Expanding the Capitol - 1852
As the nation grew, so did its government. Congress enlarged the Capitol with new wings flanking the original building. Each wing was three stories high, 140 feet wide, and 235 feet long, built of brick faced with Massachusetts marble. Construction took 17 years (1851-1868).
Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter designed the wings. The engineer Montgomery C. Meigs (and, later, William B. Franklin) oversaw their construction. These additions provided spacious new chambers for the House of Representatives and Senate, with scores of new offices and committee rooms, plus grand lobbies, corridors, and staircases. For the convenience of lawmakers (who often lived in crowded boardinghouses), the wings also included bathing rooms, barbershops, and restaurants. Steam-powered fans drove a central heating and ventilation system, and every room was lighted by gas. In 1852, Walter also designed an innovative cast-iron room for the Library of Congress.
A Creative Showcase - 1851
Expansion provided additional space that offered a showcase for American creativity. Sculptors filled porticoes with statues, and designed elaborate stair rails and bronze doors. They also turned their talents to commonplace features, such as door pulls. Painters covered walls and ceilings with murals, drawing on both ancient and American subjects for inspiration.
Artists from Italy, France, Germany, England, and the United States crafted decorations. The work of Thomas Crawford, the most celebrated of the sculptors employed, can be seen in the Senate pediment and the Statue of Freedom atop the dome. The Capitol’s leading artist, the painter Constantino Brumidi, created vibrant frescoes for rooms and corridors. His greatest work, The Apotheosis of Washington, graces the canopy over the inner dome.
Replacing the Dome - 1855
Fire destroyed much of the Library of Congress in 1851, highlighting the vulnerability of the rotunda’s wooden dome. The architect Thomas Walter designed a fireproof dome better suited to the growing building. On March 3, 1855, Congress authorized the cast-iron replacement. Workers removed the old dome and began installing the new one soon thereafter.
For years, the project’s supervising engineer purchased iron from various foundries—until the New York firm of Janes, Fowler, Kirtland & Company won the exclusive iron contract in 1860. When the Civil War broke out, the administration warned the company not to expect further payment. The firm proceeded nevertheless. This perseverance struck President Lincoln as a symbol that the Union, like the dome, would continue. Despite wartime conditions that drained manpower and materials, construction went ahead. Former slaves—including Philip Reid, who helped cast the Statue of Freedom that was placed atop the dome in December 1863—helped ease labor shortages.