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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After the civil war, the country faced dramatic change as a landscape of farms and villages yielded to factories and sprawling cities. An abundance of labor and plentiful raw materials brought prosperity to many, and the image of the United States as a beacon of freedom and opportunity encouraged immigration from all parts of the world. Many workers, including immigrants, racial minorities, and children, however, often toiled long hours in dangerous conditions for little pay. By the turn of the century, reformers in Congress were pressing for new ways to make government more responsive to the needs of poor farmers, laborers, and urban dwellers.

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The Capitol Campus

Presiding magnificently over an expanding and robust nation, the Capitol itself changed little during this period. The grounds, however, were a different story. They blossomed in the 1870s and 1880s from a disheveled construction site into a picturesque garden.

Perhaps the most noticeable change was a marble terrace that replaced the earthen embankments along the west front.

At the century’s end, the Library of Congress moved from the Capitol to a new building nearby. Shortly thereafter, Congress built additional office buildings for the House and Senate. These structures freed up space inside the building and ushered in a new era of a Capitol "campus."

Landscaping the Grounds  - 1873

Like a painting in a frame, a grand building deserves a grand setting. The Capitol grounds had suffered as a construction site while the wings and dome were built. They were also too small for the enlarged building. Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont spearheaded efforts to improve them, calling in Frederick Law Olmsted, father of American landscape architecture (best known for New York City's Central Park).

In 1873, Congress agreed to close sections of A Street north and south and bought two adjacent squares of land, bringing the Capitol grounds to 58 acres. Olmsted designed a marble terrace for the west front, arguing that the building looked as if it might otherwise slide off Jenkins Hill. The terrace, built between 1882 and 1892, also provided committee and storage space.

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The End of the Gaslight Era  - 1885

A violent gas explosion rocked the old north wing on November 6, 1898. Although electric lights had been introduced in 1885, gas was still the principal method of illumination. The fire that followed the gas blast almost spread to the roof. Some feared that the flames could have melted the great iron dome. Shortly after the disaster, the Capitol removed all its gas lighting and launched extensive measures to fireproof the building.

The roofs of the old north and south wings had been fashioned of wood covered with copper. Steel and concrete structures replaced them in 1901. Similarly, fireproof steel and plaster replaced the wooden ceiling over Statuary Hall. Joseph Rakemann decorated that ceiling in 1902, a work that has since been restored.

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A New Home for the Library  - 1886

American creativity overflowed in the Capitol—literally. The Copyright Act of 1870 decreed that two copies of all protected works be deposited in the Library of Congress. The Library quickly was swamped with books, music, photographs, and other copyrighted material.

In 1886, Congress authorized a new Library facility. The Washington firm of Smithmeyer & Pelz designed a magnificent building, which opened in 1897. Its majestic scale, domed reading room, and vast galleries enriched with sculpture and murals instantly made it Washington’s most popular building.

At the Capitol, Congress decided in 1900 to rebuild the Library's former space, creating 20 new offices and committee rooms. Built of masonry vaults, like older parts of the building, they were decorated with murals designed by Elmer Garnsey of New York.

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Offices for Officeholders  - 1891

The Capitol seemed vast—unless you worked there. The building, though grand in scale, had only 56 rooms usable as offices. Most were committee rooms that chairmen could use for themselves. In 1891, the Senate bought an apartment building and converted it to offices. But this structure, the Maltby Building, proved unsound and quickly became obsolete.

By the 20th century, Congress's growing workload made finding more office space essential. Two nearly identical office buildings were constructed, giving every representative and senator a room or two. The buildings also included space for committees and support facilities, such as bathing rooms and telegraph offices. The House Office Building (now the Cannon House Office Building) opened in 1908; the Senate Office Building (now the Russell Senate Office Building) opened the following year.

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Artistic Improvements  - 1878

On the outside, the Capitol remained largely unchanged during this period. Inside, however, various artistic projects were undertaken to improve the Capitol's interior. In the rotunda, Constantino Brumidi began painting the 300-foot-long frieze in 1878 with scenes from American history. Sculpture was originally intended for the frieze, but Brumidi was able to achieve a similar effect with paint.

After the death of Vice President Henry Wilson in 1875, the Senate commissioned a bust of its deceased presiding officer (the vice president is President of the Senate), displaying it in the room where Wilson had died. This launched a program to commission busts of all former vice presidents for the Senate wing. The House, in a similar tribute to its history, began commissioning oil portraits of former Speakers in 1911.

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