea how much possibly went into such a design. Almost 9 million pounds! Wow-wee!
    Thanks for writing about these stories. They are so important for us in our family history and just for our growing knowledge banks! Xo –El

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