The United States Capitol is among the country’s most iconic buildings. As the seat of the US Congress, it serves as the federal government’s legislative epicenter. A rare example of American neoclassical architecture, it stands proudly atop Washington DC’s Capitol Hill.
The Capitol was designed by a group of men who had absolutely no experience in professional architecture. Despite its impressive facade, it once stood at just a fraction of the size it does today. It was nearly burnt to the ground by a foreign army in the 1800s and was the site of numerous attacks over the last two centuries. The monumental dome contains more than 1300 cracks, yet it stands firmly as the crown in America’s capital city and will continue to do so for centuries to come.
Washington DC has been America’s capital for more than 200 years, but it wasn’t the first, second, or even third option when the founding fathers searched for a capital city. The first two significant options were Philadelphia and New York, both of which hosted earlier versions of the US Congress. Philadelphia looked most likely to be the nation’s capital in the early 1780s, but a string of events kept that from happening.
While Congress met at Independence Hall in Philadelphia in 1783, a local militia of 400 armed men marched to the building. The soldiers had fought in the Revolutionary War and had yet to be paid for their service. They demanded that the government scrape together the funds to pay them for their work, but Congress responded by requesting that the Pennsylvania governor, John Dickinson, call up a different militia to protect their convention.
Whether because he sympathized with the rioters or didn’t trust the local militia to protect the Congress, Dickinson refused. This forced the men to leave the city searching for a new home, sending them to Princeton, New Jersey, and Annapolis, Maryland, before settling for a time in New York. In New York, the Constitution was officially created, establishing the US Congress in 1789. The following year, they passed the Residence Act, which called for a new, permanent capital.
The battle over where to house the government was contentious and could have gone a few different ways. The northern states, which were more influential at the time, wanted the capital city in their vicinity. But,
Alexander Hamilton saw the capital’s placement as a political bargaining chip and crafted a deal to benefit all parties. They would build the country’s political epicenter further south if the southern states agreed to take on some of the debt from the Revolutionary War.
Settling on an empty tract of marshland along the Potomac River, a French-American engineer named Pierre L’Enfant designed the future capital city, placing the Congress House near its center. At this point, Thomas Jefferson stepped in to contribute what would become the structure’s most confusing legacy. Instead of the Congress House, he proposed naming it the Capitol, spelled with an “O” instead of an “A.” This referenced a Temple to Jupiter on Capitoline Hill in Rome. This decision, which has confused Americans for centuries, was mostly based on the belief that, like Ancient Rome and Athens, the American capital would serve as the modern center for global democracy.
Design and Construction
When L’Enfant was first chosen to outline Federal City, he was tentatively given the job of designing the Capitol. However, while his layout for Washington was used, his blueprints for the building were never put to use. In fact, he never actually created blueprints, claiming to have all the ideas “in his head.” So, L’Enfant was removed as the architect, and Thomas Jefferson organized a design competition.
At the time, architectural talent was lacking in the US, especially for structures of the size and scale they were looking for. The most promising entry was by a French-American named Stephen Hallet, but his design was rejected for looking “too French.” Instead, Hallet was kept on the sidelines as a potential contributor. After the competition ended, an amateur architect named William Thornton submitted a blueprint influenced by the Louvre’s eastern front, including a small dome. Washington praised the design for its “grandeur, simplicity, and beauty,” officially approving it in 1793 on the condition that Thornton worked with Hallet and others to fix a few key issues.
Work commenced shortly thereafter, with the laying of the first foundation stone on September 18th, 1793. The occasion was marked in typical early-American fashion, with George Washington and eight others dressing up in full masonic regalia to place the stone in a traditional Freemason ceremony.
As work proceeded, the five-man team of designers butt heads amongst themselves and others, sometimes with Washington, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers. In fact, Hallet, the Frenchman whose design was rejected, was quickly fired from his position overseeing construction for attempting to implement his initial plan. A man named George Hadfield would take on Hallet’s role but would also vacate the position within three years for disagreements with Thorton and other key figures.
While we now know the key contributors in designing and overseeing the project, there’s little historical reference to the people who actually built it. In retrospect, it seems clear that the majority of the workforce would have been southern slaves. As renovations continued throughout the next several decades, slave labor was almost exclusively. It seems overwhelmingly obvious that it would have also been used in the initial construction, though some historians refute this claim, perhaps to avoid the moral dilemma.
In 1800 the building’s Northern Wing was completed, hosting both the House and the Senate in the government’s first official session in Washington on November 17th of that year. The north section became the permanent Senate Chamber, while the southern wing, completed in 1811, would serve as the House Chamber.
Reconstruction and Renovation
With construction nearly complete by 1811, the building was fully operational. However, that would change in 1812, with the onset of war between the United States and Britain. The War of 1812 was fought throughout North America and culminated in the capture of Washington in 1814 by British troops, who set fire to the US Capitol and the White House. Observers claimed that the building would have burnt to the ground if not for a sudden rainstorm that contained the fire. The building was seriously damaged, though, rendering it unusable for five years, while a new set of architects and slave laborers rebuilt the structure.
This reconstruction gave way to renovation, which continued for the following decades. Records from this period are much more precise than those from earlier and give us a complete picture of the building. At ground level, its length was 107 meters, and its width was 86 meters. Up to the year 1827, the project cost was 2.4 million dollars, or about 63 million today. The significant improvements throughout the early 19th century included running water and gas-powered lighting.
