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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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Unprecedented growth in the 1850s strained the fragile agreements that had kept the nation united, but had also kept it part slave, part free. The addition of each new state to the Union rattled the delicate political balance carved out by compromises in Congress. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed residents of each of these new territories, rather than Congress, to decide whether to permit slavery. While intending to keep the nation together, this act inflamed sectional tensions, producing open warfare between pro- and antislavery forces in Kansas, and led directly to the Civil War.

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A Symbol for the Nation

A dramatic transformation reshaped the Capitol in the middle of the 19th century as expansion and additions created the structure familiar to us today. New wings flanking the earlier structure tripled the size of the Capitol.

A taller and highly decorated iron dome replaced the plain wooden structure that had previously topped the building.

During the Civil War, the Capitol emerged as a powerful symbol of national unity. It served as a stirring landmark for countless soldiers who marched through Washington determined to see the Union restored and to see the Capitol—particularly its grand new dome—completed.

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.

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Interior Grandeur  - 1851

Congress needed more space, but no one wanted the beloved Capitol overshadowed by its new additions. Secretary of State Daniel Webster suggested using narrow corridors to connect the new wings, leaving the old building visually intact. People also felt it important that the wings appear to grow naturally from the older building.

On the inside of the wings, no attempt was made to imitate the old interiors. Instead, modern designs and materials were used. Marble staircases led to spacious galleries overlooking the new chambers, which featured highly decorated iron ceilings and stained-glass skylights. Doors and windows stood in elaborate—and fireproof—cast-iron frames. English encaustic tile (embedded with colorful patterns) paved the floors, a vivid contrast to the brick and stone floors of the old building.

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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.

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A Hall of Heroes  - 1857

What to do with an empty room? After the House moved to its new chamber in 1857, its former hall filled with peddlers hawking everything from gingerbread cakes to mousetraps. History-minded citizens and members of Congress deplored its sorry condition. Some suggested rebuilding the room into offices. Others advocated a fine-art gallery.

Congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont proposed converting the chamber into a National Statuary Hall, displaying figures of notable Americans. States would be asked to donate two bronze or marble statues of deceased men or women worthy of commemoration. A new marble floor would help the room play this new role. President Abraham Lincoln signed Morrill’s proposal into law on July 2, 1864. The tradition continues today, though statues now are distributed throughout the building.

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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.

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Drawings of the Capitol - 1851-1877

  • "Perspective of Iron Consol Supporting Ceiling," by Thomas U. Walter, 1852

    From 1800 to 1897, the Library of Congress was housed in the U.S. Capitol. An accidental fire gutted the main reading room on December 24, 1851. Thomas U. Walter, architect for the 1850s extension of the Capitol, designed a new fireproof room with an iron and glass ceiling. This elaborate consol acted as a ceiling support. Relatively inexpensive and quickly assembled, the ironwork was decorated with gold leaf and an elaborate paint scheme.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • “Interior View, Library of Congress,” by Thomas U. Walter, 1852

    On Christmas Eve 1851, the Library of Congress was gutted by a disastrous fire. Before the ashes had cooled Thomas U. Walter, the architect of the Capitol extension, was asked to supervise its reconstruction. In response, Walter designed the first room in America with an iron ceiling. The book cases and balconies were also cast iron, an inexpensive, quickly made, and, most importantly, fireproof material. The innovative room was completed in 1853, but dismantled three years after the library moved to its own building in 1897.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

  • "Exterior Order. Extension of U.S. Capitol," by Thomas U. Walter, 1854

    A good example of Thomas U. Walter's exquisite draftsmanship, this drawing illustrates the elements, proportion, and dimensions of the Capitol's exterior order. By necessity, it matched the Corinthian order already employed on the outside of the Capitol by previous architects William Thornton, B. Henry Latrobe, and Charles Bulfinch.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Details of South Wing," by Thomas U. Walter, watercolor and ink on paper, 1854

    In the 1850s, architect Thomas U. Walter designed new north and south wings for the Capitol that included much needed space for the expanding Congress. The room designed for the Speaker of the House of Representatives (labeled “Retiring Room,” a preliminary designation) was one of the most elaborate in all of 19th century America. The cast-iron ceiling was designed with beams and panels outlined with a rich array of classical moldings and other decorations.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Details of Senate Chamber, U.S. Capitol Extension," by Thomas U. Walter, ink and watercolor on paper, 1855

    In the 1850s, Philadelphia architect Thomas U. Walter designed new north and south wings for the Capitol that included much needed space for the expanding Congress. The artistic quality of Walter's draftsmanship is clearly demonstrated in this sheet showing a corner of the new Senate chamber. Mythological figures were drawn in the niches that would later be occupied by busts of early vice presidents.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • “Transverse Section, South Wing,” (looking East), by Thomas U. Walter, watercolor and ink on paper, 1857

    This drawing illustrates the location of the House Chamber in the center of the south wing, which was a change from its original position at the western end. The change was ordered by Captain Montgomery C. Meigs soon after he took over as supervising engineer in 1853. Despite its relocation, the architect, Thomas U. Walter, was able to preserve the original design with its cast-iron ceiling and skylight.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Details of Peristyle of Dome," by Thomas U. Walter, Ink and Watercolor on Paper, 1857

    In order to make the dome as broad and tall as possible, the dome’s designers decided to cantilever the lower ring of columns beyond the existing rotunda walls and to drop a skirt in front to give it a visual sense of support. Consequently, the lower diameter of the new dome was about 30 feet wider than the old dome. This pleased members of Congress as well as the designers, all of whom wanted the Capitol’s new dome to be as big and as imposing as conditions allowed.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Speaker's Clerk's and Reporter's Desks. Hall of Representatives," by Thomas U. Walter, watercolor and ink on paper, 1857

    By the 1850s, Congress was outgrowing the Capitol. Architect Thomas U. Walter designed new wings for the Capitol that included much needed office space as well as larger chambers for the Senate and the House of Representatives. This imposing rostrum accommodated the House of Representative’s reporters, clerks and Speaker in three tiers. Behind was a cast-iron frontispiece that gave the rostrum a strong focal point.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Revised Design for Dome of U.S. Capitol, by Thomas U. Walter, 1859

    In designing a new dome for the Capitol, Thomas U. Walter, architect for the 1850s extension of the Capitol, was inspired by three of Europe’s most famous domed buildings: St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Panthéon (Ste. Genevieve) in Paris, and St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. He had inspected the first two buildings during an extensive tour of Europe in 1838.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • “Section through Dome of U.S. Capitol,” by Thomas U. Walter, 1859

    In addition to being architect of the Capitol extension, Walter was also the architect of the new cast-iron dome. This drawing illustrates how the architect fit the new iron structure on top of the old rotunda walls. A lower ring of columns, supported on brackets cantilevered from the rotunda walls, allowed the new dome to surpass the diameter of the old dome by 30 feet and thus appear more appropriate for the newly expanded building. A smaller, inner dome complemented the proportions of the existing rotunda.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Elevation of Tholos on Dome of U. S. Capitol," by Thomas U. Walter, 1859

    The dome's crowning feature was an allegorical statue representing Freedom, which was positioned on a circular lantern embellished with twelve columns. In describing the supporting structure, the dome’s architect, Thomas U. Walter, preferred using the Grecian term for round buildings--Tholos.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • “Section of Tholus on Dome of U.S. Capitol,” by Thomas U. Walter, 1859

    In referring to the lantern on top of the dome that carried the Statue of Freedom, architect Thomas U. Walter preferred using the Greek term for any round structure--Tholus.

    This drawing shows the divisions of the statue's five sections as well as its internal supports. It also shows the top portions of the dome's supporting iron trusses.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • "Plan and Sections of Vestibule of North Wing U.S. Capitol," by Thomas U. Walter, ink and watercolor on paper, 1859

    The 1850s expansion of the Capitol included both much-needed offices and committee rooms for the Congress as well as grand public stairs, lobbies, and corridors. The passage from the east portico to the new Senate chamber was one of the most elaborate interiors in the Capitol extension. Columns with corn leaves, tobacco leaves and magnolia flowers blended into the Corinthian capitals were especially elegant features. The pattern of the marble floor was simplified when it was installed during the Civil War.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • N. E. View of the United States Capitol. Washington, D. C., Drawn and Engraved by Henry Sartain, Hand-colored Engraving, 1863

    The artist took many liberties with this painting of the Capitol in 1863—at that time none of the porticoes had been finished, the dome was not complete, and the Statue of Freedom had not yet been mounted into place. The Capitol grounds were littered with construction materials and work sheds instead of the strolling citizens depicted here. In this view, unpleasant realities––particularly the horror of the Civil War––were purposefully set aside as the artist anticipated the return of peace and prosperity.

    Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Barber B. Conable, Jr.

  • Eastern Elevation of North Wing, Capitol Extension, by Thomas U. Walter, ink and watercolor on paper, ca. 1855

    Each wing of the Capitol extension was fronted by a grand Corinthian portico reachable by a broad flight of marble stairs. The portico’s general outline was derived from the Capitol’s central portico designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, but Walter’s original version deviated slightly by having no pediments (the triangular feature atop the central columns). In 1853 the War Department took over supervision of the extension project. Captain Montgomery Meigs, the engineer-in-charge, asked Walter to add pediments to accommodate allegorical statuary.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Details of Construction of Tholus, by Thomas U. Walter, ink and watercolor on paper, 1861

    Walter drew a plan of the structural elements of the tholos (spelled “tholus” by Walter) on what appeared to be a sheet of paper laying on top of another sheet showing the same subject in elevation. The architect’s drawing talent is evident. The time invested in this drawing may seem extravagant for such an unglamorous subject, but it helped guide the project to completion.

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Details of Construction of Tholus, by Thomas U. Walter, 1861

    Thomas U. Walter’s draftsman drew a plan of the structural elements of the Capitol’s tholus, or dome. He created a trompe l’oeil (fool-the-eye) effect of a smaller drawing of the cross section laying on top of another drawing sheet showing the same element in elevation. The construction drawings were skillfully done in ink and filled in with watercolor. The details needed to be clear and exact, as they were used to guide the casting of the iron structural pieces in New York.

     

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Eastern Elevation of North Wing, Capitol Extension, by Thomas U. Walter, ca. 1855

    Thomas U. Walter’s drawing shows each wing of the Capitol Extension fronted by a grand Corinthian portico above a broad flight of marble stairs. The general outline of the porticoes was derived from the central one designed by B. Henry Latrobe, but with no pediments (the triangular features atop the central columns). In 1853 the War Department took over supervision of the extension project. Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, the engineer in charge, asked Walter to add pediments to accommodate sculpture.

     

    Architect of the Capitol

  • Interior View, Library of Congress, by Thomas U. Walter, 1852

    On Christmas Eve 1851, the Library of Congress was gutted by a disastrous fire. Before the ashes had cooled Thomas U. Walter, the architect of the Capitol extension, was asked to supervise its reconstruction. In response, Walter designed the first room in America with an iron ceiling. The book cases and balconies were also cast iron, an inexpensive, quickly made, and, most importantly, fireproof material. The innovative room was completed in 1853 and used for four decades before being dismantled in 1900, three years after the library moved to its own building in 1897.

    Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress