The Capitol

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Artistic Improvements

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.

Offices for Officeholders

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.

A New Home for the Library

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.

The End of the Gaslight Era

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.

Landscaping the Grounds

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).

Replacing the Dome

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.

A Hall of Heroes

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.

A Creative Showcase

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.

Interior Grandeur

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.

Expanding the Capitol

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).


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