It was 1789, and the United States had a new law of the land in the Constitution, though not yet fully ratified by all the states. George Washington had taken the oath of the Presidency in New York City. Congress was meeting in borrowed rooms, and the administration was functioning out of borrowed offices and rented buildings. There was one huge dilemma. The country had no permanent seat of government.
The young nation’s leaders knew this situation had to be rectified. The question was, however, where to establish the new capital city. New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia all vied to have the city in their territory. After much dealing and compromise, it was decided. The new seat of the federal government would be located on land abutting the Potomac River. Both Maryland and Virginia ceded a total of 100 square miles of land for the nation’s new capital city (see Note 1).
The Residence Act of 1790
In July of 1790, Congress mobilized and passed the Residence Act. This Act designated a ten square mile district for the permanent seat of the federal government. The Act authorized President George Washington to direct the surveying for the allocated ten square mile district and define its limits and bounds. The Act also allotted ten years for construction of the Capitol building before Congress would be permanently relocated from Philadelphia to the new capital in December 1800.
It was determined from the beginning that the United States Capitol building was to be magnificent and have a place of utmost significance for the American people. George Washington told Thomas Jefferson that the Capitol “ought to be upon a scale far superior to anything in this country.” (1) The importance of the building was so monumental that the day the cornerstone was laid, September 18, 1793, was filled with grand ceremonies and celebrations.
A company of volunteer artillery along with Masonic Lodge members marched with President Washington flying the colors, playing music, and beating drums for crowds of spectators. The procession marched for approximately a mile and a half to the Capitol building site. There President Washington laid the cornerstone for the new building. The rest of the day was filled with a barbeque and other festivities until the night set in. The people understood the significance and symbolism of this building. It represented the idea that they, the citizens, could create and build their government, one that would function by the consent of the people and not on the whim of a tyrant dictator.
Congress Moves In; the British Try to Burn It Down
The completion of the north wing in November 1800 allowed Congress to move from Philadelphia to the new U.S. Capitol building, as directed by the Residence Act. Construction continued as Congress worked. Development of the south wing finished in 1807; that same year the House of Representatives moved into this section of the Capitol. The Senate, then, remained in the north wing. A wooden walkway connected the two buildings until the middle section could be completed.
In 1812 our now young nation again went to war with the strongest military power in the world, Great Britain. In August 1814 British forces captured Washington, D.C. and, in the process, burned many government buildings including the Capitol. While the structure of the Capitol building was saved, most of the interior had to be rebuilt and restored. The reconstruction effort completed in 1819, and the north and south wings were re-opened. The next phase of the project began in earnest, which was the center section of the building and the dome. The dome was a copper-covered wooden dome that was proportionate to the size of the building at the time, but smaller than the existing one. After 33 years of construction, the U.S. Capitol building was completed in 1826 in the city now called Washington, D.C.
The Capitol Building Expands as the Country Grows
As the country grew bigger, space in both the north and south wings grew smaller. With the addition of each state, more and more Senators and Representatives occupied these wings. Finally, in the 1850s both wings were expanded to accommodate the growing nation. At this same time, the original wooden framed dome was removed and work on the new dome began.
Work on the new, cast-iron dome paused in 1861 due to events of the Civil War; however, the construction resumed in 1862. President Lincoln felt the symbolism of restoring the Capitol was vital as he worked to restore the Union. Work on the dome concluded about 1866, which largely completed the Capitol building as we know it today.
There is an interesting note about the creation of the statue Freedom, which sits atop the Capitol dome. Philip Reid was one of the foundry assistants who worked in the foundry that cast Freedom. In June of 1860, when casting began on Freedom, Philip Reid was an enslaved laborer. In May 1862, when he finished the work on Freedom, and the statue was placed on the Capitol grounds temporarily for display, Philip Reid was a free man. What a fantastic allegory.
The latest significant addition to the Capitol was completed in 2008. A multi-level underground Visitor Center was built on the east side of the property. This new center really streamlined the process of receiving millions of visitors each year. It also helps provide an additional level of security now necessary for such a prominent place.
The central space of the Visitor Center is named “Emancipation Hall” in remembrance of the slaves who helped build the Capitol. It is here the original plaster mold of the statue Freedom is on display for the public. Placed prominently throughout the visitor’s center are twenty-five statues of notable citizens donated by the states. Among them include Helen Keller (Alabama), King Kamehameha I (Hawaii), Sarah Winnemucca (Nevada), and Chief Washakie (Wyoming). It’s a fun challenge to note the names on the different statues that are not familiar and then research them to learn about the people.
