It’s March 24, 1792. An announcement, no bigger than your average classified ad, appears in a Philadelphia newspaper.
It offers $500 and a piece of land in the District of Columbia to the person who can come up with the best design for a capitol building for a new nation. The designer of the second-best proposal will receive $250 or a medal.
The nation, of course, was the United States, and the idea for the competition came from then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, whose handwritten draft of the announcement can be seen at the Library of Congress.
Over the past decade, the U.S. government has put a renewed emphasis on the use of prize competitions to tap the ingenuity of the American public. Recent federal prize competitions have addressed critical issues from space travel to literacy.
But a look to the past reveals that two of our most cherished landmarks also stand as enduring symbols of what can be accomplished when government goes straight to the people and asks for their ideas.
Location, Location, Location
Formed with land donated by Maryland and Virginia, President George Washington selected D.C. as the headquarters for the new government.
He chose commissioners to oversee development of the federal city, which they named after him. The commissioners selected French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to plan the city and design the U.S. Capitol building.
L’Enfant found the perfect spot for the Capitol, but when he refused to produce drawings for the building, the commissioners dropped him.
That’s when Jefferson made a suggestion.
Birth of a Competition
Jefferson wrote the commissioners with an idea and included a draft of the competition announcement, which Washington had approved with the caveat that the commissioners nail down final details.
“I see nothing wanting but to fill in the blanks,” Washington wrote on Jefferson’s draft, “and that I presume the Comrs. will do…”
The final announcement appeared in several American newspapers during March 1792.
Entrants had four months to design a brick building with several spaces, including:
- 300-person conference room
- 300-person room for Representatives and a lobby
- 1,200-square-foot room for the Senate and a lobby
- Twelve 600-square-foot rooms for committees and clerks’ offices
The stakes were high, and Jefferson worried that naysayers would use the firing of L’Enfant to try and sabotage the entire endeavor.
Any opposition would have to be countered with “double exertions,” he wrote to the commissioners.
The pressure was on.
A Slate of Disappointing Designs
The commissioners received 17 proposals by mid-July 1792. They weren’t impressed.
Neither was the president.
Sensing the disappointment, Jefferson went so far as to try to secretly win the competition he had suggested. The future president, himself an amateur architect, anonymously submitted a sketch.
But Washington and the commissioners rejected it, too. The competition deadline had come and gone, and they had no design to move forward.
Fortunately, they were having better luck with plans for another iconic American landmark.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Around the same time they advertised the Capitol contest, the commissioners also announced an open competition to design a house for the president.
White House floor plan by James Hoban. (Source: Massachusetts Historical Society)
Once again, the winning plan would net $500.
Washington didn’t want a palace but still hoped to find a design that would elicit respect from citizens, something that fit within the young country’s modest resources but could be expanded upon in the future.
Washington reviewed at least six proposals. Legend has it that Jefferson, who would eventually be the first president to spend his entire term in the new residence, again submitted an anonymous design that was not chosen.
By July, though, commissioners had selected a winner in the competition to design the President’s House.
The winning drawings came from James Hoban, who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland following the American Revolution.
In Hoban, Washington and company not only found a vision for what eventually became known as the White house, but also, a ready resource who could help with the Capitol.
The Doctor Is In
Three months after the Capitol design competition ended without a winner, a letter came from Tortola in the British West Indies, now the Virgin Islands.
William Thornton, a physician trained in Scotland, wanted to know if he could submit a late entry into the competition. The commissioners agreed to take a look.
William Thornton’s exterior drawing for the U.S. Capitol design competition, 1792 (Source: Library of Congress).
Thornton proposed a building with three sections — a central dome and two rectangular wings. Washington praised the design for being both simple and grand. The commissioners declared it the winner.
Construction began on the Capitol in 1793. A year later, Thornton was appointed a city commissioner. (When Jefferson became president, he tapped Thornton to oversee the U.S. Patent Office, which he did for the remainder of his life.)
But Thornton wasn’t the only entrant to receive prize money. Officials also gave runner-up Stephen Hallet a sum of $500 for his efforts and eventually adopted his ideas for the Capitol’s interior.
They extended Hallet’s work to oversee construction of the building, but things didn’t go well. The only professional architect to enter the competition and a protege of L’Enfant, Hallet tried to push his own design over that of Thornton’s and was eventually fired.
His replacement also butted heads with Thornton and had to be dismissed.
Officials then brought in Hoban, who oversaw the initial construction of the Capitol in addition to the execution of his winning White House design.
Both the Capitol and White House have seen their share of changes. During the War of 1812, British troops torched the new buildings and left them in ruins.
They were rebuilt, with Hoban returning to oversee reconstruction of the White House he designed.
Over time, each has gone through expansions and modifications. Still, the buildings we see today largely resemble the hand-drawn plans submitted during those two prize competitions from more than 220 years ago.
History of the U.S. Capitol Building: https://www.aoc.gov/history-us-capitol-building
Interpreting Buildings: Designing the White House: https://www.whitehousehistory.org/teacher-resources/interpreting-buildings-designing-the-white-house-1792
Building the White House: https://www.whitehousehistory.org/teacher-resources/building-the-white-house