District of Columbia: The Capitol Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The second-oldest public structure in Washington, D.C., the Capitol houses the legislative branch of government, comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate. It contains 540 rooms and two wings (north and south), which intersect in the Rotunda, a room 180 feet high and 95 feet wide topped by a massive iron dome 135 feet in diameter and 218 feet in height that weighs nine million pounds. The entire Capitol complex (including office buildings) encompasses two hundred acres.

Site Office

United States Capitol Historical Society

200 Maryland Avenue NE

Washington, DC 20002-5796

ph.: (202) 543-8919

fax: (202) 544-8244

Web site: www.uschs.org/

e-mail: uschs@uschs.org

George Washington ceremoniously laid the first stone of the Capitol on September 18, 1793, nearly a year after construction had commenced on the White House. Planning had been underway since 1790, when Congress, then located in Philadelphia, approved an act to create a permanent “federal city” to be completed and ready for occupation in 1800. The project was overseen by three commissioners, Thomas Johnson, Daniel Carroll, and David Stuart. President George Washington was also given wide latitude over the construction of the first federal buildings. For the site of the Capitol, the city’s chief architect, Captain Pierre Charles L’Enfant, chose Jenkins Hill, which he described as “a pedestal waiting for a monument.” He could not have guessed that his “monument,” the nation’s Capitol, would take over seventy years to construct, by which time the name “Jenkins Hill” would have passed into oblivion.

A Design Competition

To obtain suitable designs for the Capitol and the presidential mansion, the commissioners announced architectural competitions, the winners of which would receive five hundred dollars each. Architects were few, undoubtedly the reason for canvassing the entire thirteen states. The commissioners congratulated themselves upon receiving an excellent proposal for the president’s house by a professional architect, Irishman James Hoban. They were far less lucky with the competition for the design of the nation’s Capitol. None of the submissions was judged even passable. The least-objectionable entry belonged to Stephen Hallet, who was “strongly encouraged” to revise his plans and then resubmit them. Hence, when the future architect of the Capitol, Dr. William Thornton, sent in his submission three months past the deadline, he was not turned away. Thomas Jefferson expressed ill-concealed relief at a design, which was “simple, noble, beautiful, excellently distributed, and moderate in size.” Most important, George Washington wholly approved of it.

William Thornton was a physician from the British Virgin Islands. In 1792, when he heard of the competition for a capitol building, he was living in Philadelphia and had become a naturalized citizen. His outstanding talent as an amateur architect had been established when he won first prize in a competition to design the Philadelphia library. The drawing that he submitted to a delighted Jefferson featured a building with a central rotunda flanked by a Senate (north) wing and a House of Representatives (south) wing. The design was in the popular neoclassical style, also featured in Hoban’s plan for the White House.

Construction Begins

Because Thornton’s entry to the competition was late, the commissioners informed him that Hallet was working on a revision of his first entry. Hallet’s design was ultimately rejected, but he was given an award equivalent to Thornton’s and was even made superintendent of the Capitol’s construction, based on Thornton’s plan. This was an ill-conceived gesture of goodwill on the part of the three commissioners; Hallet was intent on criticizing and obstructing Thornton’s plan, the two got along poorly, and construction proceeded slowly. Finally, a committee appointed to investigate the slow progress of the Capitol dismissed Hallet as superintendent and appointed James Hoban, architect of the White House, in his place. Thornton continued in his capacity as chief architect of the Capitol. By 1800, when the mandated ten-year period for readying the federal city had lapsed, only the north, or Senate, wing had been finished. It would take a little more than a decade to finish the south wing for the House of Representatives.

Succeeding Thornton as chief architect, or Capitol superintendent, was Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an Englishman whom Thomas Jefferson appointed in 1803. His job was to speed up the Capitol’s construction. Under him, the interior of the House and Senate wings were beautifully furnished with velvet drapes and mahogany furniture; walls and ceilings were painted in blue and straw yellow; roofs were repaired; and the south wing was finally completed (and much admired by Jefferson) and decorated with elaborate carvings and columns. There were no skilled craftsmen in America capable of executing the intricate carvings, hence Latrobe wrote to an Italian friend of Thomas Jefferson’s, asking him to recommend sculptors. He offered them three dollars a day to carve the tops (capitals) of twenty-four columns as well as a frieze (a carved band at the top of the walls) depicting an enormous eagle and allegorical figures of Liberty, Science, and Art. In 1806, two Italian sculptors braved the treacherous sea to begin work on the carvings.

Near Destruction

The beautiful frieze and carvings were all destroyed by the British on August 24, 1814; a contingent of redcoats under the command of Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn fired cannon balls at the public buildings in Washington, D.C., in revenge for American troops’ destruction of the Canadian town of York. Only a torrential rain that night extinguished the fires. The next day, the blackened walls of the Capitol alone remained standing. All the books in the Library of Congress, housed in one room in the Capitol, were casualties as well.

