The United States Capitol
The centerpiece of the Federal City crowns the hill L’Enfant described as “a pedestal waiting for a monument.”
The Capitol is both the seat of government and the symbol of the United States. It has been occupied continuously by Congress since 1800 (excepting one brief interruption), and until 1935 it housed the Supreme Court as well.
The east and west fronts of the Capitol have been the traditional location of presidential inaugurations. Since the assassination of Lincoln, every president who has died in office has lain in state in the rotunda. The compass rose at the center of the rotunda floor marks the original prime meridian for the country, and is the measuring point for the layout of the city and boundaries of several states.
The Capitol has been under periodic construction for two centuries, and is an amalgam of work by an extraordinary series of leading—and sometimes quarreling—19th century architects, builders, and craftsmen. It is the first major example in America of the Federal architectural style derived from English Neoclassicism, and exhibits numerous efforts at developing an indigenous style of architecture and decorative art drawn from the American environment and reflective of American character and ideals.
Its major spaces include unsurpassed Federal and Greek Revival era rooms, and it houses notable examples of American statuary, artwork, decorative arts, and craftsmanship, including the most opulent mid-Victorian interiors in America. Its extraordinary double-shelled and trussed cast iron dome is a significant and innovative engineering achievement. Seeing the dome as symbolic of the Union, Lincoln pushed ahead with construction in the midst of the war, and the year he began with the Emancipation Proclamation ended with the raising of Freedom over the Capitol.
Congress solicited designs for the Capitol in an open competition in 1792, selecting a late entry by William Thornton, a British-trained physician and architectural amateur born and then residing in the West Indies. Thornton’s Georgian design is most apparent in the original facades still visible on the west front. Execution of the work was entrusted to the runner-up, French-born architect Stephen Hallett. George Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793, but after construction began and Hallett deviated from the plans, he was dismissed and construction was placed under the supervision of English architect George Hadfield, from 1795 until 1798. James Hoban then succeeded him for completion of the north wing, which was occupied by Congress in 1800. Construction resumed in 1803 under the distinguished professional architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (appointed by Jefferson), who revised Thornton’s overall design, reconstructed parts of the north wing and supervised construction of the south wing, which was completed in 1807.
After British troops burned the building in 1814, Congress moved into a temporary “Brick Capitol” across the street, and Latrobe began reconstruction. Latrobe’s contributions include revised floor plans, the broad entrance colonnade, and the famous corncob and tobacco-leafed capitals. Latrobe was relieved of the work in 1817, leaving plans for the entire building, but having built only two wings connected by a wooden walkway. He was succeeded in 1818 by noted Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, who completed the old house chamber (now Statuary Hall) according to Latrobe’s design, but substituted his own designs for the central rotunda, west portico, and copper-clad wooden dome. Bulfinch also improved the grounds, adding a terrace around the building and a fence with guardhouses at the periphery. The work was completed in 1829.
Growth of the Congress and the nation—the number of states had doubled by the 1840s—quickly filled the Capitol beyond its capacity. In 1845, Robert Mills made proposals for extensions, and in 1850, Congress authorized another design competition for expansion. Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter won the award, and began execution of his Renaissance Revival design for new House and Senate wings in 1851. Two years later, however, supervision of the work was given to engineer Montgomery Meigs, who revised the floor plans and added porticoes on the east fronts of the wings. The House wing was completed in 1857, and the Senate wing in 1859.
Walter also designed the extraordinary double-shelled cast iron dome constructed during the Civil War. The dome rises to 287 feet, taking its proportions from the size of the greatly extended building. At its base, the dome rests on the masonry drum of Bulfinch’s dome, but the colonnade encircling Walter’s new and higher drum is cantilevered out to a diameter 30 feet greater—a necessary aesthetic and engineering feat that could not have been accomplished without the use of iron. The unusual openness of the dome, with its three tiers of closely spaced windows, also depends on the iron structural frame. Construction of the dome culminated in December 1863, when Thomas Crawford’s statue of Freedom, cast by Clark Mills, was raised atop the cupola.
Embellishment of the interiors continued in the decades after the war, and even exterior work on the House wing continued into the twentieth century. Carrère & Hastings made repairs and alterations in 1901, and in 1949-50, the House and Senate chambers were redecorated. The east front was extended in 1958-62, the west front restored in 1987 88, and offices installed under the west terrace offices in 1991. Construction of a visitor’s center and public entrance under the east front began in 2002.
The original facades of the Capitol are of Aquia Creek sandstone, painted white after the burning of 1814. The Senate and House extensions are of Massachusetts and Maryland marble, the dome painted cast iron, and the east front extension gray Georgia marble. At every phase of construction, architects used the ornate Corinthian order traditionally reserved for the most significant buildings. Sculptural embellishment on the east front includes the central pediment group Genius of America, carved in 1825-28 by Luigi Persico (and replicated in the east front extension), the Progress of Civilization (1863) by Thomas Crawford in the pediment of the Senate wing, and the Apotheosis of Democracy (1916) by Paul Wayland Bartlett in the pediment of the House wing.
Major interiors include the original Senate, House, and Supreme Court chambers (1803-1819) by Latrobe, the Rotunda and Crypt (1822-29) by Latrobe and Bulfinch, and smaller rotundas and stair halls by Latrobe and Bulfinch; some incorporate new domes and other alterations (1901) by Carrère & Hastings. Notable among the many painted and sculptural decorations are John Trumbull’s eight historical paintings in the Rotunda (begun 1817). Interiors in the 1850s wings were designed and executed by Walter, Meigs, and Italian fresco painter Constantino Brumidi. Major spaces from the period include vestibules, stair halls, reception rooms, and corridors, notably the Hall of Columns on the ground floor of the House wing. Decorative schemes are characterized by lavish use of marbles, ornamental plaster, scagliola, gilding, fresco painting, and patterned encaustic tile floors. Brumidi’s works of art include the Rotunda frieze and fresco entitled Apotheosis of George Washington at the canopy of the dome.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
National Historic Landmark: December 19, 1960
Exempt from National Register listing (per Section 107 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966)
Within L’Enfant Plan reservation
This site is included on the Capital City Slavery Tour as enslaved laborers contributed to nearly every aspect of Capitol Building construction—quarrying stone, making bricks by hand, sawing trees, and building, plastering, and painting the physical structure. Since the turn of the 21st century, the use of enslaved labor in the construction of the U.S. Capitol Building has been extensively researched. For further information on the names of those who labored without pay, their subpar treatment by the federal government, and the intricacies related to their constructing a monument to freedom, while enslaved, please view the sources below or explore DC Preservation League's Capital City Slavery Digital Exhibit.