Thomas U. Walter

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Thomas U. Walter

Thomas U. Walter
Portrait by Francisco Pausas, 1925,
after a Mathew Brady photograph

Thomas Ustick Walter (September 4, 1804October 30, 1887) of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the dean of American architecture between the death of Benjamin Latrobe and the work of H.H. Richardson. He was the fourth Architect of the Capitol, responsible for adding the north (Senate) and south (House) wings and the central dome that brought the U.S. Capitol building to essentially its modern appearance.

Walter received early training in a variety of fields including masonry, mathematics, physical science, and the fine arts before studying architecture in the office of William Strickland. He began practicing architecture in 1830 and was one of the founders and second president of the American Institute of Architects.

He first came to national recognition for his Greek revival design of Girard College for Orphans (1833-48) in Philadelphia, among the last and grandest expressions of the Greek Revival movement. His plan for Moyamensing Prison was a humane model in its time.

The US Capitol and its dome

By far the most famous construction of Walter's is the dome of the US Capitol. By 1850 the rapid expansion of the United States had caused a space shortage in the Capitol. Walter, a prominent Philadelphia architect, 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. Construction on the wings began in 1851 and proceeded rapidly; the House of Representatives met in its new quarters in December of 1857 and the Senate occupied its new chamber by January of 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. 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.

Then, when financial setbacks forced him to come out of retirement in the 1870s, he worked as second-in-command when his friend and younger colleague John McArthur, Jr. won the competition for Philadelphia City Hall. He continued on that vast project until his death in 1887.

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