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Bulfinch, Charles (08 August 1763–15 April 1844), civil servant and architect, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Thomas Bulfinch, a physician, and Susan Apthorp. Scion of long-established and wealthy colonial families, some members of which had been recognized amateur architects whose books were available to him, Bulfinch graduated from Harvard College in 1781. Apparently it was at Harvard that he learned drafting and the geometrical construction of linear perspective. After a period in the counting house of Joseph Barrell, where, as he later wrote, the “unsettled state of the time” produced “leisure to cultivate a taste for Architecture,” he spent the period from June 1785 to January 1787 on a grand tour of England, France, and Italy, “observing … the wonders of Architecture, & the kindred arts of painting and sculpture.” Described by Louis XVI’s director general of gardens and buildings as “un gentilhomme américain” who was already “plein de goût et de connaissance dan [ ...

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Cahill, Holger (13 January 1887–08 July 1960), author and curator, was born Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnarson, in Snifellsnessyslu, Iceland, the son of Björn Bjarnarson, a laborer, and Vigdis Bjarnadóttir. Cahill, however, later claimed he was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1893. In the 1890s the Bjarnarsons emigrated to North Dakota, where they hoped to obtain land. Unable to purchase property, Björn worked as a hired hand. Vigdis, whom Cahill later described as a stern “peasant woman” with a poetic streak, and Björn, “a failure in almost everything he did,” quarreled frequently, separating when Cahill was eleven. Struggling to support her son and his younger sister after Björn departed, Vigdis sent the boy to live with an Icelandic family on a nearby farm. After the family removed him from school, put him to work in the fields, and pressured him to be confirmed in the Lutheran church, he ran away. Settled with another family, Cahill finished high school and then set off for Canada, where he worked as a farm laborer and cowherder. By 1907 he was back in the United States, holding a job as a railroad clerk in St. Paul. While there, he later recalled that he read “Tolstoi by the acre” and took a correspondence course in journalism. This was followed by short stints as a watchman on a Great Lakes steamer and as an insurance salesman in Cleveland....

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Ferguson, John Calvin (01 March 1866–03 August 1945), educator, art historian, and Chinese governmental adviser, was born in Lonsdale, Ontario, Canada, the son of John Ferguson, a Methodist minister, and Catherine Matilda Pomeroy, a schoolteacher. Because of his father’s itinerant occupation, he rarely lived in one location longer than two years. This did not dissuade him from pursuing a career in the clergy, however. He attended Albert College in Ontario before moving to Boston University, where he received the bachelor of arts degree in 1886. After some further study at the school of theology there, he was ordained a minister in the Methodist Episcopal church....

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Hanks, Nancy (31 December 1927–07 January 1983), arts administrator and civil servant, was born in Miami Beach, Florida, the daughter of Bryan Cayce Hanks and Virginia Wooding, both farmers and entrepreneurs. Hanks received her college education at Duke University, graduating in 1947. It was there that she began her long career in public administration by working actively as a member of student government throughout her attendance and as president during her senior year. In 1951 Hanks moved to Washington, D.C., and began working as a secretary in the Office of Defense Mobilization. She worked there until 1953, when she became acquainted with ...

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Maclay, Samuel (17 June 1741–05 October 1811), surveyor and politician, was born in Lurgan Township, Franklin County, Pennsylvania, the son of Charles Maclay and Eleanor Query, both immigrants from Ireland. The details of his childhood are unknown, except that he was educated at the classical school of the Reverend Dr. Alison. During 1767–1768 Maclay was an assistant to his brother ...

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Stewart, John George (02 June 1890–24 May 1970), congressman and architect of the U.S. Capitol, was born in Wilmington, Delaware, the son of Hamilton Stewart, a stonecutter turned successful contractor, and Marie Schaefer. Stewart studied civil engineering at the University of Delaware, leaving during his third year of study in 1911 to assume a clerkship in his father’s contracting firm, Stewart and Donahue, and to marry Helen Tabor Ferry of Norristown, Pennsylvania. As Stewart rose through the ranks of the company, achieving a partnership in 1919 and the presidency in 1929, the firm grew to be one of the largest of its type on the East Coast. Under his direction Stewart’s company obtained numerous federal and commercial contracts for the construction of roads, bridges, and factories. The firm’s restoration of the original Du Pont black powder plant at Hagley, Delaware, led to commissions to supervise construction of the ...

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Thornton, William (20 May 1759–28 March 1828), architect, civil servant, and essayist, was born on the island of Tortola in the West Indies, the son of William Thornton, a planter, and Dorcas Zeagers. The senior Thornton died when his son was five years old, and the boy went to live with relatives in Lancashire, England. He served a medical apprenticeship in Lancashire, studied at the University of Edinburgh, and received a medical degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1784. After his graduation he traveled in France and the British Isles before returning to Tortola in 1786. Enamored of the republican ideals of the American Revolution, he emigrated to Philadelphia in 1786 and became a citizen of the United States in 1788. He established a medical practice in Philadelphia but soon abandoned it, finding the practice boring and the fees unsatisfactory. Thornton enjoyed a creditable income from his West Indies plantation, which allowed him to pursue his intellectual and artistic interests. His education and European background won him admittance to intellectual circles in Philadelphia, including election to the American Philosophical Society. Thornton married Anna Marie Brodeau, a well-educated and cultured girl of fifteen, in 1790. They spent two years on Thornton’s plantation on Tortola, returned to Philadelphia, and in 1794 made their home in the new city of Washington, where they resided for the remainder of their lives. They had no children....

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Ellen Axson Wilson Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-25806 DLC).

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Wilson, Ellen Axson (15 May 1860–06 August 1914), artist and first lady, was born Ellen Louise Axson in Savannah, Georgia, the daughter of Samuel Edward Axson, a Presbyterian minister, and Margaret Jane Hoyt. She was raised in Rome, Georgia, and in 1876 graduated from Rome Female College. Despite her talents, the lack of family funds forced her to defer plans to gain further education either as a teacher or as an artist....