The next substantial change would begin in the 1850s, as America’s territorial expansion meant that the number of Senators and House Representatives ballooned dramatically. A man named Thomas Walter was chosen to design two new wings to accommodate the expanding Congress. These sections, most of which still stand today, double the Capitol’s length. Following their completion, though, it became clear that the building’s current dome, completed in 1818, looked a bit small for the rest of the building. So, Walter built a new one. His work would more than triple the original cupola’s height, placing the building around 88 meters tall. He employed a “double-dome” design, where a smaller edifice with a 30-meter diameter sat within a larger exterior structure. Altogether, the dome weighed in at well over 4 million kilograms. For the cherry on top, a massive 7,000-kilogram sculpture called the “Statue of Freedom” was placed at the building’s apex.
Following this project, the Capitol’s east front was expanded to match the rest of the building’s vast dimensions, giving it the size, shape, and facade that we know today. Since then, the building has been subject to countless smaller renovations, which changed the interior layout or fixed structural weak points.
The Capitol has been hailed as America’s preeminent neoclassical building, drawing comparisons to Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Vatican’s Saint Peter’s Basilica. It draws on the classical architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, nodding at America’s place alongside those societies for their advancement of democracy and government.
Interior and Other Structures
Like the exterior, the Capitol’s interior is marked most prominently by the dome and the rotunda sitting beneath it. The defining feature is a large painting called The Apotheosis of Washington, considered the first attempt at the founding father’s deification. Aside from the rotunda, the building includes the two older, smaller wings and the two larger sections, which now host the House and Senate. Both these chambers have raised galleries where visitors can sit and watch Congress in session.
The Senate room reflects that chamber’s smaller size than the House— the Senate has 100 voting members while the House has 435. The House chamber is large enough to hold both branches of Congress and other politicians during the President’s annual State of the Union address. Congresspeople have offices spread throughout the building, as does the Vice President, who is the President of the Senate.
Aside from its political function, though, the Capitol has long been an exhibit of classic American art. The Apotheosis of Washington may be the most famous of these works, but it’s not exactly the grandest. That title would likely go to the Frieze of American History, a massive fresco-cycle painting depicting 19 scenes from American history. The enormous work required contributions from four different artists, spanning from 1878 to 1953.
The Capitol is also home to the National Statuary Hall Collection, comprising two statues from each of the fifty states depicting a notable person from that territory. The largest is a bronze sculpture of King Kamehameha donated by Hawaii in 1959, which weighs in at 6,800 kg (15,000 pounds).
Beneath the building is a discreet complex of tunnels and balustrades. A small subway system connects the Capitol to a few other government buildings so that politicians can move quickly and easily between buildings. The underground portion also includes a crypt, which was initially meant to hold George Washington’s corpse. However, Washington requested instead to be buried at Mount Vernon, his estate in Virginia.
The Capitol sits on just over a square kilometer of land, mostly dedicated to lawns, walkways, streets, and planting areas. The most recent addition to the complex is the US Capitol Visitors Center, which rings in at about 54,000 square meters, making it about three-quarters the size of the Capitol itself. The structure sits entirely underground to preserve the Capitol’s aesthetic dominance. It houses theaters, exhibits on US history, and other features meant to enhance the experience of the 3 to 5 million people who visit each year.
As an icon of the American government and the workplace to the country’s most prominent politicians, the Capitol has been the location for many notable historical events. For example, the first-ever attempt to assassinate a sitting US President took place just outside the Capitol’s walls in 1835. Andrew Jackson left the building following a funeral when a man named Richard Lawrence jumped in front of the President, brandishing a pistol. The man pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired, and Lawrence was apprehended.
Throughout the 20th-century, the Capitol was a common target for terrorist attacks. Radicals have detonated explosives within the building on three occasions, in 1915, ’71, and ’83, though no one was harmed in any instance.
There have been three shootings in the building, including one in 1998, when two Capitol police, Jacob Chestnut and John Gibson, were killed on duty. In ’54, a group of Puerto Rican nationalists infiltrated the gallery above the House chamber and fired pistols into the crowd of congresspeople. Five representatives were shot, but all recovered fully. The most recent shooting was in 2016, though the lone shooter was apprehended before harming anyone.
Of course, the most recent significant occurrence was on January 6th, 2021. A mob of rioters stormed the Capitol building during the counting of electoral college votes for the 2020 election. Then Vice President Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were among the most prominent politicians evacuated. The mob infiltrated both Congress chambers, and several people were killed in the process. The violent actions were mostly repudiated by politicians on both sides of the spectrum as illegal and un-American.
Of course, the Capitol isn’t only a site for terrorist attacks and violent mobs. It’s also where the President is inaugurated every four years. For these ceremonies, the building is outfitted with a grand staircase and a platform for speakers. Finally, the nation’s most beloved politicians, justices, and other important figures are given the honor of “lying in state,” where their casket is displayed in the Capitol beneath an American flag. The most recent people to lie in state were Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, civil rights leader John Lewis, and Officer Brian Sicknick, who was killed during the events of January 6th.
The Capitol stands as a compelling reflection of America’s complicated history, a country whose Founding Fathers were well-aware of the legacy they hoped to leave. In the worst of times, it’s a reminder of America’s division and the slaves who built it. In the best, it’s a monumental statement about America’s grand political ambition.