Category Archives: Thomas U. Walter

One Week in Washington (Or: Week 1 in Washington)

Slide1My travel to DC was hardly auspicious.  A cancelled flight was replaced by a too-late rescheduled flight later that night (that American would cheerfully change to a reasonable hour the next day for the very unreasonable sum of $525): not a good way to start any trip, especially a two-month residence that is already causing some anxiety in the traveller.  But one week in, I have established just enough of a schedule to feel comfortable about being here.

What brought me here are (primarily) collections in the National Archives, Curator of the Architect of the Capitol and the Library of Congress.  The main reading room of the Jefferson Building (with my favorite seat noted above) is really the most glorious place to sit with a book (even if it is ridiculously frigid in there).  If you can get past the operatic architecture, you’ll see loads of art chronicling great thinkers, profound disciplines, and the whole development of civilization (as considered in 1897, but still) rising up as a great crescendo to the figure in the top of the lantern: Human Understanding lifting a veil from her face.

In some respects the majesty and pomp of this city have ceased to work magic on me, but looking up at that thing always leaves an impression.  I spend most of my time in that room looking down but when I take a break and look up at that painting at the top of the huge, huge dome, it really does give me chills.  Human Understanding, revealed, at the apex of a building that is a three-dimensional hymn to study and the written word, with you as one little piece of the furnishings: If that doesn’t inspire you to knock off checking up on Facebook and get back to reading the nineteenth-century histories and diaries that you travelled 600 miles to read, nothing will.

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Meet Thomas U. Walter

tuw It only made sense to introduce my vast readership to the subject of my sabbatical research/writing, and today being his birthday, it seems to make sense to do it now.

Thomas U. Walter (1804-87) is the most famous architect whose name you have never heard (unless you are related to me, have been my student, are a friend of mine, or a person who sat next to me on the train, or the bag boy at the grocery store, or the mailman…).  Among the 100s of projects he designed during his very long career, the dome of the Capitol in Washington (yes, that Capitol) was, in many ways, the highpoint.  But there are dozens of other really fine (if less-famous) buildings of his that still stand: the Chapel of the Cross (Chapel Hill NC), the Chester County Bank (West Chester, PA), Eutaw Baptist Church (Baltimore MD), and the one that made him a celebrity, Girard College (Philadelphia PA).  On top of all that work, he wrote the country’s first architectural theory and invented the AIA.

I’ve been working on Walter for a long long long long long time now, starting with my dissertation, one book, lots of chapters and paper presentations.  The point of my sabbatical is to wrap up the giant monograph I’ve had in the works for several years.  In terms of my own editing/rewriting, the end is in sight, although the fun of querying publishers has yet to begin.  But rather than think about that and give myself a stomach ache, instead I will focus on the gazillion of pages I have written already, a portion of which are not too bad.  And then I will go enjoy the nice dinner I have prepared in Mr. Walter’ honor, and listen to my children sing his praises, or at least their thankfulness that Walter’s birthday means crème brûlée for dessert.

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chasing Walter’s ghost through London (no scone left unturned)




It’s my last day of this English sojourn, appropriately spent in a number of Walter’s haunts, or at least as I fancy them, places that he still haunts.  Started at the architectural drawings study room of the V & A to see the watercolor renderings that Walter presented to the RIBA when he arrived in London in 1838 at the start of a four-month European tour.  Will conclude the day in a few hours’ time at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields to  hear a concert with the Academy conducted by Sir Neville Marriner.  Walter had no time for concerts and had interest in neither the Anglican service housed within the church nor its Baroque vessel.  But he did stay at Morley’s Hotel, immediately adjacent, so he could have hardly missed it.  I’m currently writing from the location of his great reception into British architectural professional society, as on his first night in London he attended the RIBA, then housed in rooms on Conduit Street.  It’s now the home of Sketch, a very swish cafe where I have just consumed an extraordinary cream tea.  I came with reservations that any cream tea should cost £10.50, but am happy to report if any are worth that sum, especially given the current dreadful exchange rate, that was the one.  Even so, I am sure my architect would be scandalized by the indulgence, even more so by the behavior around me, with people drinking champagne in the middle of the afternoon.  No, perhaps I would be more scandalous yet: a lone woman, in public, hatless and even baring my ankles.

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