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Incidental ArchitectIncidental Architect

William Thornton and the Cultural Life of Early Washington, D.C., 1794-1828

Gordon S. Brown and Gordon S. Brown


Book published by Ohio University Press


While the majority of scholarship on early Washington focuses on its political and physical development, in Incidental Architect Gordon S. Brown describes the intellectual and social scene of the 1790s and early 1800s through the lives of a prominent couple whose cultural aspirations served as both model and mirror for the city’s own.

When William and Anna Maria Thornton arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1794, the new nation’s capital was little more than a raw village. The Edinburgh–educated Thornton and his accomplished wife brought with them the values of the Scottish Enlightenment, an enthusiasm for the arts, and a polished urbanity that was lacking in the little city emerging from the swamps along the Potomac. Thornton’s talents were manifold: He is perhaps best known as the original architect of the Capitol building, but he also served as a city commissioner and as director of the Patent Office, where his own experimentation in steam navigation embroiled him in a long-running dispute with inventor Robert Fulton.

In spite of their general preoccupation with politics and real estate development, Washington’s citizens gradually created a network of cultural institutions—theaters, libraries and booksellers, music venues, churches, schools, and even colleges and intellectual associations—that began to satisfy their aspirations.

Incidental Architect is a fascinating account of how the city’s cultural and social institutions were shaped by its earliest citizens.

Gordon S. Brown served mainly in the Middle East and North Africa during a thirty-five-year Foreign Service career, including assignments as General Norman Schwarzkopf's political advisor in the first Gulf War. He served also as ambassador to Mauritania. Since his retirement, he has written Coalition, Coercion, and Compromise on the diplomacy of the first Gulf War and The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily.

Gordon S. Brown served mainly in the Middle East and North Africa during a thirty-five-year Foreign Service career, including assignments as General Norman Schwarzkopf's political advisor in the first Gulf War. He served also as ambassador to Mauritania. Since his retirement, he has written Coalition, Coercion, and Compromise on the diplomacy of the first Gulf War and The Norman Conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily.

REVIEWS:

“At a 1962 Nobel Prize dinner President John F. Kennedy famously remarked that his guests constituted the greatest gathering of knowledge at the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. He might have said, since Thomas Jefferson dined with William Thornton. Anyway, that is the impression one gets from Gordon S. Brown’s convincingly argued and gracefully written account of early Washington, D.C., and one of its most memorable residents.”

The Journal of Southern History





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