Capitol at Washington

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CAPITOL AT WASHINGTON. The United States was the first nation to plan and develop a city solely to serve as the seat of government. The country's founders selected the classical architecture of Greece and Rome as appropriate to express the New Republic's democratic ideals. Despite lingering disagreements over the design for the Capitol building, President George Washington laid the cornerstone on 18 September 1793. In 1800, Congress moved into the Newly completed north wing. During the War of 1812, the British set fire to both wings, causing substantial damage. The rebuilt structure was completed in 1829 at a cost of approximately $2.5 million. It was 352 feet long, 283 feet wide, and 145 feet high to the top of the dome, and covered approximately 1.5 acres. By 1850 the Capitol had become too small. It took twenty years to complete wing extensions and a larger dome proportionate to the greater size. The dome alone required nine years to complete, at a cost of $1.25 million. By 1870, just under $13 million had been expended on the original construction and the enlargement.

L'Enfant's Plan

The Capitol was the focal point of Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the New federal city. L'Enfant selected as the Capitol's site the western edge of Jenkin's Hill, ninety feet above the Potomac and with a commanding westward view. His plan aligned the Capitol due north-south, the midsection of the building at the center of a cruciform city plan with wide thoroughfares forming the long axes leading away from it in all four directions. Radial avenues overlaid the rectangular grid of city streets aligned with these axes. On a ridge northwest of Jenkin's Hill, L'Enfant sited the presidential residence, and linked it visually to the Capitol with a wide mall directly to the west and a diagonal avenue to the northwest.

L'Enfant's city plan sketched the Capitol building only in a rudimentary outline, although it indicated the north-south orientation and a large rotunda at the western edge. For refusing to make the details of his design for the Capitol and for other arbitrary, noncooperative acts, he was dismissed in March 1792, although his city plan was retained. Only in the twentieth century was the brilliance of L'Enfant's plan, with its centerpiece Capitol on the hill above a riverfront city of extraordinary coherence and expressiveness, fully realized.

Thornton's Design Chosen

After L'Enfant was dismissed, Jefferson and Washington responded positively to two designs, one by Dr. William Thornton, an Englishman, and the other by Stephen Hallet, a Frenchman. Both designs reflected the influence of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio and consisted of a prominent center section where the members of Congress could confer together and where the president could meet with them. This section in both plans was flanked by the two wings for the separate deliberations by the two houses.

The concept of a circular room below a monumental dome was probably derived from L'Enfant's plan. However, Thornton's design was distinguished by two circular sections—although the two domes of the roofline at different levels would compromise the building's visual harmony. Nevertheless, Washington and Jefferson chose Thornton's design, with Hallet put in charge of construction. The latter was replaced first by George Hadfield and then by White House architect James Hoban, who by 1800 had completed the north wing. It was soon occupied by Congress, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the District of Columbia courts.

Latrobe's Changes

In 1803 Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a professional architect and engineer, began the construction of the House of

Representatives wing and a reworking of the Senate wing, a project that took nine years. By 1806 he had completed a redesign of the center section. By 1811, Latrobe had completed the two legislative halls and bridged them temporarily with wooden scaffolding. On 24 August 1814, during the War of 1812, the British set fire to the Capitol, although a rainstorm prevented its complete destruction. From 1815 to 1819 Congress met in a building on First Street, N.E., later the site of the Supreme Court.

In 1817 Latrobe was charged with the reconstruction, to be based on his redesign. The dominant feature was to be the single central rotunda. Latrobe changed the overall design from baroque to Greek neoclassical. His neoclassical elements included uniquely American columns ornamented with ears of corn and tobacco leaves. Charles Bulfinch, a Boston architect, supervised the construction, which was completed in 1827.

Enlargement of the Capitol

By 1850 it had become clear that the Capitol was too small. In 1851 President Millard Fillmore selected Thomas U. Walter of Philadelphia to build two large wings on the north and south ends of the building. The New wing extensions, each 143 feet long and 239 feet wide, were constructed of white marble veined in blue. The corridors connecting these wings to the main building were each 44 feet long and 56 feet wide. The building's enlargement more than doubled its length. The extension of the wings of the building left the central dome out of proportion and in 1855 Congress voted to replace it with a cast iron dome twice as tall as Walter's design. The construction of the massive dome, begun six years before the Civil War, continued through the war.

A statue of the Goddess of Liberty, sculpted by Thomas Crawford, was placed on the top of the dome in 1863. It is 19.5 feet high and weighs nearly fifteen thousand pounds. On the statue's head is a "liberty cap" of eagle's feathers. In 1866 Constantino Brumidi's Rotunda canopy fresco, The Apotheosis of Washington, was completed. The Capitol extensions were completed in 1868.

The Modern Capitol

The landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, placed in charge of the Capitol grounds in 1874, added marble terraces on three sides of the building. Between 1958 and 1962, the Capitol was extended to the east by 32.5 feet with new marble walls. The extension added ninety new rooms. Between 1983 and 1987, the west front underwent a comprehensive stabilization of the deteriorating walls.

By 2000, the Capitol covered 175,170 square feet (about four acres). It was 751 feet long and, at its maximum, 350 feet wide. The building has five levels. Above the basement are the Old Supreme Court Chamber, the Hall of Columns, the Brumidi Corridors, and the Crypt under the Rotunda. The second floor contains the congressional chambers, the Rotunda, which is 180 feet high and 96 feet in diameter with a gallery of artwork portraying America's history, the National Statuary Hall, and the Old Senate Chamber. The third and fourth floors are mostly offices and other support space.

The Capitol building is the principal architectural symbol of the nation's political identity. At first, it was as a symbol of the federal union comprised of the separate states, freedom from monarchy and oppression, and a return to enlightenment. As the United States grew in power and influence, it also came to stand for the accomplishments and sacrifices the American people had experienced to preserve the freedoms of not only Americans, but of other nations as well.


"The Architect of the Capitol." Available from

Lowry, Bates. Building a National Image: Architectural Drawings for the American Democracy, 1789–1912. New York: Walker, 1985.

Gelernter, Mark. A History of American Architecture: Buildings in Their Cultural and Technological Context. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1999.

Moore, Joseph West. Picturesque Washington: Pen and Pencil Sketches. Providence, R.I.: J. A. and R. A. Reid, 1890. This excellent older book contains highly detailed descriptions of the construction of the Capitol.

Partridge, William T. "L'Enfant's Methods and Features of His Plan for the Federal City." In The Annual Report, National Capital Park and Planning Commission, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Capital Planning Commission, 1975.

Reed, Robert. Old Washington, D.C. in Early Photographs, 1846– 1932. New York: Dover, 1980.


See alsoArchitecture ; Washington, D.C .; White House .

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Capitol at Washington

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