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Monumental Capitol Hill

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George Washington and Thomas Jefferson regarded the Capitol as the most important architectural component in the design of the federal city. In his first report to Washington, dated 26 March 1791, Pierre Charles L'Enfant wrote that the public buildings should be placed on eminences so that they held commanding views and “might be seen From Twenty mile off.” In a letter to Washington on 28 June accompanying the first map he submitted to the president, he explained the basic principles that guided him in the general design of the city and in the selection of sites for public buildings. Reciprocal vistas linked to existing landscape conditions were a fundamental design consideration. He placed the Capitol (Congress House) on the west end of Jenkin's Hill, “which stand as a pedestal waiting for a monument.” In 1813 L'Enfant recalled that he and an “eminent Italian sculptor” planned to place a sculpture group at the foot of Capitol Hill entitled Liberty Hailing Nature out of its Slumbers. This expressed L'Enfant's view of the meaning of the federal capital: liberty, in the form of the unique American system of government, was to create a major metropolis, the center of a “vast empire,” out of a virtual wilderness. The building where the representatives of the people met embodied this concept of liberty. 29

L'Enfant's Capitol, the plan of which has been obliterated from the only surviving manuscript map of the city attributed to L'Enfant, is depicted on later engravings. They show a disproportionately large building, probably a function of the small size of the original engraved plate, but its size may have been a bold refutation of skeptics in Philadelphia and New York who opposed the creation of the federal city. The most salient feature of L'Enfant's Capitol was a vast circular room projecting from the west front. This space was probably the “conference room,” a space large enough to hold joint sessions of Congress, an essential part of the building program as outlined in the competition guidelines drafted by Jefferson. The conference room, like the House of Representatives, was to accommodate 300 people, the Senate chamber to cover 1,200 square feet. All three of these rooms, with their lobbies and antechambers, were to be double-storied, while twelve 600-square-foot offices would be of one story. No provision was made for the Supreme Court, as the Capitol was not originally intended to house the judiciary. Jefferson expressed his preferences for the Capitol in a letter to L'Enfant of 10 April 1791. He hoped the building would be based on “some one of the models of antiquity which have the approbation of thousands of years.” 30

The complicated history of the competition and construction of the Capitol until 1800 can be given here only in outline. Competition designs were due on 15 July 1792. Having received a letter from the physician and amateur architect William Thornton announcing his intentions to submit a design, Washington and Jefferson did not award the commission at this time. Rather they retained the services of Stephen Sulpice Hallet, whose design was the most sophisticated and professional of the competition entries. His surviving plan shows that Hallet proposed a peripteral temple, on the model of Jefferson and Charles Clérisseau's 1784 design for the Virginia State Capitol, the first monumental building in the modern world to exploit an ancient temple as a prototype. During the next several months both Thornton and Hallet submitted designs for approval by Washington and Jefferson. Thornton's were refinements of his original submission, which had derived from eighteenth-century English Georgian mansions. Hallet's designs underwent a similar process, but he began with a seventeenth-century French chateau. Both arrived at a compact horizontal block with a large circular conference room projecting to the west, probably guided to this resolution by Washington and Jefferson. Thornton's plan was preferred, and on 5 April, he was awarded the $500 first prize and a gold medal. Hallet received the second prize of equal value, but as he was a professional architect, he was hired to build Thornton's design.

Thornton's lost original plan was unique and highly irregular in that it apparently called for two domed spaces on the same structure, both based on that of the Roman Pantheon. The one facing the Mall contained a conference room (as in L'Enfant's plan); by 1797 Thornton had designed a high colonnaded dome above it to serve as a monument to George Washington. Thornton's House of Representatives, located in the south wing, set an elliptical colonnade in a two-story rectangular room. His Senate chamber, in the north wing, was a semicircular room facing east. A disproportionate amount of floor space on both levels was given to corridors and grand staircases, particularly an oval staircase in the center of the north wing.

Hallet was dismissed in June 1794, when he was discovered to be laying the foundations for his own design for the central area rather than Thornton's. The English architect George Hadfield, winner of the Royal Academy gold medal in 1784, was placed in charge of the Capitol until 1798, when he also was discharged. He remained in Washington until his death in 1826, however, designing many beautiful buildings, most of which have been destroyed or thoroughly altered. The only part of the Capitol that unquestionably reflects his tenure is the exterior guilloche belt course. James Hoban, whose successful supervision of the White House was nearing completion, was put in charge of finishing the north, or Senate, wing of the Capitol in time for the reception of Congress in 1800.

