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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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Following the War of 1812, a stronger sense of national unity emerged in the United States. As America expanded westward, however, attempts to spread slavery into those new territories seriously divided the nation.

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A Growing Nation and Capitol

As the United States expanded across the continent, laborers in Washington were finishing the Capitol.

Early in this period, the building consisted of just two wings, both badly damaged by British attacks in the War of 1812. Congress returned to Washington soon after the fires died down, debating whether to rebuild—or to pack up and move back to Philadelphia.

Congress chose to rebuild. It began work reconstructing the two wings, later uniting them with the long-delayed center building. At last, in 1829, the Capitol and its landscaping were complete. But within 20 years, the nation had outgrown the building.

Rebuilding after the War of 1812  - 1812

Capitol restoration began soon after the fires of 1814 were out. B. Henry Latrobe, who had been Jefferson’s "surveyor of public buildings," was hired to restore the two wings.

The project went beyond simple restoration, however. Changes in Congress prompted changes in the building’s interior. Chief among these were eight new rooms in the north wing for Senate committees. Latrobe also enlarged the House and Senate chambers, modifying their layout to better suit their operations. In plan and decoration, these spaces recalled the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. To ensure that the work was both elegant and economical, one of the sculptors returned to Italy—where labor was cheaper—to supervise the carving of column capitals.

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Bulfinch Takes Charge  - 1818

Charles Bulfinch of Boston took over the restoration from Latrobe in 1818. The north and south wings reopened in the fall of 1819. Work on the middle building (connecting the wings) began on August 24, 1818, the fourth anniversary of the British fire. It concluded eight years later.

Bulfinch designed and built the rotunda, or "grand vestibule," which stood 96 feet across and 96 feet high—the proportions of Rome's ancient Pantheon. On the outside, he built a very tall wooden dome, responding to President James Monroe's request for a prominent and visible structure. Bulfinch also landscaped the Capitol's 22-acre garden and built earthen terraces on the west front. When Bulfinch retired in 1829, the Capitol was finished—36 years after George Washington had laid its cornerstone.

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A Splendid Capitol  - 1815

The completed Capitol boasted some of America's most splendid interiors, with statues, marble columns, wall-to-wall carpets, and damask draperies. Oil-burning chandeliers (converted to gas in the 1840s) illuminated legislative rooms furnished with mahogany desks and chairs. The Supreme Court Chamber was more dimly lit, creating a somber atmosphere. Among the most popular rooms was the Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson sold Congress his private library in 1815, greatly expanding the size and breadth of the collection lost to fire and thereby laying the foundation for today's Library of Congress.

The Capitol covered about 60,000 square feet, with 70 offices and committee rooms warmed by more than 80 fireplaces and dozens of stoves. A restaurant served oysters, roasted meats, and turtle soup. A spring supplied drinking water, and a rooftop cistern collected rainwater to flush the china basins in congressional privies.

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Art and Artistry  - 1817

The Capitol is more than a building. It's a showcase for American ideals. B. Henry Latrobe commissioned a figure of Liberty and a magnificent clock for the House Chamber, and Justice, a relief in the Supreme Court. For the Senate, Latrobe designed a gallery supported by statues representing the states—though these were never made.

Charles Bulfinch's rotunda featured sculpture and paintings of European explorers, Indians, and settlers. Luigi Persico sculpted an allegory entitled Genius of America for the pediment over the east portico, and symbolic figures of War and Peace for niches flanking the rotunda entrance. In 1817, Congress commissioned John Trumbull to paint four Revolutionary War scenes for the rotunda. Twenty years later, four other artists began filling the remaining spaces with scenes of America's settlement by Europeans.

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Competition of 1850-1851  - 1850

Congress was outgrowing its home. There were 15 states in the Union when the Capitol was designed. By 1850, there were 31 states. House membership increased during that period from 106 to 237.

In 1850, the Senate Committee on Public Buildings offered $500 to the architect with the best solution to the Capitol's space problems. Senators liked the idea of putting wings on the original building. House members preferred adding to the east front. Unable to agree, the House and Senate left the decision to the president. In a politically savvy move, President Millard Fillmore gave each a small victory. He asked the architect favored by the House, Thomas U. Walter of Philadelphia, to enlarge the Capitol by adding wings—as the Senate preferred.