While President James Madison and his wife Dolley took refuge afterward in the Octagon, the private home of a friend, plans for the reconstruction of the federal city proceeded, thanks to the offer of generous loans from Washington, D.C., bankers and other businessmen. While the city had grown little in the decade and a half that it had been the nation’s capital, many individuals of means had speculated in city land and were threatened with bankruptcy if Congress voted to abandon the district, which nearly happened. Instead, the swift promises of generous loans were accepted. The Capitol, President Madison believed, would take only two years to rebuild; in fact, it took decades.

Rebuilding

Once more, architect Benjamin Latrobe was appointed to supervise the construction. He was delighted to be recalled to service, especially since he was facing bankruptcy due to failed investments in steamboats. By 1817, only the north and south wings of the Capitol had been completed under Latrobe’s supervision. There were labor disputes, work stoppages, and long delays. Because of mounting criticism, Latrobe resigned. The central portion of the building was still to be completed, but Latrobe left detailed sketches for its design.

A new architect, and the first to be an American-born citizen, became Capitol superintendent following Latrobe’s resignation. Charles Bulfinch of Boston had previously been commissioned architect of Boston General Hospital. On a trip to Washington, D.C., he chanced to meet President-elect James Monroe, who was much taken by him. After he had assumed office, Monroe suggested that Bulfinch take on Latrobe’s vacated position. At a salary of $2,500 plus moving expenses, he snapped up the prestigious post.

Bulfinch made an effort to win the favor of congressmen and the president, a tactic disdained by previous architects. For instance, realizing the difficulty the politicians had in understanding blueprints, he constructed small-scale wooden models of various Capitol designs. These models captured the Congress’s imagination and actually speeded up the process of obtaining appropriations. One of the models, which Bulfinch personally did not favor, featured an immense dome over the Rotunda. To his dismay it became the favorite of Congress and the president. In fact, the politicians requested that Bulfinch enlarge the dome even further. When it was finally completed in 1830, the Capitol’s central portion was capped by a dome larger than either Thornton, Latrobe, or Bulfinch had desired.

The Jackson Administration

By this time, Andrew Jackson was president. Although Jackson campaigned as a man of the people, he was in fact a person of refined taste who took a personal interest in both the White House and the Capitol. While Thomas Jefferson was the first president to take his oath of office in the Capitol, it was Jackson who, as the darling of plain and simple folk, insisted on taking his oath outdoors on the Capitol’s east front, beginning a tradition that lasted for over a hundred years.

Jackson realized that the Capitol, finished in theory, was already too small to accommodate the increasing number of representatives from newly admitted states, as well as the Supreme Court, the Circuit Court, the Library of Congress, and, scarcely to be overlooked, the growing numbers of visitors, both native and foreign. After all, the Capitol housed at that time the only freely elected legislature in the world and consequently was on all visitors’ itineraries. The visitors’ gallery was always jammed, and from the beginning admitted both sexes, who mingled freely, to the shock of some visiting dignitaries. Crude behavior–hawkers selling fruit and candies in the galleries–and vulgar language flowed freely in those early decades.

Given the need for expansion, Andrew Jackson decided to reinstate the position of Capitol Architect, which had been abolished in 1829. In 1836 he appointed Robert Mills of South Carolina, who had recently won a five hundred-dollar prize for the design of the Washington Monument. While Mills’s official title, Architect and Engineer of the Government, was broad, caring for the Capitol was his first priority.

Italian and American Artisans

Ever since the destruction of the Capitol in 1814, Italian craftsmen had continued their services to the building. Giovanni Andrei and his brother-in-law Giuseppe Franzoni, the two sculptors who had arrived at the behest of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Latrobe in 1806, saw their beautiful carvings go up in flames in 1814. Franzoni was instrumental in recommending other craftsmen from his native Italy to help in the Capitol’s restoration and beautification. His brother Carlo created the Chariot of History clock above the entrance of what would become Statuary Hall; Enrico Causici sculpted the Statue of Liberty that stands in the hall itself; Luigi Persico carved the figures of Peace and War that stand at the entrance to the Rotunda; and Antonio Capellano contributed the carved relief of George Washington in the Rotunda and the depiction of the rescue of John Smith by Pocahontas.

Yet few individuals’ labor could match that of Constantino Brumidi, who for twenty-five years worked on the Capitol. Brumidi created the first real fresco in America, the canopy of the Rotunda (completed in 1855); he also painted, but never completed, the nine-foot-high frieze on the upper portion of the Rotunda, at some danger to himself (one day he slipped from his scaffold and was left dangling until rescued by fellow workmen). After his death in 1879, the work was continued by yet another Italian artist, Filippo Costanggini.

Gradually, American craftsmen replaced the Italians. One of these, Horatio Greenough, completed a statue of George Washington. At its unveiling in the Capitol in 1841, the statue embarrassed many people because it depicted a half-naked Washington, with only a cloth draped around his hips and thighs, in the classical Greek mode. It was considered too unseemly for public display in the Capitol and was eventually donated to the Smithsonian Institution, where it now stands proudly in public view. Thomas Crawford of New York, creator of the Statue of Freedom that has graced the Capitol dome since 1863, also designed the beautiful bronze doors of the House wing and carved the figures on the east pediment of the Senate wing.

