Friday, February 17, 2006

Thomas U. Walter Was Here!

Thomas Ustick Walter designed the dome on the U.S. Capitol building. He designed the gleaming Greek Revival-style Founders Hall at Girard College and the Greek Revival Chester County courthouse in West Chester. And now, to the great astonishment of architectural historians, it seems he also designed a pretty nice house at 7048 Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy.

Although the house, which was built around 1850 for George Howell Garrett, has been on the National Historic Register, no one had any idea that it was anything more than a relic of old Philadelphia and a prominent Philadelphia family until it was threatened - as usual - with demolition. After a developer starting making plans to build 10 sets of twins on the site, a group of nearby residents mounted a campaign to have the house listed on the city's historic register, since it offers more protection from demolition. They succeeded, and in the process discovered the house was even more significant than they realized.

Their work peaked the curiosity of Jon Farnham, the staff director at the Philadelphia Historical Commission. On a hunch that Walter was involved, Farnham decided to poke around the Girard College archives to see what he could discover. It didn't take very long before he found a drawing that matched the Mt. Airy house, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Walter was the architect of the portion on the right in the photo.

Looking at the house now, you might ask, what's the fuss. Actually the fuss has been much covered up over time. Walter was a leading figure in adapting Greek temple architecture to the civic institutions of the young American republic. He conceived the Garrett House as a country temple, with a strong hip roof and Greek-revival brackets just under the cornice. But over time, tastes changed. The Greek temple elements were obscured. An addition was grafted on the left side in the photo, giving the house the air of Italianate country palazzo, complete with a grand arch doorway and tri-partite loggia over the entrance.

Although there are only a few remnants of Walter's house, Farnham thinks the discovery will be a goldmine for historians specializing in the architecture of the early American republic. Along with the capitol dome, Walter also put the columned side wings on that building for the Senate and House chambers. He was the darling of Washington until he fell ill in 1865 and was forced to return to Philadelphia. He spent his last years advising John McArthur on the design of City Hall. The discovery that Walter could also do country houses reveals that his range was wider than previously believed. It's known that Walter designed Andalusia in Bucks County, but who knows how many more modest country houses he left behind in Philadelphia.


Anonymous Catherine Stickann said...

I am so happy to see this posting! TUW was my Great-Great-Great-Grandfater.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Lee White said...

Interesting to see this article. Thomas U. Walter was my Great Great Grandfather. Lee (Leona Kendall)White

5:47 PM  

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