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History of Congress and the Capitol

This is the story of one of the world's great experiments in government by the people.

For more than two centuries, a new Congress has convened every two years following elections that determine all the seats in the House and one-third of those in the Senate. While the individuals change, the institution has endured-through civil and world wars, waves of immigration and great migrations, and continuous social and technological change.

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During its first quarter century, the new United States government had to find its way in the world while attending to the nation’s business. Leaders met with Indian nations and faced often-hostile relations with European powers while coping with conflicts between emerging political parties and working out relationships among the three new branches of government.

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A New City for a New Nation

Among the government’s first tasks was choosing a home. Congress had met in seven different cities since 1774. In 1790, it passed the Residence Act, authorizing a new, 10-mile-square, federally controlled seat of government on the Potomac River.Andrew Ellicott—with the African-American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker and others—surveyed this federal territory.

President George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant (he preferred Peter), a French-American artist and engineer, to plan the city. L’Enfant created a civic masterpiece of wide diagonal avenues, public plazas, and a great Mall. For the Capitol, he chose Jenkins Hill, calling it “a pedestal waiting for a monument.” The Capitol’s first two sections were built during this period.

Designing the Capitol  - 1792

Pierre L’Enfant laid out the streets of Washington, D.C., but failed to produce designs for public buildings as requested. To fill this gap, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson proposed an architectural competition for the new Capitol in 1792. The contest offered entrants a city lot—and a cash prize of $500. It drew about thirteen applicants, including soldiers, teachers, judges, and craftsmen originally from Ireland, France, England, Germany, and America.

The competition entries disappointed President Washington. The designs lacked the dignity and stateliness he had expected. No prizes were awarded until, early in 1793, Dr. William Thornton presented a plan that President Washington praised for its “grandeur, simplicity, and beauty.” Thornton had envisioned a Capitol with the classical elegance, sophistication, and grand scale that Washington wanted.

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A Classical Model for the Republic  - 1789

Many of the nation’s founders studied ancient Rome. Classically educated, they were well versed in Roman law, government, history, and literature. They prized classical architecture for its nobility, timelessness, and beauty, and also for its associations with a great, self-governing civilization.

Thomas Jefferson enthusiastically promoted classical architecture for the new city’s public buildings. Through these structures, he hoped that Americans would spread this style throughout the country. Jefferson already had designed a reproduction of a Roman temple for the Virginia state legislature in Richmond, the first such building since antiquity.

The buildings being planned for the new seat of government in Washington offered an even greater potential for architectural education.

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The Capitol's Cornerstone  - 1793

Ceremonies to commemorate the construction of a great public building can be traced to the ancient world and were particularly important to builders in the Middle Ages. The laying of a cornerstone is a symbolic act that celebrates humanity’s need to build and be remembered. On September 18, 1793, President George Washington laid the Capitol’s cornerstone in a ceremony attended by representatives of Masonic lodges from Maryland and Virginia, an artillery company, the city commissioners, and local residents.

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The Capitol Begins to Rise  - 1796

Workmen began digging the Capitol’s foundations in August 1793, and President Washington laid the cornerstone in a Masonic ceremony on September 18. After the speeches, the crowd feasted on a 500-pound barbecued ox.

Labor and money shortages hampered the pace of construction. Funds came mostly from selling city lots, and sales proved sluggish. Workmen were scarce in the sparsely populated area. Stone carvers were recruited from Scotland, joining a diverse workforce of immigrant and native-born craftsmen. Slaves provided additional labor, earning $5 a month—for their owners.

By American standards, the Capitol was an immense building. It overwhelmed city resources, forcing commissioners to seek loans from Dutch banks and the Maryland legislature. In 1796, the commissioners decided to forgo two-thirds of the building and finish only the north wing for the time being. Opened in 1800, the building was made available to the Washington community when not in use by Congress. Religious services and other civic events were regularly held there.

