U.S. Capitol Building Steps

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U.S. Capitol Building Steps
U.S. Capitol Building Steps


Above: Front of the Specimen Card

In 1800, when only the first of its wings had been completed, the United States Capitol held its first meeting of Congress. Since then, through renovations, destructions, expansions, and more, the building has served as the legislative heart of the country. It is where the law of the land is drafted, critiqued, and created, and for many, where democracy prevails over chaos and tyranny.

Even after the Statue of Freedom was mounted at the apex of the dome in 1863, the Capitol still underwent changes that continue to this day. Like the democratic government the building represents, it is never truly finished, ever-changing with new improvements, new faces, and new ideas.

This specimen is a fragment of the first marble steps of the U.S. Capitol, originally installed in 1870 and replaced 1995 with granite.

 

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.

As with the Aquia Creek sandstone, 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.

Each hand-cut fragment is encased inside an acrylic specimen jar and presented in one of our classic, glass-topped riker display boxes. The size of each specimen varies, but on average they measure 6 to 10 millimeters along each edge. The riker display box measures 4 1/2" x 3 1/2". A small information card is also included, which serves as the certificate of authenticity.

About the U.S. Capitol Building

"Whenever a free man is in chains we are threatened also. Whoever is fighting for liberty is defending America." - William Allen White

Above: Approved Design for the United States Capitol, by Dr. William Thornton, 1793. Source: Library of Congress.

The reasons to build the Capitol were twofold. It would, of course, serve as a symbol of the power and triumph of the newly founded American experiment, 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 after the Pennsylvanian government allowed a group of Revolutionary War veterans to storm Congress’ meeting at Independence Hall, it was clear that the federal government needed its own area of operation.

Above: Original Capitol 1800: A painting by William Birch depicting the U.S. Capitol in 1800 Source The Library of Congress

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.

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.

Above: Construction of the Cast Iron Dome in 1863. Source: Architect of the Capitol

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.

The Capitol was built to embody the liberty of the American people, but this idea is complicated by the circumstances of its construction. For the many enslaved Africans and African-Americans working on 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 Capitol. 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. It must be understood that while the Capitol may now be a platform of free democracy, it was not always this way. Even after the revolution, the rights and liberties of many Americans took time and struggling to achieve.


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 never finished; ever-changing with new improvements, new faces, and new ideas.

Further Reading

Withington, Charles F. Edited by Don Olson, Building Stones of Our Nation's Capital, 1999, USGS

Carter, Elliot. “Capitol Stones in Rock Creek Park.” Architect of the Capital, 23 Nov. 2016.

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.

Reed, William. "Slaves Helped Build White House and Capitol," The Final Call, 13 Aug. 2002

Perazzo, Peggy B. Structures and Monuments in Which Georgia Stone Was Used, 2017

 

Above: Back of the Specimen Card. 

 

U.S. Capitol Building Steps
U.S. Capitol Building Steps