The U.S. Capitol building has stood on its ground for more than two centuries. The building has undergone reconstructions, restorations, and extensions in past years. Today, it is a monumental structure consisting of not just a meeting space for the United States Congress but also a Visitors Center.
To commence the ‘Residence Act’ passed by Congress in 1790, President George Washington selected the area, which was the Capital of the United States of America, by 1971. He appointed three commissioners to survey the location and carry out the city planning and construction of the Capitol accordingly. They, in turn, hired a French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the layout of the city, who located the Capitol building on the elevated east end of the Mall.
He was then asked to design the Capitol building, to which he refused to produce any drawings on paper or seek approval from the commissioners saying that the design was in his head. This led to his removal from the position. In March 1792, a competition was conducted to find the “most approved plan”, suggested by State Secretary Thomas Jefferson. After going through multiple plans, all were unsatisfactory and were rejected. A few months later, Dr. William Thornton, a British West Indies Scottish-trained physician, requested to submit the plans for the Capitol building. The plan was divided into three sections, two rectangular wings, and the central circular section was topped with a low dome. The President liked the simplicity and grandeur-ness of the building and approved the proposal by 25th July 1793.
On 18th September 1793, President George Washington laid the cornerstone of the Capitol building. Work progressed under three architects one after the other. James Hoben was present throughout the initial phase of the construction. The construction was carried out of sandstone, this was ferried on a boat from the quarries at Aquia, Virginia. By 1796, the focus of the work shifted to the completion of the north wing so that it could be ready to use for the government as previously planned.
In late 1800, the Congress, the Supreme Court, The Library of Congress, and the Courts of the District Columbia occupied the north wing, even though some rooms at the top were still to be completed. Later, due to a lack of funds, the construction was paused.
In 1803, Congress issued the funds to resume the construction of the Capitol building. A new architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, was appointed during this time. Latrobe modified the plan of the south wing and added offices and committee rooms. He also made some structural changes to simplify the construction. In 1804, he began the work of construction of the south wing. By 1807, Latrobe managed to sufficiently complete the south wing so that it could be ready for use for new legislation, and by 1811 the south wing was completed. Along with the construction of the south wing, around 1808, Latrobe started restoring the north wing since its condition had started to deteriorate. He redesigned the interior to improve its usable area and durability and also added a chamber for the Supreme Court. The eastern part of the north wing was accomplished by 1811. At this juncture, all funds got diverted to war against Great Britain. Since there were no funds to proceed with the construction, in 1813, Latrobe left Washington, leaving the north and south wing connected by a temporary wooden passageway.
On 24th August 1814, British troops set fire to the Capitol Building. The building got saved due to a sudden rainstorm. In 1815, Latrobe was re-hired to restore the half-burnt Capitol Building. Along with repairs, he made changes in the interior planning of the Capitol building. This time, instead of continuing the construction with sandstone, Latrobe chose marble that was found near the upper Potomac river. In November 1817, Latrobe stepped down from his position, due to construction delays and expenditure.
On 8th January 1818, Charles Bulfinch, a well-known Boston-based architect was hired and he continued the work of restoration. By 1819, he managed to complete the Supreme Court, the House of Representatives, and the Senate Chamber. He redesigned and supervised the construction of the Central section. The copper-covered wooden dome that topped the central section was made higher than Bulfinch had planned as per building size, which was done under the direction of the then President and Secretary of State. By 1826, Bulfinch completed that last section of the Capitol building. He spent approximately the next three years i.e. from 1826 – 1829, decorating and designing the landscape of the building. The Capitol building was completed by 1829. Later his position was terminated. The Commissioner of Public Buildings took care of the building for the next two decades.
By 1850, the population of the members grew in number. They could not fit-in in the existing Capitol building. A competition was organized for the extension of the building. President Millard Fillmore selected the extension design of the northeast corner of the House by a Philadelphia architect, Thomas U. Walter. On the 4th of July 1851, the President laid the cornerstone for the extension area. From 1851 to 1865, the construction of the extension progressed. Walter designed the extension of the building in a manner that followed the existing building’s architectural style. However, the materials used by him were marble as the sandstone in the existing building had started to deteriorate. The exterior marble had quarried from Lee, Massachusetts, and veneer marble, from Cockeysville, Maryland.
It was apparent that the size of the dome added by Bulfinch in 1819, in the central section did not fit well with the building. In 1855, congress voted for the replacement of the dome as per Walter’s design for a new and fireproof cast iron dome. In 1856, the old dome was demolished. A 5,000,000 pounds masonry was added to the Rotunda wall to be able to take the weight of the dome which weighed around 8,909,200 pounds. Steam-powered derricks lifted the dome and put it in place. On 16th December 1857, the House of Representatives was completed, and by 4th January 1859, the Senate chamber was completed. The old House of Chamber got designated as The National Statuary Hall.
