The most recognized symbol of democratic government in the world, the United States Capitol has housed Congress since 1800. The Capitol is where Congress meets to write the laws of our nation, and where presidents are inaugurated and deliver their annual State of the Union messages. For nearly two centuries, the Capitol has grown along with the nation, adding new wings to accommodate the increasing number of senators and representatives as new states entered the Union. Its ceilings are decorated with historic images, and its halls are lined with statuary and paintings representing great events and people in the nations history.
The Early Capitol
The original Capitol was designed by Dr. William Thorton, and the cornerstone was laid by President George Washington on September 18, 1793. Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch, among other architects, directed its early construction. In 1800, when the government moved from temporary quarters in Philadelphia to Washington, DC, the Capitol that awaited them was an unfinished brick and sandstone building. The Congress moved into the small, cramped north wing. At first, the House met in a large room on the second floor intended for the Library of Congress; the Senate met in a chamber on the ground floor. Between 1810 and 1859, the Senate used a chamber on the second floor, now known as the Old Senate Chamber.
In 1807, the south wing on the Capitol was completed for the House of Representatives. A wooden walkway across the vacant yard intended for the domed center building linked the House and Senate wings. This was how the Capitol appeared in August 1814, during America's second war with Great Britain, when British troops burned the Capitol and other public buildings in Washington. The exterior walls survived, but much of the interior was gutted. In 1819, the reconstructed wings of the Capitol were reopened. The center building, completed in 1826, joined the two wings. A low wood and copper dome covered the Rotunda.
By 1850, so many new states had been admitted to the Union that the House and Senate had out-grown their chambers. It was decided to enlarge the Capitol by adding grand wings to the ends of the original building. In 1851, Daniel Webster
, who had served in both houses of Congress, delivered one of his famous orations
at the laying of the cornerstone for the new wings. The House occupied its current chamber in 1857, and the Senate moved into its chamber in 1859.
The Old Hall of the House was later dedicated as National Statuary Hall. Congress invited each state to contribute two statues of its most notable citizens. Today, these statues are displayed in Statuary Hall and in corridors throughout the building.
During the Civil War, work continued on the new cast-iron dome, designed by Thomas U. Walter. On December 2, 1863, the Statue of Freedom, by American artist Thomas Crawford, was placed at the top of the dome, 287 feet above the East Plaza.
In the 1870s, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead designed the terraces that run across the north, south, and west elevations of the Capitol. These terraces provided extra rooms as well as a grand pedestal for the building perched on the brow of Capitol Hill.
By the opening of the twentieth century, the need for more space again became acute. The first House and Senate office buildings were finished in 1908 and 1909, respectively. Tunnels and electric subway cars connect these buildings with the Capitol.
Severe deterioration of the original sandstone walls prompted major renovations of the Capitol's exterior. Between 1958 and 1962 the East Front was extended thirty-two feet and the original facade replicated in marble. Portions of the old outside walls can still be viewed inside the East Front corridors. In the 1980s, the West Front was carefully repaired and restored; it is the only portion of the original exterior not covered by marble additions.
The Rotunda is the very heart of the Capitol. Although it serves no legislative function, it is a ceremonial center where state funerals have been held for presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Lyndon Johnson, distinguished members of Congress, military heroes, and eminent citizens. Visiting heads of state have been received in the Rotunda, and memorable individuals and events celebrated.
Hanging in the Rotunda are four giant canvases painted by John Trumbull, an aide-de-camp to General Washington, who recorded scenes of the American Revolution. Four other artists added paintings depicting events associated with the discovery and settlement of the United States. On the canopy, suspended 180 feet above the Rotunda floor, the Italian-American artist Constantino Brumidi painted The Apotheosis of Washington
. It depicts George Washington surrounded by symbols of American democracy and technological progress. Brumidi
painted and decorated many of the rooms and corridors of the Capitol, and he was painting the frieze that rings the Rotunda when he died. Other artists completed his work, which illustrates major events in the nation's history. The events portrayed at the end of the frieze took place years after Brumidi's death, an appropriate suggestion of the continuity of history.