Senate Historical Office (2001)
Montgomery Meigs began his supervision of the Capitol construction project on April 4, 1853, at the request of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Architect of the Capitol Thomas U. Walter had enjoyed supervisory status until a Senate committee, chaired by Samuel Houston, found improper handling of finances and contracts, prompting a change of leadership. Walter nevertheless remained in his post until 1865, leading to an often testy relationship between the two men. Throughout the 1850s, however, Montgomery Meigs would have the greatest influence on the construction and design of the new extensions.
Meigs shaped the architectural designs of the House and Senate wings, the Capitol dome, and even made improvements to the acoustics, ventilation, windows, and heating in the new wings. He also influenced the artistic design of the building by his choice of artists. One of Meigs’s most famous hires was Italian artist Constantino Brumidi, known for the ornate paintings in the Senate-wing corridors that now bear his name, as well as the decoration of the Capitol Rotunda and inner dome. To complete the dome, Meigs hired Thomas Crawford, an American artist living in Rome, to create the Statue of Freedom that crowns the Capitol dome.
Meigs’s daily journal entries include details of the day-to-day building operations involved in the project, but he also recorded his personal thoughts about his public and private life, discussions of family relationships, and his political views of the era and its personalities. Living in Washington during the years leading to the Civil War, Meigs wrote of his support for the Union and his hatred of slavery. Although he kept the journal as a personal organizer, for “looking back for dates and memoranda,” it actually “served in some degree to cause self examination at the close of every business day.”
The collaborative effort that produced Capitol Builder began in 1991 when Meigs’s shorthand journals, stored at the Library of Congress, came to the attention of Senate Historian Richard Baker and Barbara Wolanin, curator for the Office of Architect of the Capitol. Although the complete set of journals covers the years 1852 to 1872, Capitol Builder includes only the first three journal volumes covering Meigs’s years at the Capitol. After receiving funding first by the Senate Bicentennial Commission and then by the United States Capitol Historical Society in 1996, the journals were translated by William Mohr, a former Official Reporter of Debates in the Senate and one of the few reporters who can translate the Pitman system of shorthand.
Capitol Builder is available online through the Government Printing Office or it may be available at a federal depository library in your state.