General Knowledge & Curiosities

The construction of the Capitol.

The Congress began in 1793 and was largely completed by 1865 when the Capitol’s second dome was finished. The U.S. Capitol has been built, burnt, rebuilt, extended and restored.

The building that houses the U.S. Congress.

In accordance with the “Residence Act” passed by Congress in 1790, President George Washington in 1791 selected the area that is now the District of Columbia from land ceded by Maryland.

The principal architects were:

  • William Thornton (1759-1828). Thornton’s plan depicted a building composed of three sections. The central section, which was topped by a low dome, was to be flanked on the north and south by two rectangular wings (one for the Senate and one for the House of Representatives). President Washington commended the plan for its “grandeur, simplicity and convenience,” and on April 5, 1793, it was accepted by the commissioners; Washington gave his formal approval on July 25.
  • B. Henry Latrobe (1764-1820). Latrobe was the first professional architect and engineer to work in America. He modified Thornton’s plan for the south wing to include space for offices and committee rooms; he also introduced alterations to simplify the construction work. Latrobe began work in 1804 by removing a squat, oval, temporary building known as “the Oven,” which had been erected in 1801 as a meeting place for the House of Representatives. By 1807 construction on the south wing was sufficiently advanced that the House was able to occupy its new legislative chamber, and the wing was completed in 1811.

The War of 1812 was a conflict fought between the United States, the United Kingdom, and their respective allies from June 1812 to February 1815. It left the Capitol, in Latrobe’s later words, “a most magnificent ruin”: on August 24, 1814, British troops set fire to the building, and only a sudden rainstorm prevented its complete destruction. Latrobe returned to Washington in 1815, when he was rehired to restore the U.S. Capitol Building.

  • Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844). On January 8, 1818, Charles Bulfinch, a prominent Boston architect, was appointed Latrobe’s successor. Continuing the restoration of the north and south wings, he was able to make the chambers for the Supreme Court, the House, and the Senate ready for use by 1819. After completing the last part of the building in 1826, Bulfinch spent the next few years on the Capitol’s decoration and landscaping. In 1829, his work was done and his position with the government was terminated.
  • Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-87). On July 4, 1851 and over the next 14 years, Walter supervised the construction of the extensions, ensuring their compatibility with the architectural style of the existing building. However, because the Aquia Creek sandstone used earlier had already deteriorated noticeably, he chose to use marble for the exterior. Aside from his work on the U.S. Capitol extensions and dome, Walter designed the wings of the Patent Office building, extensions to the Treasury and Post Office buildings, and the Marine barracks in Pensacola and Brooklyn. When the Library of Congress in the Capitol’s west-central section was gutted by a fire in 1851, Walter was commissioned to restore it. As the new wings were constructed, more than doubling the length of the Capitol, it became apparent that the dome erected by Bulfinch no longer suited the building’s proportions. In 1855 Congress voted for its replacement based on Walter’s design for a new, fireproof cast-iron dome. The old dome was removed in 1856, and 5,000,000 pounds of new masonry was placed on the existing Rotunda walls.

 

 

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