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Drawings of the Capitol - 1815-1851

  • The U.S. Capitol after burning by the British, by George Munger, ca. 1814

    The U.S. Capitol after burning by the British, by George Munger, ca. 1814

    On August 24, 1814, British troops defeated a small American force at Bladensburg, Maryland, and proceeded into Washington intent on destroying the public buildings; the unfinished Capitol came first. After the troops left and the fires died out, the local citizenry came to Capitol Hill to inspect the destruction first hand.

    Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Ruins of the Hall of the House of Representatives, by Giovanni Andrei, 1814-1815

    Ruins of the Hall of the House of Representatives, by Giovanni Andrei, 1814-1815

    While the effects of the fires set by British troops on August 14, 1814, were devastating, the internal structure of the House chamber remained standing after the flames were extinguished. To prepare the room for restoration, wooden poles were used to prop up the stonework until workmen could safely dismantle the colonnade.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Design proposed for the Hall of Representatives U.S., Section from North to South, by B. Henry Latrobe, 1815

    Design proposed for the Hall of Representatives U.S., Section from North to South, by B. Henry Latrobe, 1815

    Latrobe, Surveyor of Public Building from 1803-1811 and architect at the Capitol from 1815 to 1817, created this design for a new House chamber after the Capitol was burned in 1814. He considered a semicircular chamber covered by a half dome to be the best space for speaking, hearing, and seeing. He cited the School of Surgery in Paris and the University of Pennsylvania’s Anatomy Hall as two examples of successful uses of this design. The restored chamber, used by the House from 1819 to 1857, is now National Statuary Hall.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Details of the Hall of Representatives, by B. Henry Latrobe, 1815

    Details of the Hall of Representatives, by B. Henry Latrobe, 1815

    Latrobe designed a clock to be placed over the principal entrance to Hall of the House. A figure of Clio, the Muse of History, was shown riding a winged chariot, the wheel of which was formed into a clock face. The sculpture's message was clear: History will watch over the nation's legislators deliberating in the chamber below. Carved by Carlo Franzoni, the sculpture can be seen today in National Statuary Hall.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Plan of the Principal Floor of the U.S. Capitol, by B. Henry Latrobe, 1817

    Plan of the Principal Floor of the U.S. Capitol, by B. Henry Latrobe, 1817

    Prepared for President James Monroe, this plan shows the arrangement of the two wings that were then being restored after the devastating fire of 1814. It also shows Latrobe's proposed plan for the center building that had not yet been authorized or funded. The rotunda was labeled: "Grand Vestibule. Hall of inauguration, of impeachment, and of all public occasions." A large, three-part room for the Library of Congress was provided in the west projection. Reading rooms, committee rooms, and two rooms for the librarian were provided nearby.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • View of the Capitol, by Charles Burton, watercolor on paper, 1824

    This view of the Capitol was a gift to the Marquis de Lafayette to commemorate his speech delivered in the Hall of the House in 1824. The artist shows workmen constructing the earthen terraces along the western front, while in the foreground are the Lombardy poplars planted during Thomas Jefferson’s administration.

    Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

  • The Capitol, Looking Southwest, attributed to George Strickland, ink on paper, ca. 1830

    The Capitol, Looking Southwest, attributed to George Strickland, ink on paper, ca. 1830

    This finely drawn view of the Capitol was taken from a low vantage point to emphasize the building’s elaborate carved stonework. At this perspective the roof’s many lanterns and chimneys disappear behind the balustrade.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • East front of the Capitol, by Alexander Jackson Davis, ca. 1832-34

    East front of the Capitol, by Alexander Jackson Davis, ca. 1832-34

    Davis made a minute examination of the Capitol’s complicated plan and recorded it in a series of drawings that remain the most accurate record of the building as first completed. He also drew this charming view of the east front showing the wood-and-copper dome framed by a pair of enormous American flags.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • "The Capitol," by Christopher Cranch, oil on canvas, 1841

    Visitors to Washington in the pre-Civil War period often described the Capitol as standing “high and alone” on its hill. This charming view conveys an authentic sense of rural isolation but exaggerated the rugged condition of the Capitol grounds.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • “Perspective View of a Design for Enlarging the U.S. Capitol,” (detail) by Thomas U. Walter, 1850

    “Perspective View of a Design for Enlarging the U.S. Capitol,” by Thomas U. Walter, 1850 (never built)

