The U.S. Capitol stands now as the foremost architectural symbol of America. More than the White House, more than the various monuments that dot Washington, D.C.’s landscape, the Capitol building, perched magnificently for more than two centuries on a hill overlooking the city, in many ways is America. It is where the legislative dirty work of democracy is done.
The Capitol building, befitting its status, is visited by more than 3 million people every year. Fanny-packed tourists, bussed-in schoolkids and curious international visitors mingle over the roughly 4 acres (1.6 hectares) of grounds on which the Capitol building sits.
The builders envisioned that kind of interest; if not in those numbers, perhaps (they certainly didn’t count on the fanny packs), they saw that the Capitol would become a symbol for the nation, and thus decided that it should reflect the majesty of the ideas that the United States represents.
“As a new nation it was important to set a tone and establish a physical manifestation of the ideals and aspiration that this new nation represented,” Christopher J. Howard, a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at The Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., says via email. “Important for its own sake, but also relative to the world in projecting a confident identity of democratic values in a new republic, meant to endure and be timeless.”
Settling on exactly how those ideals should be architecturally expressed, though, was hardly self-evident. It was, in the end, the result of a competition, dreamed up by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and judged by Jefferson, President George Washington and the commissioners of the District of Columbia.
Picking a Design
French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who laid out the blueprint for Washington, D.C. and the placement of the Capitol on what was then known as Jenkins’ Hill, was expected to design the Capitol. But after he refused to submit plans — he was said to have it all planned out in his head — Jefferson suggested an open competition. The judges received 17 entrants. They weren’t thrilled with any of them.
Most competitors drew upon Renaissance architectural models, either filtered through the lens of eighteenth-century English and American Georgian traditions or based directly on buildings illustrated in Renaissance treatises. The Capitol competition coincided with nascent Neoclassicism in America, in which forms and details from Greek and Roman architecture were revived. Three of the competition entries were inspired by ancient classical buildings.
Many of those plans, if they had been realized, would have given a distinctly different flavor to the building from what we have come to know. Irish architect James Diamond’s vision, for example, featured a string of arched windows on the first floor, and the building was capped by a modest dome.
Frenchman Stephen Hallett provided a fancy plan in the neoclassical style that was relatively well received. Until, that is, the winner came along.
William Thornton, a physician trained in Scotland, submitted a late idea — allowed by the largely disappointed judges — that envisioned a three-section building; a center portion topped by a low dome in the style of the Pantheon in Rome, and two sections on both sides of it, one for the House of Representatives and one for the Senate.
Washington lauded Thornton’s work for its “grandeur, simplicity and convenience.” The amateur architect’s plans were ultimately chosen, and Thornton won $500 and a plot of land in Washington, D.C. for his efforts.
“Thornton … was able to step in with an inspired design idea that clearly resonated with the selection commission,” Howard says. “Part of that success I believe is attributed to showing a design that resembles what had already been implied in Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C., which already had purchase in terms of the physical imagining of what a capitol building might promise.”
Work on the U.S. Capitol began in 1793. By 1800, though the building wasn’t anywhere near finished, the Congress, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court and the courts of the District of Columbia moved in. (The Congress and Supreme Court had been meeting at Federal Hall in New York City and in Congress Hall in Philadelphia.)
American democracy had its permanent home.
The Capitol Then and Now
Through the years, the Capitol has undergone many changes, though never straying far from Thornton’s neoclassical vision. The building was set aflame by the British in the War of 1812, almost burning to the ground on Aug. 24, 1814.
In the second half of the 19th century, a major renovation and expansion took place, more than doubling the length of the Capitol. In 1856, an almost 4,500-ton (4,082-metric ton) iron dome replaced a much smaller copper-covered wooden dome over the center section of the building. In 1863, the 19.5-foot (5.9 meter), nearly 15,000-pound (6,803-kilogram) Statue of Freedom was hoisted to the top of the new dome.
Terraces were added over the years, grounds were improved, renovations were made and, in 2008, the largest project in the Capitol’s history opened: a 580,000 square foot (53,883 square meters) Visitor Center, located completely underground on the east side of the Capitol, as to not ruin Thornton’s original vision.
“The end product in many ways seems inevitable, by virtue of the many people involved being guided by the same essential ‘good idea’ and language, along with basic principles and goals for our nation in mind. This is truly a democratic building and it shows that as a result,” Howard says. “I do think it still stands for what Thornton and Jefferson envisioned because it is not a subjective, arbitrary application of architectural language. It is what it was always intended to be and will continue to do so.”