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Continuing Construction  - 1803

Congress allocated $50,000 in 1803 to build the Capitol’s south wing. President Thomas Jefferson hired the architect-engineer B. Henry Latrobe, who reconfigured the wing’s interior while preserving the exterior design.

Latrobe built the south wing with fireproof masonry vaults. He also used these to rebuild about half of the north wing, which already suffered from rotting timbers and falling plaster. Latrobe constructed a new Senate Chamber and created a new Supreme Court Chamber.

One enduring Jefferson and Latrobe legacy is the use of symbolic sculpture in the Capitol. Sculptors were recruited from Italy. An eagle and statue of Liberty were made for the House Chamber. Giovanni Andrei and Giuseppe Franzoni produced for the Senate figures representing Arts, Commerce, Agriculture, Science, Military Force, and Civil Government.

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Up in Flames  - 1812

America’s second war with Great Britain flared in 1812. U.S. forces invaded Upper Canada the following year, burning the governor’s house and legislative hall in York (now Toronto). Britain retaliated, sailing troops up the Patuxent River to destroy Washington’s public buildings.

After a brief battle, the British entered the nearly deserted city on the evening of August 24, 1814. They attacked the Capitol, armed with gunpowder and torches. The north wing, occupied by the Senate, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress, took the heaviest damage. The south wing’s first-floor rooms survived, but the House Chamber was destroyed. Many of Latrobe’s great neoclassical designs—built under Jefferson’s supervision—were lost. The nation had suffered a humiliating blow to its honor.

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Drawings of the Capitol - 1789-1815

  • Plan of the Capitol, No. 1. United States Capitol drawing competition, by Charles Wintersmith, ink and watercolor washes on paper, 1792

    A competition to design the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., elicited 18 proposals. Of all the designs submitted for the president’s consideration, the one by Charles Wintersmith is perhaps the least appealing. The exterior has no architectural aspirations or interest, and the interior plan is inconveniently laid out with cramped stairs and few corridors. Designs such as these document the state of the architectural profession in America at the end of the 18th century.

    Image ID# 1976.88.42, Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

  • "No. 2 of Saml. Dobie invt & del. For a Capitol to be built in the City of Washington," by Samuel Dobie, ink and ink washes on paper, 1792

    A competition was held to design the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Some of the entries in the competition incorporated the kind of architectural features that President George Washington was hoping for, such as domes and grand porticoes, but none were able to achieve the imposing grandeur he also wanted. Dobie’s entry was among the better ones submitted, but still failed to win the president’s approval.

    Image ID# 1976.88.40, Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

  • An Elevation for a Capitol, by James Diamond, ink, watercolor, and ink wash on paper, 1792

    Diamond’s entry into the Capitol’s design competition has long been used to illustrate the immature state of America’s architectural profession at the end of the 18th century. The eye-catching bird atop the dome was surely meant to represent an American eagle, although some have suggested it more resembles a chicken.

    Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland

  • Design for the U.S. Capitol, East Elevation, by Dr. William Thornton, ca. 1793–1797

    A competition was held to design the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In Thornton’s winning design, a domed center section (modeled after the Pantheon in Rome) contains a ceremonial rotunda and flanking wings, House and Senate legislative chambers, committee rooms, and a library. The Capitol was vast by American standards; it covered an area 10 times bigger than Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Proposed design for the U.S. Capitol, west elevation, by Dr. William Thornton, ca. 1793-1800

    Thornton won the competition to design the U.S. Capitol, but his proposed west front, seen here, was not completed as shown. The principal feature of Thornton's design was a large circular conference room topped by a tall dome carried on Corinthian columns. Another colonnade was intended to run in front of the conference room. Allegorical figures celebrating America's strength and bounty were to stand on top of the central balustrade.

    Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Courtyard Plan, by Stephen Hallet, Ink, Watercolor and Graphite on Paper, ca. 1794 Courtyard Plan, by Stephen Hallet, Ink, Watercolor and Graphite on Paper, ca. 1794

    Soon after construction of the wings began, architect Stephen Hallet attempted to revise the accepted plan of the center portion to include an open-air courtyard instead of a domed rotunda. Before President George Washington or the Commissioners of the Federal City could review the revised plan, Hallet began laying its foundations, which caused his prompt dismissal for insubordination.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • A View of the Capitol, by William Russell Birch, watercolor on paper, ca. 1800

    This view of the Capitol was drawn around the time the federal government moved from Philadelphia to the new City of Washington. After seven years of construction, only the north wing had been completed; it initially accommodated the Senate as well as the House of Representatives and the Library of Congress. In 1801 the Supreme Court also moved into the building. Despite a lull in construction, the artist showed masons cutting and carving stones in the foreground.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • “Sketch of a Section of the South Wing of the Capitol of the United States at Washington, of the Doric Order, Roman Style,” by B. Henry Latrobe, 1804

    Latrobe used this drawing to convince President Thomas Jefferson that the Doric order could not be employed in the new House chamber without violating strict rules that govern classical design. Both men later agreed that the Corinthian order would be easier to use.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Longitudinal Section of the Hall of Representatives, by B. Henry Latrobe, 1804

    Shown in the center of the drawing is a seated figure of Liberty later modeled by Giuseppe Franzoni. The statue was placed above the Speaker's rostrum (not shown) and, along with the drapery and carved eagle, helped give the chamber a strong focal point.  Large, tapering skylights in the ceiling were designed to please President Thomas Jefferson, who had admired a similar arrangement in Paris. The chamber was destroyed by the British in 1814.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • "Respective View of the Federal House," by Andrew Mayfield Carshore, ink and ink wash on paper, 1806

    A competition was held to design the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Most entries into the competition were not particularly sophisticated or majestic, looking more like county courthouses than a grand national edifice. Carshore’s entry was unique in one regard: it was the only drawing submitted in the competition that attempted to show the proposed “Federal House” design in perspective.

    Image ID# 1976.88.23, Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society

  • “Plan, shewing the alterations proposed in the principal Story of the North Wing of the Capitol,” by B. Henry Latrobe, watercolor and ink on paper, 1806

    In November 1806 Latrobe finished a comprehensive scheme for rebuilding the north wing, which had fallen into disrepair despite being only six years old. He wanted to remove the rotting floor joists and to lay new masonry floors on solid brick arches and vaults. This method of construction would render the wing sturdy and fireproof.

    The plans would be carried out by demolishing some old floors, columns, and walls (indicated in blue) and building new interior supports for the complicated structural system that Latrobe had devised. No alterations to the exterior would be necessary. Work began in 1808 but only the eastern half of the wing had been reconstructed before it was heavily damaged by the Fire of 1814.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Plan of the Principal Floor of the North Wing of the Capitol," by B. Henry Latrobe, watercolor and ink on paper, 1806

    In November 1806 Labrobe finished a comprehensive scheme for rebuilding the north wing, which had fallen into disrepair despite being only six years old. He wanted to remove the rotting floor joists and to lay new masonry floors on solid brick arches and vaults. This method of construction would render the wing sturdy and fireproof.

    This plan is for the second or principal floor, which contained the Senate Chamber and the Library of Congress. The plan also includes an early idea for the Rotunda with monumental niches and curving stairs leading to the ground floor; neither of these features was constructed. Work began in 1808 but only the eastern half of the wing had been reconstructed before it was heavily damaged by the fire of 1814.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Ground plan of the North Wing of the Capitol of the United States," by B. Henry Latrobe, watercolor and ink on paper, 1806

    In November 1806 Labrobe finished a comprehensive scheme for rebuilding the north wing, which had fallen into disrepair despite being only six years old. He wanted to remove the rotting floor joists and to lay new masonry floors on solid brick arches and vaults. This method of construction would render the wing sturdy and fireproof.