    The Capitol had been completed for only 24 years before the Senate found it necessary to stage a design competition for its enlargement.  Thomas U. Walter, a prominent Philadelphia architect, submitted this design that called for expanding the building eastward into the spacious front garden.  Although this design did not win the competition, President Millard Fillmore later appointed Walter architect of the Capitol extension based on an entirely different design concept.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Design for an Enlargement of the US Capitol, Washington, DC," by Thomas U. Walter, watercolor on paper, 1850

    Congress increased in membership as the country expanded during the 1800s, and by mid-century the building had become overcrowded. In response to a public invitation for enlargement ideas, Thomas U. Walter designed this vast addition intended to cover the Capitol's entire east facade. A vast new portico would have reused some of the original columns from the portico installed by architect Charles Bulfinch inthe 1820s.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Plan of Principal Story. Design for an Enlargement of the US Capitol, Washington, DC," by Thomas U. Walter, watercolor and ink on paper, 1850

    Congress increased in membership as the country expanded during the 1800s, and by mid-century the building had become overcrowded. One possible way of enlarging the Capitol was to build an addition to the principal, or carriage front. This approach had several advantages over the idea of building a pair of wings: the addition could be constructed on level ground and would not entail enlarging the grounds thereby saving money. Philadelphia architect T. U. Walter proposed this scheme for an eastern addition.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Principal Floor Plan," by Robert Mills, ink and watercolor on paper, ca. 1851

    Robert Mills, a prominent Washington architect, drew this plan after being asked by the Senate Committee on Public Buildings to combine the best features of other designs submitted in a competition for the enlargement of the Capitol. It shows north and south wings attached directly to the ends of the old building and fronted by semi-circular porticoes. The interior of new wings contained large legislative chambers, additional committee rooms and offices. Mills' plan was eventually rejected.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • View of Congress Library. . . Capitol, Washington, by Alexander Jackson Davis and Stephen H. Gimber, pen and ink and wash on paper, 1832

    Until 1897 the Library of Congress was located in the Capitol and was one of the most popular rooms in the building. People came to browse through the book alcoves, study portraits of notable Americans, or admire the views of the Potomac River and the Virginia countryside beyond. The room was designed by Charles Bulfinch, finished in 1824, and destroyed by fire in 1851.

    I.N. Phelps Stokes Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor Lenox and Tilden Foundations

  • Proposed Enlargement of the Capitol, by Robert Mills, ink, watercolor and ink wash on paper, ca. 1851

    Mills drew this elevation after the Senate Committee on Public Buildings asked him to combine the best features of other designs submitted in a competition for the enlargement of the Capitol. It shows north and south wings attached directly to the ends of the old building and fronted by semi-circular porticoes. There is also a new attic story over the old building and a new dome standing on the old Rotunda walls. The interior of the new wings contained large legislative chambers, additional committee rooms, and offices. This design was later rejected.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • East front of the Capitol, by Alexander Jackson Davis, ca. 1832-34

    Alexander Jackson Davis made a thorough examination of the Capitol’s complicated plan and recorded it in a series of drawings that remain the most accurate record of the building as first completed. He also drew this charming view of the East Front, showing the wood-and-copper dome framed by a pair of enormous American flags.

     

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • Ground Story of the Capitol U. S. 1817, by B. Henry Latrobe, 1817

    On August 24, 1814, British troops set off intense fires in the Capitol that ruined both chambers, destroyed the Library of Congress, and heavily damaged the Supreme Court. Having previously worked on the Capitol’s design, B. Henry Latrobe returned to Washington in April 1815 to restore the wings of the Capitol. Latrobe radically altered the north wing with this plan, leaving only the east vestibule and corn columns as they were before the fire. The ground story of the south wing was virtually unchanged.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Proposed Enlargement of the Capitol, by Robert Mills, ca. 1851

    Robert Mills drew this elevation after the Senate Committee on Public Buildings asked him to combine the best features of other designs submitted in a competition for the enlargement of the Capitol. It shows north and south wings attached directly to the ends of the old building and fronted by semi-circular porticoes. He added a new attic story over the old building and a new dome standing on the old Rotunda walls. The interior of the new wings contained large legislative chambers, additional committee rooms, and offices. This design was never approved.

     

    Architect of the Capitol

  • The Capitol from the Railway Station, Washington, U.S., July 29, 1846, by Michael Seymour, 1846

    This appealing view of the imposing Capitol overlooking modest houses and sheds illustrates the close proximity of the grandiose with the mundane. Public buildings interspersed throughout the capital city attracted distinct communities of workers, clerks, and high-society people who had reason to live close by. The railroad station at the time was located near the center of today’s Mall.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress