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.
The Congress we know today was created after the failure of a government under the Articles of Confederation, which left most powers to the states. In 1787, a convention of specially selected delegates proposed a new constitution that strengthened the national government and established a representative branch composed of a House and Senate.
From the beginning, the two bodies of Congress were meant to be different, yet interdependent. James Madison said they would be "as little connected with each other, as the nature of their common functions, and their common dependence on society, will admit." As a result, the House and Senate have different rules, traditions, and cultures. Yet in their shared responsibilities they function as the nation's single lawmaking body.
Most Americans greeted the 20th century with optimism. The early decades saw economic growth and the expansion of democracy as women gained the vote. But two world wars, the Great Depression, and the nuclear age later tested such confidence.
World War I brought a new global perspective. It shifted attention from economic growth and expanding democratic institutions at home to the nation’s place in the larger world. When the war ended in 1918, Congress debated America’s role in global peacekeeping. Disputes with the president, and a postwar absence of public support for further international involvement, kept the Senate from approving U.S. participation in the League of Nations. After the devastation of World War II, this view changed, and Congress supported the establishment of the United Nations and joint mutual defense organizations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At home, Congress addressed the crisis of the Great Depression, beginning with an outpouring of economic recovery legislation in the first 100 days of its 1933 session.
Throughout these great transformations, the Capitol itself remained unchanged—although its campus grew with the addition of six new buildings.
Stability in an Era of Change
The first half of the 20th century was a time of upheavals and change, with two world wars, the Great Depression, and unprecedented technological transformations. Amid the turmoil and uncertainty that marked the era, the Capitol’s unfailing dignity was a reassuring presence, giving Americans a sense of steady resolve in troubled times.
While the Capitol itself remained unaltered, new buildings and additional land helped the campus evolve and expand. Improving the facilities and beautifying the setting were constant concerns, leading to an ever-changing backdrop for the unchanging Capitol.
When it opened in 1908, Union Station quickly became the primary entry to Washington. The terminal was among the first and finest achievements of the Senate Park Commission (also called the “McMillan Commission”), a board of design professionals determined to beautify Washington. The station itself was grand. Outside, however, a motley assortment of residences, hotels, boardinghouses, and taverns greeted visitors.
City planners and congressional leaders considered the area between Union Station and the Capitol undignified. They proposed clearing it to create a park. The project took $10 million and 30 years to complete (1910-1940). It required buying 18 city squares and demolishing hundreds of buildings. The new park was so successful that some wished to see the proposed Lincoln Memorial built there instead of its eventual site on the Mall.
The Constitution created three branches of government. Two branches, Congress and the presidency, had their own homes. For 134 years, the Supreme Court shared the Capitol. It met first in a committee room, later in the library, and, from 1810 to 1860, in a first-floor chamber designed by B. Henry Latrobe. In 1860, the Court moved to the Senate’s former second-floor chamber.
In 1926, Chief Justice William Howard Taft asked architect Cass Gilbert to plan a courthouse. The site selected faced the Capitol on First Street, Northeast. Its proximity to Union Station—convenient for out-of-town lawyers—was an important consideration. Congress appropriated just under $10 million and created a commission in 1929 to oversee construction, which began in 1930. The building opened five years later.
Across America, the 1930s was the era of the Great Depression. On Capitol Hill, it was a decade of rapid expansion. While the Capitol itself remained largely unchanged, the surrounding campus was transformed. Six major building projects greatly expanded Capitol Hill’s facilities.
The construction reflected the growing role and size of the federal government. Projects included: the Supreme Court Building (1929-1935); Longworth House Office Building (1929-1933); Rare Book Room Addition for the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building (1929-1933); First Street Addition to the Russell Senate Office Building (1931-1933); New Botanic Garden Conservatory (1932-1933); and the John Adams Building for the Library of Congress (1933-1938).
The Capitol changed little during this period, but not for lack of trying. The most dramatic proposal was for an addition to the east front, intended to provide a better sense of support for the dome and to add more rooms. Thomas Walter floated the idea in 1863; Speaker Joseph Cannon revived it in 1904. The idea surfaced again between 1935 and 1937, winning Senate support. The House defeated it—though an extension finally was built, from 1958 to 1962.
There were other suggestions as well. In 1924, some senators advocated rebuilding their chamber along an outside wall to give the room windows for natural light and fresh air. (Many blamed the lack of fresh air for the failing health of a few senators.) This idea gained support—until 1929, when air-conditioning silenced the complaints.
The Capitol continued its longstanding tradition of commissioning and buying artwork. The most significant addition was The Apotheosis of Democracy, a monumental sculptural group by Paul Wayland Bartlett placed in the House pediment in 1916.
To celebrate the Constitution’s 150th anniversary, Congress commissioned Howard Chandler Christy to paint a scene depicting the signing of the document. It was hung in the east grand stair of the House wing. The House of Representatives continued to acquire portraits of former Speakers, and the Senate commissioned vice presidential busts for its chamber. As the collection of state-donated statues in Statuary Hall grew to 65, its weight threatened to collapse the floor. In 1933, Congress authorized the display of some statues elsewhere in the building, distributing the collection—and its weight.