In 1859, Thomas Crawford’s plaster model ‘The Statue of Freedom’ that was supposed to be placed on the top of the dome arrived from Rome. Its height was 19 feet and 6 inches, three times taller than mentioned, it was later cast in bronze by Clark Mills and it was around 14,985 pounds due to which Walter had to make changes in his design of the dome. In 1863 the statue was placed on top of the dome.
In 1861, the construction got suspended as the focus was shifted to the Civil War. The Capitol building was used as military barracks, hospitals, and a bakery. In 1862, the construction work resumed. The construction was completed under the supervision of Edward Clark, assistant of Thomas U. Walter, and was later signed as the principal architect as Walter resigned in 1865. The canopy was painted by Italian-born artist Constantino Brumidi and was named ‘Apotheosis of Washington’. The extension was completed by 1868.
On 6th November 1898, a gas explosion and fire took place in the north wing. This incident made the need for fireproofing evident. By 1902, the north wing and the roof of Statuary Hall were restored and fireproofed. This work was completed by Elliot Woods, the successor of Clark, after his death in 1902. Later on, Woods was the said architect until he died in 1923.
There were no major structural activities left in the Capitol building. In 1923, David Lynn was appointed as the architect of the Capitol building. He carried out the work of renovating the interior of the House and the Senate by changing the cast iron and glass ceilings with stainless steel and plaster, with the daylight of carved glass and bronze in the middle. The wings were air-conditioned, and the acoustics issues were solved. Lynn retired in 1954.
In 1954, the extension of the east front was planned. This proposal was carried out by J. George Stewart. The new construction was an addition to the existing building. The extension was constructed out of marble, which was a buttress to the existing sandstone wall, which is now treated as one of the interior walls. The extension added 90 rooms to the building. Besides the said extension, dome renovation, subway terminal under the Senate steps, and bird-proofing were finished by 1962. Stewart served as the architect till his death in 1970.
In 1971, George M. White, FAIA was appointed as the architect of the Capitol. He helped in modernizing the Capitol and restoring the building as and when needed during his time of service. The Senate Chamber, the National Statuary Hall, and the Supreme Court were restored in the mid-19th century, for the nation’s 1976 Bicentennial celebration. In 1983, the work began of restoring the West front of the building. There were structural issues due to defects in the original foundation and addition of floors, a constant reworking of the interior, and damages from the past incidents. For strengthening the building, around 1000 stainless steel iron rods were set into the masonry. The damaged stonework was repaired and almost 40% of the sandstones were replaced with limestones. The walls were painted to match the exterior of the marble wings. The project was completed in 1987, way before scheduled and within the budget.
Following the retirement of White in 1995, his successor Alan M. Hantman, FAIA, was appointed in 1997. He did some of the major restoration works like the Rotunda wall and the canopy, the Statue of Freedom, replacing the Minton tiles in the Senate Chamber and House monumental stairs. The subway system was replaced with a new system connecting the U.S. Capitol to the Dirksen and Hart Senate Office building. In 2010, Stephen T. Ayers, FAIA, LEED AP, was appointed as the Principal Architect after serving as Acting Architect since 2007 post-Hantman’s retirement.
In 2008, the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center was opened, and the project was one of the largest proposals in the history of the Capitol building and is approximately three-quarters the size of the Capitol. The entire facility is placed underground in the building’s east front so that it doesn’t disrupt the visuals of the Capitol building. The Visitors Center involves exhibits, displays, and theatres for public knowledge and information.
In 2013, the dome of the U.S. Capitol building underwent restoration from 1956 – 1960. Ayer’s and Architect on Record Hoffman Architects carried out this work. Due to the exposure to the sun, snow, rain, and sleet, damage to the exterior was prominent by material deterioration, cracks, delaminated paints, and weak cast iron. The dome was repainted to avoid corrosion, and the cast iron was replaced. The Rotunda was also restored during this process. The restoration also secured the artwork in the Rotunda and the iconic Apotheosis of Washington. It took two and half years to complete the restoration process. A little later, Stephen T. Ayers retired in November 2018.
In January 2020, J. Brett Blanton was assigned the new position of architect to the U.S. Capitol building. Since then, he has been responsible for all the maintenance and operation of the Capitol Building, the House and the Senate buildings, and the Visitors Center.
- (“History of the U.S. Capitol Building | Architect of the Capitol”)
- (“Capitol Dome Successfully Restored | Architect of the Capitol”)
- (“J. Brett Blanton, 12th Architect of the Capitol | AOC”)
- (Capitol Dome to Undergo Restoration by Architect of the Capitol, Hoffmann Architects, and Turner-Smoot, 2013)