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History of the U.S. Capitol

William C. Allen (2001) 

A very special contest began in 1792. After choosing the permanent site for the United States government, along the banks of the Potomac River, President George Washington and the U.S. Congress sought proposals for the architectural design of the new Capitol building. An amateur architect from the British West Indies by the name of  Dr. William Thornton submitted the winning design.  Thornton's design laid the framework for the Capitol we see today, but many individuals have influenced the building's design and evolution over the years. At the center of William Allen's History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics, a book prepared under the direction of the Architect of the Capitol, is the theme of the evolving, changing nature of this building which has come to stand as a symbol of the American people and American government. As Allen acknowledges in his preface, the architectural history of the United States Capitol is a complex and fascinating story that can often be seen to parallel the history of the United States.

Like so many aspects of American life, the Capitol is often viewed as a work in progress—an architectural evolution reflecting the country's own political, economic and social development. It was not the vision of a single person nor the product of a single age; rather, it was—and continues to be—the accumulation of thousands of ideas worked by thousands of people over a two-hundred-year period. Honorable and gifted political leaders, architects, and builders appear at critical moments in the Capitol's history, but the story is also tangled and enlivened by dozens of unscrupulous and obstreperous characters who complicate matters along the way.

In framing his study within the broader scope of American political and social history, Allen has given us a comprehensive analysis of the architectural development of the Capitol and the challenges faced along the way. Over the years, the construction of the Capitol has encountered a number of difficulties, ranging from fires to lack of funds. In 1814, a fire set by invading British troops devastated the structure, resulting in the need for restoration even before the building's completion. Examining the numerous revisions in design, extensions, and restorations,  Allen takes us through the travails and triumphs of the various architects, engineers, and artisans who have been instrumental in the creation of this symbol of American democracy.  Among those featured are: architect Benjamin Latrobe, whose distinctly American "corn-cob columns" drew much praise and were fortunate to survive the 1814 fire; architect Charles Bulfinch, who oversaw the first completion of the Capitol in 1830 after 37 years of construction; and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the magnificent plan to beautify the Capitol grounds.

As the subtitle of this book suggests, political battles and compromises have been as much a part of the evolution of the Capitol as artist Constantino Brumidi's frescoes and architect Thomas Walter's gleaming dome. From the often stormy relationship between Latrobe and President Thomas Jefferson, to the ironic and central involvement of a Southern senator by the name of Jefferson Davis, Allen details the role that politics and political figures have played over the years.

Allen makes use of a wide array of primary source material to tell this fascinating and often contentious story. His use of personal contemporary accounts, such as the shorthand journals of Captain Montgomery Meigs and letters from private collections, provide illuminating insights into the construction process as well as the interpersonal relationships of those involved. In addition to these written primary sources is a spectacular collection of illustrations, architectural drawings, engravings, and early photographs of the Capitol. These images effectively demonstrate the various stages of construction and the gradual progression to the modern Capitol.