According to the plan for Washington, DC designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, Congress should sit on the tallest hill in the federal core of the city. It was the perfect symbol for the new nation’s democratic ideals. Then came the hard part: Designing the Capitol Building itself.
Washington and Jefferson’s Competition
In early 1792, shortly after L’Enfant finalized his plan for the city, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and city commissioners announced a design competition for the Capitol Building. Seventeen entries were submitted by the July deadline, but the commission didn’t like any of them.
In October, the judges received a letter from Dr. William Thornton. He was a physician and amateur architect living on Tortola, in the British West Indies. Due to the slow speed of news in those days, he hadn’t heard about the competition until it was too late to meet the deadline. He asked for the opportunity to present a plan, anyway. Having nothing to lose, the judges agreed.
This is a transcript from the video series The Great Tours: Washington, D.C. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Thornton’s design surprised and delighted the commissioners. The Neoclassical structure, evoking the Roman Pantheon, had three sections: Two rectangular wings, connected by a domed central building. Washington praised its “grandeur, simplicity, and convenience.” Dr. Thornton was awarded the prize of $500 and a plot of land in the new city.
Work on the building began in 1793 in September with a parade. George Washington led a small company of artillerymen across the Potomac River and up to Jenkins’ Hill. Along the route, they were joined by Freemasons from Maryland and Virginia. An engraved dedication plaque was placed at the southeast corner of the foundation, and George Washington ceremonially lowered the cornerstone onto it. Four Masons then consecrated the stone.
To oversee construction, the commission hired and fired three different architects in quick succession: Stephen H. Hallet, George Hadfield, and James Hoban. Each of them left their own architectural mark on the building, elaborating on Thornton’s original design.
The Capitol Building—Expansions and Additions
The first section to be completed was the North Wing in 1800. For a time, it not only housed the Senate but the House of Representatives as well, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and even the District of Columbia courts. A new architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, took over in 1804. He was the first “Architect of the Capitol” to be a professional architect. He completed the South Wing and made some renovations to the North Wing, but funding was cut off in preparation for the War of 1812, and Latrobe left the project without starting work on the central building.
And then, in August 1814, the British burned the city and the Capitol Building to the ground. Latrobe returned after the war to repair the damage. In 1818, Charles Bulfinch came in to complete the building, and the work was finally finished in 1829.
One more expansion was made in the 1850s, necessitated by the growth of the nation. With expansion across the North American continent, there were more states and more territories that would become states. The number of senators and representatives was growing. Thus, new, larger, House and Senate Chambers were added. This expansion doubled the size of the building. Suddenly, the small copper dome that Bulfinch had placed on top of the central building looked rather small.
Between 1855 and 1863, the Capitol’s most famous feature was added: The tall, white, colonnaded dome topped by a bronze Statue of Freedom. A few additions, modifications, and upgrades have been made since 1863, but at this point the building as we know it was essentially complete.
The Capitol Rotunda—Paintings and Sculptures
The Capitol Rotunda was completed during Charles Bulfinch’s tenure as an architect of the Capitol and was completed in 1824. It is 96 feet in diameter and 180 feet high. It is and always has been a ceremonial space. Most outstanding, it is where distinguished Americans lie in state or lie in honor after their deaths: 12 US presidents and notable people such as Pierre L’Enfant, Generals Pershing and MacArthur, Rosa Parks, Senator Daniel Inouye, and Senator John McCain.
The room is filled with remarkable works of art. The eight, large oil paintings—each about 12 feet high and 18 feet wide—depict important events in colonial and early American history. Four of them were commissioned by Congress in 1817. The artist is John Trumbull, who had served as Washington’s aide-de-camp for a short time. The other four paintings are by John Vanderlyn, William Powell, John Chapman, and Robert Weir and were added in the 1840s and 1850s. The most famous of these images is probably Trumbull’s The Declaration of Independence. It is widely reproduced, and you can find it on the back of the $2 bill if you have one.
Above the paintings is a series of relief sculptures depicting famous explorers and scenes from colonial history. All of these were part of the Rotunda before the larger dome was added in 1863.
Above this point, 48 feet off the floor and higher, the artwork was added after the new dome was completed. It was all designed by one man, Constantino Brumidi, a Roman-born artist who had worked as an art restorer in the Vatican. He came to the United States in 1852 and made his living as a portraitist and church painter. His work appears in many places in the Capitol, but in the Rotunda, he is responsible for the painted friezes at the base of the dome and the monumental fresco at the dome’s apex called The Apotheosis of Washington.
