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Constructing a National Symbol


December 2, 1863

The iconic image of the Capitol Dome is so familiar today that it’s hard to imagine the Capitol without it, but the dome is actually a relative newcomer. The original Capitol design dates to 1793, but it took until 1824 to complete the first dome, a wooden structure covered with copper. Then, between 1824 and 1850, the U.S. acquired vast territories that produced new states, each sending members to Congress. As the House and Senate outgrew their chambers, members authorized construction of two new wings. Before long, that first small dome looked out of place.

In 1854 Capitol architect Thomas Walter designed a new dome, inspired by the great cathedrals of Europe, to be constructed of fireproof cast iron. Construction began in 1856, and Washingtonians watched in wonder as the massive new structure took shape. By March 4, 1861, when Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office, a half-finished dome loomed over the Capitol.

The attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, transformed Washington into an armed camp. Soldiers arrived and occupied the Capitol. Cast iron produced for the dome was quickly converted for use in fortifying the building, and Capitol Engineer Montgomery Meigs ordered contractors to cease all construction. The government “has no money to spend except in self defense,” he explained.

Despite Meigs’ order, the company of Janes, Fowler and Kirtland — iron workers contracted to build the dome — continued the work. If construction stopped, they feared, the cast iron could be lost or damaged. And so workers stayed on the job — without pay. “It seemed a strange contradiction to see the workmen … going on with their labor,” wrote a New York Times reporter; “the click of the chisel, the stroke of the hammer,” blending with “the tramp of the battalions drilling in the [Capitol] corridors.” As Thomas Walter recalled, thanks to the workers’ dedication, “the sound of the hammer” never stopped “during all of our civil troubles.”

In 1862 Congress again debated the construction project. “Every consideration of economy,...of protection to this building,...of expediency requires that [construction] should be completed,” argued Senator Solomon Foot. The Union was strong enough, he insisted, “to put down this rebellion and to put up this our Capitol at the same time.” In May of 1862, a year after workers had decided to carry on, Congress renewed the contract for construction.

As war progressed, so did the dome, section by section. Skilled and unskilled laborers — many of whom began the project as slaves, then continued as freedmen following the DC Emancipation Act — operated machinery under dangerous conditions. Accidents and injuries were common. The sight of this unceasing operation in the midst of war proved to be inspiring. “If people see the Capitol going on,” President Lincoln remarked in 1863, “it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.”

At noon on December 2, 1863, a solemn ceremony marked completion of the dome and the placement of the Statue of Freedom. “I shall always identify Washington with that huge...towering bulge of pure white,” exclaimed Walt Whitman, that “vast eggshell, built of iron and glass...a beauty and [a] genuine success.” Completed against all odds during an era of tragic and violent disunion, the Capitol dome became a lasting symbol of a nation both strong and unified.