    This plan is for the first or ground floor, which provided a new chamber for the Supreme Court. By using a simple color code Latrobe indicated which of the old walls would be torn away, which would reamin and which new walls would be constructed. Work began in 1808 but only the eastern half of the wing had been reconstructed before it was heavily damaged by the fire of 1814.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Design for a Temporary Senate Chamber, by George Bridport, 1809

    Because its chamber was being rebuilt the Senate met in the summer of 1809 in a temporary chamber designed by a Philadelphia architect and decorative painter, George Bridport. Although cheaply built with light frame walls covered with canvas, the room was elegantly painted with classical moldings, fasces, and laurel wreaths. The temporary chamber was constructed in the center of a larger two-story room designed for the Library of Congress in the north wing.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • South Elevation of the Capitol with Propylaea, by B. Henry Latrobe, ca. 1811

    Latrobe's vision for the completed Capitol included a gatehouse where the doorkeepers of the House and Senate would reside. As seen next to the trees in the left portion of this side view drawing, the gatehouse would have been located downhill from the Capitol's west front with rear yards for the families to dry laundry and grow vegetables. The drawing also shows a preliminary design for the central dome.

    Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • “Details of the Library of the Congress U. S. in the N. Wing of the Capitol Washington,” by B. Henry Latrobe, ca. 1808-1816

    Latrobe was the first Capitol architect to use working drawings to show workmen how his designs should be built. This drawing illustrates construction details of the upper gallery of his Egyptian-styled Library of Congress in the north wing. Due to funding delays, the Fire of 1814, and later design changes, however, the Egyptian library was never built.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Ground Plan of the North Wing of the Capitol of the United States shewing [sic] it, as proposed to Be altered, on the Ground Story, by B. Henry Latrobe, 1806

    In November 1806 B. Henry Latrobe submitted a proposal for rebuilding the Capitol’s north wing, which had fallen into disrepair despite being only six years old. He wanted to remove the rotting floor joists and lay new masonry floors on solid brick arches and vaults to make the wing sturdy and fireproof.

     

    This is a floor plan for the first, or ground story, which provided a chamber for the Supreme Court and a kitchen and parlor for the Senate doorkeeper. The plan also shows Latrobe’s early idea for an expanded east portico and the elimination of the circular conference room on the western side.

     

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Plan, shewing [sic] the alterations proposed in the principal Story of the North Wing of the Capitol, by B. Henry Latrobe, drafted by George Blagden, 1806

    This floor plan was part of B. Henry Latrobe’s 1806 comprehensive scheme for rebuilding the Capitol’s north wing, which had fallen into disrepair despite being only six years old. He wanted to remove the rotting floor joists and lay new masonry floors on solid brick arches and vaults to make the wing sturdy and fireproof.

     

    This is a plan for the second or principal story, with a new two-story Senate Chamber above the Supreme Court Chamber and a redesigned Library of Congress. The plan also shows an early idea for an expanded east portico and the elimination of the circular conference room on the western side.

     

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Plan of the Attic Story of Capitol as Proposed to be Altered . . . , by B. Henry Latrobe, 1806

    In November 1806 Latrobe finished a comprehensive scheme for rebuilding the north wing, which had fallen into disrepair despite being only six years old. He wanted to remove the rotting floor joists and lay new masonry floors on solid brick arches and vaults. This construction method would make the wing sturdy and fireproof.

     

    This plan is for the third or attic story, and shows by its blue watercolor washes the rooms that would receive light from lanterns or skylights on the roof. The plan also shows an early idea for an expanded east portico and the elimination of the circular conference room on the western side.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Proposed Design for the Capitol, by Samuel McIntire, 1792

    In 1790 Congress passed the Residence Act, which authorized a new capital city to be located in a district on the Potomac River, not to exceed ten-square-miles. New federal buildings, including a Capitol, soon began to appear. While many of the entries in the Capitol’s design competition were clumsy and provincial, a few, such as McIntire’s submittal, were quite handsome. While the plan’s Roman-influenced style and impressive size were favorable to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, its lack of a dome doomed the design.

    Maryland Historical Society