The 2001 groundbreaking for the Capitol Visitor Center prompted questions about previous major Capitol expansions. In May 1993, a helicopter lifted the Statue of Freedom neatly off its perch atop the dome and placed it in the east front plaza for cleaning. Less than five months later, the helicopter gently returned the bronze goddess to her pedestal. These spectator-pleasing events highlighted the 200th anniversary of the Capitol's first cornerstone laying in 1793. Although efforts to locate the original cornerstone proved futile, the accompanying publicity emphasized the importance of knowing more about the Capitol's history and spurred planning efforts for the visitor center.
At the June 20 groundbreaking for the visitor center, Senator Strom Thurmond recalled his attending the most recent previous cornerstone event. That July 4, 1959, occasion marked the start of a construction project to extend the east front by 32 feet. On that occasion, President Dwight Eisenhower set in place a three-foot cube of red marble bearing the simple inscription "A.D. 1959."
Without question, however, the most dramatic and significant Capitol cornerstone event since that of 1793 occurred on July 4, 1851. The admission to the Union of five states between 1845 and 1850 sent additional members to the already overcrowded and noisy House and Senate chambers. With the September 1850 passage of the package of laws known as the Compromise of 1850, Congress expressed its confidence in the nation's future by appropriating $100,000 to begin construction of new Capitol wings. These would be designed to accommodate larger legislative chambers and much-needed committee rooms. In June 1851, just three weeks before the cornerstone ceremony, President Millard Fillmore selected an extension plan prepared by Architect Thomas U. Walter.
On an unusually mild summer's day, a large parade moved festively up Capitol Hill. Led by President Fillmore, the procession included veterans of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and individuals who had witnessed the 1793 cornerstone laying. Into a specially fashioned granite block, Architect Walter placed a glass jar containing current newspapers, documents, and 40 dollars in coins. A Masonic official sealed the cornerstone with the same trowel that President George Washington had used in 1793. Daniel Webster then delivered a deeply patriotic address that kept listeners spellbound for its two-hour duration. An artillery salute and fireworks on the mall concluded this most festive Independence Day.
U.S. Congress. Senate. History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics, by William C. Allen. 106th Congress, 2d sess., 2001. S. Doc. 106-29.