Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Today in history is back

After a month hiatus of general busyness with other projects (including dealing with copy edits and proofs for my article coming out in January), I'm finally ready to get back to blogging.

There are so many things I could blog about: John Adams' birth (October 30, 1735), the HMS Bounty (a reproduction of the ship sunk last night), or the "Perfect Storm" of Halloween 1991. All too obvious.

We also just commemorated the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The latter is related to why I started this blog. My dad loves "today in history" stuff. He'd ask us "what happened today in history?" on most nights either out of curiosity or trying to spark dinnertime conversation. Regardless of the date, my brother Josh would answer "Cuban Missile Crisis?" He was right once a year. He probably knew that, but he's a smart ass.

Still, topics too obvious.

So today, we're going to look at the life of architect Thomas U. Walter, the fourth Architect of the Capitol, who died on October 30, 1887.

from senate.gov
Born in Philadelphia in 1804, Walter's early work included the Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia, the Chester County, Pennsylvania Courthouse, and the homes of prominent Pennsylvanians, such as Nicholas Biddle, president of the Second Bank of the United States. His better known work, however, can be found in Washington, DC.

Our country had grown rapidly by 1850. In September of that year, California became the thirty-first state. There were sixty-two senators and 233 representatives in chambers that were growing more and more crowded. Congress launched a design competition to expand the building. Walter won, and from 1851 until his resignation in 1865, he oversaw the construction of the current chambers of Congress. That, of course, wasn't his only contribution.

Late in 1851, a fire broke out in the Library of Congress, then housed in the Capitol. It burned 35,000 volumes (around 2/3 of the library's holdings) and if it weren't for nearby Marines who chopped out a staircase leading to the wood and copper Capitol dome, the dome would have gone too. Members of Congress were alarmed by fire. Walter used this as an opportunity to propose a larger, fireproof Capitol dome--one more in proportion with the new chambers of Congress. In 1855, Walter received a $100,000 appropriation to begin. When it was all said in done in the 1860s, the dome cost around $1.1 million.

Cross section of the dome, from archives.gov
He also rebuilt the Library of Congress in cast-iron, and the library remained in that facility until the construction of the Jefferson Building in 1897.

Walter's Libary of Congress, from capitol.gov
 He retired to Philadelphia in 1865 after a contract dispute, but left a lasting legacy in American architecture. Struggling financially, he took a position as chief assistant to the architect of the Philadelphia City Hall in 1873. The last years of his life also saw him reconcile with Montgomery C. Meigs, who was the superintendent of construction for the Capitol wings. The conflicts between Meigs and Walter are well documented in William C. Allen's magnum opus, History of the United States Capitol (the full text of the book can be found at the link).

Walter is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. The American Institute of Architects refurbished the grave site a few years ago (Walter was a founding member of the organization in 1857).

Walter gravesite, photo taken by Andrew Tremel