Tudor Place was designed to impress and entertain but also, in its classical design references, to pay homage to the nascent American Republic. Its structures began more humbly, however. When Martha and Thomas Peter purchased the eight-and-a-half-acre site in 1805, tax records show, it contained eight buildings and service structures.
Moving from an elegant K Street townhouse, the Peters and their children settled into one of these structures, a two-story Flemish bond brick building that would later become the existing house’s west wing. Measuring 16 by 34 feet, it was two rooms deep; a second two-story brick structure of the same size stood to its east and functioned as a stable and carriage house. Both were incorporated into Dr. William Thornton’s design for the larger house.
Thornton’s drawings drew upon neoclassical ideas of proportion and balance popularized by Andrea Palladio, whose seminal 16th-century publication, Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura (The Four Books on Architecture) strongly influenced 18th- and early 19th-century American design. In his plans for Tudor Place, Thornton expressed Palladio’s forms in a distinctly Federal, American style, melding French-influenced romantic classicism with traditional English forms. The house’s five-part structure, with two-story central block and low hyphens connecting to higher, two-story wings, followed a form immensely popular in the Chesapeake region during the Federal period. Other distinctly Federal exterior elements include a low, hipped roof on the center block, large windows with narrow muntins to emphasize verticality, restrained use of delicate ornament, shallow reveals around south-elevation windows, and the main entrance’s strong simplicity, with its fanlight above the door.
The house’s most architecturally significant feature is the domed, marble-floored Temple Portico. Unlike the more common half-round porches attached to exterior walls of many early 19th-century houses, Thornton’s circular structure extends into the house itself, with a curved wall of floor-to-ceiling windows serving as a transition between interior spaces and the garden. It is one of the only known full temple porticos embedded into a U.S. residence, and the only one still standing today. Thornton may have based his design on engravings of the Temple of Vesta, from which he also may have drawn inspiration for plaster motifs in the cornice of the main public rooms of the house.
The exterior of the brick house Thornton clad in stucco scored to resemble blocks of finished stone, a common Federal Period technique. This was coated with a golden limewash, against which scored lines in the stucco were picked out with white lime to resemble stonework joints.
Thornton was more draughtsman than engineer, so the work of realizing the structures he depicted became the task of master builders and masons assisted by journeymen and enslaved workers, all of whose identities are lost to us today. In a construction practice not uncommon at the time, the house was constructed from the outside wings inward. Work began with renovation of the existing wings and construction of the hyphens, proceeding last to the center block, and was largely finished in 1816.