Thomas U. Who???

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Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
December 11, 2011

Wherever I've gone, architect Thomas U. Walter, the “Dean of American Architects,” was there too.

Fresh out of college, I substitute taught at Girard College in Philadelphia, surrounded by Walter's gargantuan marble buildings. I worked at the Chester County Historical Society, where I've recently taken on the presidency, in Walter's Horticultural Hall. My first apartment in West Chester was on South Church Street, where my favorite pizza place was located across the street in Walter's old Cabinet of Natural Sciences building. 

Most recently, I’ve spent much of the last 2 ½ years in D.C., working in the Nation’s Capitol, Walter's masterpiece. If you ask any of the 20,000 people who work on Capitol Hill who Thomas U. Walter is, their eyes light up. “He designed the Dome,” they’d say, “the most recognizable symbol of democratic government around the world.” From seasoned members of Congress down to summer interns, Thomas U. Walter’s name universally recognized among those in the thick of D.C. bustle.

As a native Pennsylvanian who called Chester County home from 1991 to 2009, I marveled at this phenomenon. Why? Because, although Walter is one of the nation's most distinguished architects and is internationally known, if you ask anyone on the streets of West Chester the same question, you’re likely to get a blank stare and  “Thomas U. who?”  This article is an effort to bridge the gap. 

Thomas Ustick Walter was born in 1804, the son of a Philadelphia bricklayer. He apprenticed with his father and most likely helped build the Second Bank of the United States, an inspiring Greek revival structure on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia which is a museum gallery today. The Bank, designed by architect William Strickland, was built between 1819 and 1824.

Walter went on to study at the Franklin Institute, which offered training in architecture and technical drawing. He later apprenticed with William Strickland, who heavily influenced his tendency towards Greek Revival design, which is based on the styles and features of ancient Greece.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint Walter's first major work, among his earliest buildings were Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia and West Chester Presbyterian Church on West Miner Street. Construction on both buildings began in 1832.  The church, which stands today as First Presbyterian Church, was vastly over budget. To save costs the planned 73-foot cupola was never constructed.

After securing the Girard College project, which included designing the complete Philadelphia campus with $2 million dollars, Walter's attention turned back to West Chester. In 1835, he was commissioned to design the Bank of Chester County, which still stands at 17 North High Street. The next year, he co-founded the American Institute of Architects.

Walter returned to West Chester and in 1837, designed the Chester County Prison. The structure, completed in 1839, stood at Market and New Streets until it was demolished in 1960.  That same year, he created the Chester County Cabinet of Sciences (at 18 South Church Street - my pizza place) and the Young Ladies Seminary that was located on the north side of town.  He was also responsible for the Methodist church on the first block of North Darlington Street, a structure that still exists today albeit with a covered facade.

Although Walter created most of his work in Philadelphia, West Chester, and other parts of southeastern PA, he traveled internationally to work and study architecture. 

In 1845, the County commissioned Walter to design a new courthouse.  He spent the next few years overseeing the construction and it was completed in 1848.  The Chester County Archives holds his official receipts for construction – a total of $1,811.70 for his designs, drawings, and   “superintendence of the work” constructing the building, and “fitting up the offices.” The sum is comparable to $49,500 today.

His final project in West Chester, Horticultural Hall and current home of the Chester County Historical Society, was built for the Chester County Horticultural Society in 1848. After sixteen years, Walter had indelibly left his mark on a town that came to be known as the “Athens of Pennsylvania” because of his classical revival style.

From there, Walter entered a competition to extend the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.  In 1851, President Millard Fillmore awarded him the contract, making him the fourth Architect of the Capitol. From 1851 when he first submitted his drawings, to 1866, when the dome and rotunda were finally completed, Walter dedicated his efforts to transforming the center of American government. He designed new House and Senate wings which greatly extended the Capitol to accommodate the growing Congress. Then, Walter proposed to replace the Capitol's unpopular original copper and iron dome with a soaring cast iron one – an engineering wonder of its time. Within ten weeks of the proposal, Congress allocated $100,000 toward the project. The dome ended up costing over $1 million and was completed in 1866.

Sadly, Walter died a poor man. But he did so only after leaving his mark on West Chester and the world. So if someone stops you on the street and asks you who Thomas U. Walter was, you can proudly say he was the fourth Architect of the Capitol, the Dean of American Architects, and of course, the creator of our own “Athens of Pennsylvania” that we all know and love today.

Caption: Portrait of Thomas U. Walter, from Philadelphia & Notable Philadelphians by Moses King. New York: Moses King Publisher, 1902. Courtesy of the Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, PA.