It depicts George Washington ascending to heaven in the manner of a classical hero or Renaissance saint. Indeed, the word “apotheosis” means literally “becoming a god.” George Washington is flanked by the allegorical female figures of “Liberty” and “Victory/Fame.” The groups of figures below represent War, Science, Marine, Commerce, Mechanics, and Agriculture. The entire painting is 65 feet in diameter, and some of the figures are 15 feet tall.
The National Statuary Hall—A Nation’s Echo Chamber
To the south of the Rotunda is the National Statuary Hall, also known as the Old Hall of the House. The House of Representatives met in this chamber from 1819 to 1857. This is the room where John Quincy Adams was selected to be president of the United States after the inconclusive election of 1824, and it has served as the site of presidential inaugurals as well.
In 1864, it was converted into a permanent art gallery, and each state was invited to contribute two statues of its distinguished citizens. During the 20th century, the hall began running out of space. Today, 35 statues are in the hall; the rest are spread throughout the building and the visitor center. The statues include presidents, congressmen, philosophers and theologians, Native American leaders, inventors, activists, and artists.
One of the room’s most famous features is its echoes. The room’s half-dome shape causes even faint whispers to bounce around the room, sometimes arriving in unexpected locations. Also, it sometimes mutes the voices of the speakers at their desks or the podium.
You might have been told that John Quincy Adams, while serving in the House from 1831 to 1848 after he had been president, would pretend to sleep at his desk while using those acoustics to eavesdrop on his fellow representatives. This story is untrue. Adams did fall asleep at his desk from time to time, but that was because he was very ill. In fact, he suffered a stroke there during a debate in February 1848 and died two days later in an adjoining room.
Walking Through the Senate Wing
On the opposite side of the Rotunda is the Old Senate Chamber. It was occupied by the Senate until 1859 when the Senate moved to its present, larger chamber. From 1860 to 1935, it was the home of the United States Supreme Court. Unlike the House chamber, this room has been restored to its 19th-century appearance. The gallery above the Senate floor was known as the Ladies’ Gallery. The desk at the center is the vice president’s desk, for use in his role as president of the Senate. Today, this room is primarily used for educational reenactments.
In the Senate wing, you will also find the stunning Brumidi corridors. Constantino Brumidi based his design for these five hallways on Raphael’s paintings in the Vatican loggias. Here, you will find images from classical mythology, side by side with figures from American history, plus countless flowers, fruits, insects, and animals.
Although elaborate almost beyond belief, there are several blank spaces where Brumidi’s designs were never completed. Additionally, there are some touches added more recently. Images of the Wright brothers’ Flyer and Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis were both added in the 1930s. The most recent addition was the Space Shuttle Challenger mission crew, added in 1987. Don’t forget to look up at the paintings on the vaulted ceilings, and to look down at the so-called Minton floors, named for their tile-making creator, Minton, Hollins & Company of England. The tiled floors still have the original encaustic tiles that were installed in the late 1850s, still showing bright and beautiful despite more than 150 years of daily foot traffic.
Another Brumidi work is the President’s Room—a lounge designed for the president’s use when he visits the Capitol—for example, when he delivers the State of the Union Address. Today, Senators often use it for meetings with the press. Up until 1933, the green-leather-topped desk in the center of the room was used by presidents for signing legislation into law.
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The Capitol’s Corridors, Columns, and Crypts
The hallways on the House side are known as the Cox Corridors. Although they resemble the Brumidi Corridors a little in style, the paintings are much more recent. Authorized by Congress in 1971, they were created by Allyn Cox, who had originally been hired to restore and complete some of Brumidi’s work in the Rotunda. Among the notable images here is a scene of George Washington laying the Capitol cornerstone and a view of the Smithsonian Castle as it appeared in 1855.
Also on the house side is the less elaborate, but no less dramatic, Hall of Columns. It is 100 feet long and lined with 28 marble Corinthian columns that echo the columns on the building’s exterior. The elaborately decorated ceiling is made of cast iron and is part of the support system for the Statuary Hall above it. Some of the statues from Statuary Hall have found a new home here, as well.
Directly beneath the Rotunda is a circular room called the Crypt. Despite the name, there are no burials here. Thornton’s plan called this room “The Grand Vestibule,” and it still serves the purpose it was designed for: Easing traffic flow between the North and South wings, like a highway roundabout.
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Shortly after George Washington’s death, space for his tomb was added to the plans for this room. He chose, however, to be buried on his estate at Mount Vernon, instead. The star-shaped marker you see in the center of the room is not a grave marker but a compass rose, marking the point where the four quadrants of the District of Columbia meet.