📸 A painting by William Birch depicting the U.S. Capitol in 1800
📸 The Capitol in 1846
In 1800, when only the first of its wings had been completed, the United States Capitol held its first meeting of Congress, a new beginning for the young country. Since then, through renovations, destructions, expansions, and more, the building has served as the legislative heart of the United States. The building parallels the rocky beginnings of the nation, the Capitol’s sprawling and laborious construction nonetheless giving way to the seat of government that runs the country today.
The reasons to build the Capitol were twofold. It would, of course, serve as a symbol of the triumph of the newly founded American government, but just as importantly, it would be a safe and consistent place for federal legislators to meet. The cities that had held the meetings of early Congress were growing tired of hosting the lawmakers and the troubles that followed. In 1783, unpaid Revolutionary War Veterans stormed Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where Congress was situated. After the mutiny, it was clear that the federal government needed its own area of operation.
📸 Approved Design for the United States Capitol, by Dr. William Thornton, 1793.
When President George Washington selected the space that would become Washington D.C in 1791, the French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant, or Peter as he liked to be known, was chosen to design the layout of the city. His plans split the city into four quadrants, and at the origin of the intersection was Jenkins’ Hill, a place L’Enfant described as “a pedestal waiting for a monument.”
Thomas Jefferson chose to name this future building the Capitol, rather than the Congress House, invoking the Capitoline Hill of Rome where Jupiter’s temple was located. In the spirit of the new and democratic government, he proposed a contest in order to select the best design possible for the new building. In 1793, a late entry from William Thornton was chosen as the winning design. Thornton’s plans in particular were valued for their neoclassical look that evoked a grace without overcomplication.
📸 "The Burning of Washington" by Paul de Rapin
Construction of the Capitol, like the development of the government it represented, was always going to be a long and multigenerational effort. Aquia Creek sandstone was selected as the main building material, a tan to gray stone found near the Potomac River that has been used in many other government buildings including the White House. In 1793, construction began, with the first wings taking nearly two decades to complete. This first structure would be short-lived, however, as, during the War of 1812, the Capitol was taken and burned by the British. During this reconstruction, the center section of the Capitol with its original wooden dome was built.
📸 Construction of the Cast Iron Dome in 1863
In the 1850s, as new states were being added to the Union, it became clear that there simply wasn’t enough space in the building for all the incoming senators and representatives, so expansions were planned for both the House and the Senate.
These new wings made the wooden dome look tiny in comparison to the new length of the building and in 1854, plans were made to add a massive and ornate cast-iron dome to the Capitol. This structure was 100 feet in diameter and was made of over 8 million pounds of metal. In 1863, when the dome was finally put into place, the 19-foot Statue of Freedom was added to crown its apex, completing the silhouette of the Capitol as we see it today.
📸 "Chained Slaves in Front of the U.S. Capital Building, Washington, D.C., 1814" by Jesse Torrey
The Capitol was intended to embody the liberty of the American people, but its construction did not live up to this loft ideal. For the many enslaved workers tasked with constructing the building, this liberty was not a given. They worked for little to no compensation, cutting and quarrying stones, clearing trees, digging ditches, and brick by brick assembling the building. The Statue of Freedom itself, which overlooks the National Mall from its place at the peak of the dome, was cast by Phillip Reid, an African American man born into slavery.
📸 The Capitol Crawl, March 1990 (Tom Olin collection)
From the beginning, the US Capitol has been a place where regular citizens have demanded justice from their government. The first mass protest in Washington D.C. was the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, which began at the Capitol before marching down Pennsylvania Avenue and across the city. The building itself was the site of multiple anti-war and Civil Rights protests during the 1960s, including a sit-in in 1965 in solidarity with the Selma March. The Woman’s March in 2017 drew over 200,000 attendees, while a few years later the building was stormed during the violent 2021 Capitol Riot in the wake of Joe Biden’s election.
Many acts of protests have happened in and around the US Capitol, but none more closely associated with the building’s physical architecture than the Capitol Crawl. On March 15, 1990, just before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, hundreds of members of ADAPT and the National Rehabilitation Association marched on the Capitol Building, discarded their walking aids, and crawled up the steps of the building. Their intent was to demonstrate the perils of inaccessibility for the disabled, a triumphant political demonstration that cemented the passage of the ADA.
Today, the Capitol is home to the meetings of federal senators and representatives from each of the 50 United States. The building stands not only as a monument to the country’s past but its present and future as well. When its halls were designed, spaces were made to illustrate murals of American history. Many of these spaces were left empty to be filled with future moments of advancement, just as the country itself has grown over time. In a way, the Capitol, like democracy itself, is a work in progress, ever-changing with new improvements, new faces, and new ideas.
📸 The U.S. Capitol Today
📸 A sample of U.S. Capitol marble
STEp BY STEP
This specimen from Mini Museum is a fragment of the first marble steps of the U.S. Capitol, originally installed in 1870 and replaced 1995 with granite. This material has been made available at times for collectible in various forms. This particular piece of marble was part of a limited edition book-end set created in the late 1990s.
Marble was an extremely important material in the eyes of the designers. They wished to invoke the image of ancient Greek and Roman architecture in their new country, something that was reflected not only in the structure but the very stones that built it.
However, when the Capitol was first planned, there were no known marble deposits near Washington D.C. Aquia Creek sandstone was used as a replacement at first, but as the country grew and the Capitol began to require renovation, marble was brought in from across the nation. Deposits from Massachusetts, Georgia, and even new quarries near the Potomac supplied new interiors, columns, facades, and stairways.
Annual Report of the Architect of the Capitol for the Period October 1, 1994 to September 30, 1995. U.S. G.P.O., 1997.
Bell, Felicia. “Slave Labor and the Capitol: A Commentary” The Capitol Dome, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2003, pp. 17-18.
Davis LJ. Enabling Acts. Beacon Press; 2015.
Carter, Elliot. “Capitol Stones in Rock Creek Park.” Architect of the Capital, 23 Nov. 2016.
Kennon DR. The United States Capitol: Designing and Decorating a National Icon. Published for the United States Capitol Historical Society by Ohio University Press; 2000.
Perazzo, Peggy B. Structures and Monuments in Which Georgia Stone Was Used, 2017
Reed, William. "Slaves Helped Build White House and Capitol," The Final Call, 13 Aug. 2002
Withington, Charles F. Edited by Don Olson, Building Stones of Our Nation's Capital, 1999, USGS