The Capitol Not Only a National Symbol but Also an Artistic Treasure
In addition to being a place of considerable power, the U.S. Capitol building is truly a magnificent work of art, inside and out. It is one that can only be experienced firsthand to be truly appreciated. As such, not only is it a monument to the American people, but also to those who created it.
For me, the most beautiful part of the building is the rotunda. There reside the four giant paintings created by John Trumbull depicting different events of the American Revolution. Along with the Trumbull paintings are four canvases illustrating events in early American history. I could not help but be overcome with feelings of patriotism and gratitude when gazing at all of these paintings.
Seemingly guarding these paintings are statues of notable citizens, which are strategically placed around the edges of the room. When I last visited the Capitol those statues included President Washington, President Jefferson, President Lincoln, President Garfield, Martin Luther King, and Alexander Hamilton, among others.
As your eyes travel upward in the dome, you cannot help but be captivated by the ornate detail and carvings on the walls. The carvings all represent different scenes from American history. The detail and beauty of all these scenes are stunning, generally leaving one in awe. Your eye is then drawn up to the masterpiece of the room, the ceiling of the dome.
On the dome’s ceiling the stunning “The Apotheosis of Washington” appears floating above you. In this painting, George Washington is ascending to the heavens in glory. There is a lot of symbolism in this work done by Constantino Brumidi in 1865. It is deserving of more space in another article. Until that happens, it is worth scheduling a visit to the capitol to learn more from the tour guides.
The other parts of the Capitol maintain the same level of beauty and grandeur as the rotunda. Throughout the building are arched hallways, large ornate columns, statues, and gorgeous artwork. Setting all the historical significance, importance, and symbolism aside, the U.S. Capitol is worth a visit for its artistic and architectural value and beauty.
Experience the Beauty of the Capitol Grounds
The U. S. Capitol majestically sits on 58.8 beautifully landscaped acres that faces the National Mall to the West and the U.S. Supreme Court and Library of Congress to the East. The gorgeous park-like setting is the realized vision of Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect of the time. Olmsted was hired in 1874 to design and implement a landscape plan worthy of such an important building. He successfully completed this work in 1892. The result is a magnificent and powerful, yet peaceful, view of the peoples’ monument.
The landscape has plenty of well-placed walkways surrounded by plenty of trees and beautifully maintained lawns. The plants and flowers add splashes of color. All the vegetation combined brings a different picturesque view of the Capitol with each season. It is an awe-inspiring experience to be able to walk the grounds and take some time to sit on a bench to soak in everything. I never tired of this when I lived in Northern Virginia.
On the West side there is the reflecting pool, Ulysses S. Grant memorial, the Peace monument, the Garfield monument, the Summerhouse, and the Botanical Gardens to see. After touring the Capitol and its grounds, if you still have the energy, head west over to the National Mall to get a glimpse of the sights there!
Monday through Saturday from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and on Inauguration Day. Note: Admission is free; however, passes are required for tours of the Capitol building and special events.
It is highly recommended that passes be obtained ahead of time for tours of the Capitol, up to 90 days in advance if possible. Please refer to the U.S. Capitol website for specific details for obtaining those tickets. There are some useful links in the right column under “Plan A Visit” that are worth checking out as well. The web address is: https://www.visitthecapitol.gov/plan-visit/book-tour-capitol
Note: If going into the U.S. Capitol building, it is very wise to take special note of the prohibited items. There is a reference to “Prohibited Items” in the link provided above. Besides the obvious restriction of weapons, no liquids (even water), food, aerosol containers, large bags, or any pointed object are allowed. There are additional restrictions if visiting the House and Senate galleries. Save the hassle and do this research in advance, so you are aware.
100 E Capitol St NE, Washington, DC 20003
Note 1: Due to various issues, the land originally ceded by Virginia was transferred back to that state in 1846-47. This left Washington, D.C., with an area of just over 68 square miles.
- United States Government (No Date). Evolution of the Capitol. Retrieved 9/6/2019 from https://www.visitthecapitol.gov/about-capitol/evolution-capitol
- Architect of the Capitol (No Date). History of the U.S. Capitol Building. Retrieved 9/6/2019 from https://www.aoc.gov/history-us-capitol-building