The Capitol

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Proposed Design for the Capitol, by Samuel McIntire, 1792

Fri, 2013-08-30 10:42 -- administrator

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

The Capitol's Cornerstone

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.

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

Wed, 2013-04-24 15:10 -- administrator

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

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

Fri, 2013-04-19 16:44 -- administrator

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

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

Fri, 2013-04-19 16:41 -- administrator

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

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

Fri, 2013-04-19 16:39 -- administrator

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.

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

Fri, 2013-04-19 16:37 -- administrator

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

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

Fri, 2013-04-19 16:35 -- administrator

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

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

Fri, 2013-04-19 15:29 -- administrator

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

Fri, 2013-04-19 15:28 -- administrator

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

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