Thomas Ustick Walter

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Thomas Ustick Walter
Thomas U. Walter - Brady-Handy.jpg
Architect of the Capitol
In office
June 11, 1851 May 26, 1865
President Millard Fillmore
Franklin Pierce
James Buchanan
Abraham Lincoln
Andrew Johnson
Preceded by Charles Bulfinch
Succeeded by Edward Clark
Personal details
Born(1804-09-04)September 4, 1804
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US
DiedOctober 30, 1887(1887-10-30) (aged 83)
Washington, D.C., US
Nationality American
ProfessionCivil Engineer
Thomas Ustick Walter
Buildings Moyamensing Prison
Girard College
Projects United States Capitol dome
Philadelphia City Hall

Thomas Ustick Walter (September 4, 1804 October 30, 1887) was an American architect of German descent, the dean of American architecture between the 1820 death of Benjamin Latrobe and the emergence of H.H. Richardson in the 1870s. He was the fourth Architect of the Capitol and responsible for adding the north (Senate) and south (House) wings and the central dome that is predominately the current appearance of the U.S. Capitol building. Walter was one of the founders and second president of the American Institute of Architects. In 1839, he was elected as a member to the American Philosophical Society. [1]


Early life

Born in 1804 in Philadelphia, Walter was the son of mason and bricklayer Joseph S. Walter and his wife Deborah. [2] Walter was a mason's apprentice to his father. He also studied architecture and technical drawing at the Franklin Institute.

Walter received early training in a variety of fields including masonry, mathematics, physical science, and the fine arts. At 15, Walter entered the office of William Strickland, studying architecture and mechanical drawing, [2] then established his own practice in 1830. [3]


Founder's Hall Girard College, Philadelphia, PA Girard College, Founder's Hall, Girard and Corinthian Avenues, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA HABS PA,51-PHILA,459A-49 (CT).tif
Founder's Hall Girard College, Philadelphia, PA

Professional career

As Architect of the Capitol

Late career

It has been suggested that Walter designed the Second Empire-styled Quarters B and Quarters D at Admiral's Row in Brooklyn, New York.[ citation needed ]

The U.S. Capitol and its dome

Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861, beneath the unfinished capitol dome LincolnInauguration1861a.jpg
Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861, beneath the unfinished capitol dome

The most famous of Walter's constructions is the dome of the U.S. Capitol. By 1850, the rapid expansion of the United States had caused a space shortage in the Capitol. Walter was selected to design extensions for the Capitol. His plan more than doubled the size of the existing building and added the familiar cast-iron dome.

There were at least six draftsmen in Walter's office, headed by Walter's chief assistant, August Schoenborn, a German immigrant who had learned his profession from the ground up. It appears that he was responsible for some of the fundamental ideas in the Capitol structure. These included the curved arch ribs and an ingenious arrangement used to cantilever the base of the columns. This made it appear that the diameter of the base exceeded the actual diameter of the foundation, thereby enlarging the proportions of the total structure. [21]

Walter family with servant, circa 1850 Thomas Ustick Walter & family c1850.jpg
Walter family with servant, circa 1850

Construction on the wings began in 1851 and proceeded rapidly; the House of Representatives met in its new quarters in December 1857 and the Senate occupied its new chamber by January 1859. Walter's fireproof cast iron dome was authorized by Congress on March 3, 1855, and was nearly completed by December 2, 1863, when the Statue of Freedom was placed on top. The dome's cast iron frame was supplied and constructed by the iron foundry Janes, Fowler, Kirtland & Co. [22] He also reconstructed the interior of the west center building for the Library of Congress after the fire of 1851. Walter continued as Capitol architect until 1865, when he resigned his position over a minor contract dispute. After 14 years in Washington, he retired to his native Philadelphia.[ citation needed ]

In the 1870s, financial setbacks forced Walter to come out of retirement, and he worked as second-in-command when his friend and younger colleague John McArthur, Jr., won the design competition for Philadelphia City Hall. He continued on that vast project until his death in 1887. He was interred at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. [23]

Other honors

For their architectural accomplishments, both Walter and Benjamin Latrobe are honored in a ceiling mosaic in the East Mosaic Corridor at the entrance to the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress.

Walter's grandson, Thomas Ustick Walter III, was also an architect; he practiced in Birmingham, Alabama, from the 1890s to the 1910s. [24]

See also

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Political offices
Preceded by
Charles Bulfinch
Architect of the Capitol
Succeeded by
Edward Clark