Designing the Capitol

Pierre L’Enfant laid out the streets of Washington, D.C., but failed to produce designs for public buildings as requested. To fill this gap, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson proposed an architectural competition for the new Capitol in 1792. The contest offered entrants a city lot—and a cash prize of $500. It drew about thirteen applicants, including soldiers, teachers, judges, and craftsmen originally from Ireland, France, England, Germany, and America.

The competition entries disappointed President Washington. The designs lacked the dignity and stateliness he had expected. No prizes were awarded until, early in 1793, Dr. William Thornton presented a plan that President Washington praised for its “grandeur, simplicity, and beauty.” Thornton had envisioned a Capitol with the classical elegance, sophistication, and grand scale that Washington wanted.

History of Congress and the Capitol

The Capitol 1789-1815

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Courtyard Plan, by Stephen Hallet...
Image Caption

Courtyard Plan, by Stephen Hallet, Ink, Watercolor and Graphite on Paper, ca. 1794

Soon after construction of the wings began, architect Stephen Hallet attempted to revise the accepted plan of the center portion to include an open-air courtyard instead of a domed rotunda. Before President George Washington or the Commissioners of the Federal City could review the revised plan, Hallet began laying its foundations, which caused his prompt dismissal for insubordination.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Courtyard Plan, by Stephen Hallet, Ink, Watercolor and Graphite on Paper, ca. 1794

Soon after construction of the wings began, architect Stephen Hallet attempted to revise the accepted plan of the center portion to include an open-air courtyard instead of a domed rotunda. Before President George Washington or the Commissioners of the Federal City could review the revised plan, Hallet began laying its foundations, which caused his prompt dismissal for insubordination.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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