Yet Another Architect

Robert Mills had planned to add new wings to the north and south of the Capitol building and suggested that the old chambers be used by the Supreme Court (which was housed in the Capitol until its own building was constructed in 1935) and for the display art and sculpture. Before these plans were executed, the new president, Millard Fillmore, replaced Mills with Thomas U. Walter in 1851, whose title was Capitol Architect. Walter is best remembered for his replacement of the Bulfinch dome with one of colossal proportions. Under Walter, who remained Capitol Architect until 1865, the Capitol tripled in size.

Walter hailed from Philadelphia and would become one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects. Walter saw the immediate need for carrying out the extensions that his predecessor Mills had proposed. Upon completion of the new wings in 1851, another cornerstone was laid and ceremonies performed. Four years later, Congress authorized the replacement of the wood and copper dome of Bulfinch’s design by a magnificent iron dome, designed by Walter in the style of Saint Peter’s in Rome. The need for a powerful symbol of national unity was felt by many. In 1862, with Civil War raging, the construction of the new dome was transferred to the domain of the Department of the Interior. Walter remained to oversee its building.

When completed in 1863, the dome, weighing nearly nine million pounds, had cost more than one million dollars. Building it in that day and age, without electricity and cranes, taxed Walter’s ingenuity. It was his idea to extend supports through the Rotunda all the way through the eye of the dome. Scaffolding could raise and lower workmen, while a derrick, also constructed through the eye of the dome, hoisted the iron for the dome’s casing. The derrick hoisted as well the nineteen-foot Statue of Freedom on December 2, 1863. The statue stands above a lantern that is fifty-two feet long. The colossal dome itself sits astride thirty-six corinthian columns, one for each state in the union at that time. When Abraham Lincoln took his second Oath of Office in March, 1865, with the completed dome in the background, it expressed more eloquently than words his hope for peace and national unity.

The Capitol Today

The Capitol still stands as a symbol of those aspirations. Many refinements have taken place within and outside the Capitol since 1863, including a thirty-two foot eastern extension of the Capitol’s midsection, finished in 1961. Since 1908, six huge office buildings have been added as well. In 1800, Americans might well have been dumbfounded to learn that one day the Capitol would comprise 540 rooms, and the entire complex, grounds included, would encompass two hundred acres. Most of these rooms are used for offices or committee meetings. From the perspective of the visitor and outsider, the most notable chamber is the Rotunda, the Capitol’s center, famed for its eight historical paintings by American artist John Trumbull and the remarkable statue of Abraham Lincoln, sculpted by the gifted, seventeen-year-old artist Vinnie Ream. Under the Rotunda dome is Brumidi’s historic frieze and his fresco The Apotheosis of George Washington.

Off the Rotunda is Statuary Hall, which served as the chamber for the House of Representatives until 1857. Statues of notable men and women from each state fill the room. It was in this room in 1848 that former president John Quincy Adams died of a stroke. The two former Supreme Court chambers are also on view, both designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe in the form of classical amphitheaters. It was in the Old Supreme Court Chamber (used by the justices until 1860) that in 1844 Samuel F. B. Morse sent the world’s first telegraph message.

The Old Senate Chamber was the assembly room for the senators until 1859. It witnessed dramatic scenes, largely revolving around the sectional conflicts of the pre-Civil War era. The Brumidi Corridor in the current Senate wing is named for and was decorated by the Italian artist who declared his aim in life “to make beautiful the Capitol of the one country on earth in which there is liberty.”

The grounds outside the Capitol are a lush and beautifully landscaped counterpart to the classical embellishments within. Not until a decade after the Civil War was serious attention paid to the surrounding grounds. In the mid-1870’s, the man who designed New York’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted, was commissioned to turn the Capitol grounds into a park. Thanks to his insistence, beautiful terraces were built on the Capitol’s west side, facing the Mall. In the spring and summer months, amid the spacious lawns, appear a profusion of stately magnolias, brilliant azaleas, cherry trees, dogwood, and a multitude of foreign shrubs and plants.

For Further Information
  • Arnebeck, Bob. Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790-1800. Lanham, Md.: Madison Books, 1991. Just as interesting as Herron’s book below, but with an even greater wealth of detail.
  • Brown, Glenn. Glenn Brown’s History of the United States Capitol. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1998. This annotated edition, published in commemoration of the bicentennial of the Capitol, is a history of the building by architect Brown (1854-1932).
  • Capitol Historical Society. We, the People: The Story of the United States Capitol. Washington, D.C.: Capitol Historical Society and the National Geographic Society, 1991. The standard, authoritative account of the Capitol, written in a highly readable style and richly illustrated. It is available in paperback and updated every two to three years.
  • Herron, Paul. The Story of Capitol Hill. New York: Van Rees Press, 1963. An informative work offering interesting anecdotes and a detailed account of the building of the Capitol and the formation of the surrounding neighborhood.
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