Plan for the east elevation of the Capitol, by William Thornton.

Plan for the principal story of the Captiol, by William Thornton.

Construction did not resume until 1803, when Jefferson, at that time president, hired Benjamin Henry Latrobe to carry the original Thornton design to completion. Latrobe was given a series of plans by various individuals (including Thornton), all purporting to be the original design of the Capitol, each of which differed in detail from the others. After a close study of the documents Latrobe concluded that both the original design and the existing fabric were faulty, necessitating rebuilding the interiors of the extant north wing and redesigning the south wing and central section of Thornton's design. His scheme for completing the building according to a more realizable scheme was to have a single, low, saucer dome covering a central rotunda. He redesigned the elliptical House of Representatives chamber to be two semicircles joined by a rectangle in order to be more easily constructed. Contrary to his own judgment, he accommodated Jefferson's wish for a room domed with long narrow skylights set between vertical wooden ribs. Jefferson had seen such a dome on the recently completed Halle au Blé in Paris while there as the American minister in the 1780s. On the exterior facade, Latrobe redesigned both the east and west porticoes in order to link the north and south wings visually and physically and thus to diminish the importance of Thornton's walls, which he disliked. On the east, Latrobe placed an octastyle portico before a wide screen of columns, the whole approached by a monumental staircase with a carriage drive passing beneath it. On the west an octastyle, unpedimented portico with columns set in antis spanned the entire central section of the building, as did that of the east portico.

Latrobe's Capitol was carried forward in two building campaigns, the first lasting until his tenure was interrupted by the War of 1812. During the first campaign he built the Supreme Court chamber, rebuilt the Senate chamber, and erected the House wing. The Capitol was partially burned by British troops in August 1814; the House chamber and Library of Congress were destroyed, the Senate severely damaged, but the Supreme Court survived almost intact. Between 1815 and 1817 Latrobe returned to rebuild the badly damaged building. He made two major changes to his 1806 scheme. The House was redesigned as a semicircular room on the model of Jacques Gondouin's surgery theater at the Medical School (1775) in Paris, the first modern adaptation of an ancient theater for an auditorium. The western wing was extended in order to increase office space and relocate the Library of Congress, which he placed across the width of a new projecting west wing that overlooked the Mall. Upon his departure in 1817, Latrobe left a set of drawings to complete the Capitol, but they were only partially followed.

Charles Bulfinch was hired in 1818 to finish the building. He carried out Latrobe's designs for most of the interiors of the north and south wings and the east portico but substituted his own scheme for the west portico, rotunda, and dome. His final work was to landscape the grounds and to erect gate houses, a fence, and a terrace continuing the ground level of the east plaza along the Capitol's north, west, and south sides. When the Capitol was completed in 1829, office space and the size of the two legislative chambers were already inadequate. In 1845, Robert Mills and the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers both made plans for its extension. Their schemes included lateral wings attached directly to the old building, lateral wings with an intervening hyphen, and replication of the original building on the grounds to the east separated by a courtyard. In 1851, a year after a Senate-sponsored competition, President Millard Fillmore selected Thomas U. Walter's design that extended the Capitol with new lateral wings attached to the original building by hyphens.

Section of the Capitol rotunda, by Charles Bulfinch, c. 1882.

The cornerstone was laid on 4 July 1851 for wings that located the legislative chambers at their western perimeters. After an 1852–1853 congressional investigation of Walter's superintendence of the project, control passed to Montgomery C. Meigs of the Army Corps of Engineers, although Walter retained his position as architect. Meigs moved the chambers into the center of each wing, placing them perpendicular to the long axis of the building, and added sculpture-filled pediments to the east porticoes. The House occupied its new chamber in 1857; the Senators theirs in 1859.

In 1855 Congress had voted to replace the original dome with one of cast iron designed by Walter. Although its construction was temporarily halted by the outbreak of the Civil War, it was advanced enough by 1863 to raise Thomas Crawford's statue of Freedomatop it. By 1865 the extensions and dome of the Capitol were finished except for some of its decoration. The Italian-born and trained Constantino Brumidi had begun to execute his great cycle of fresco paintings in 1855, but it remained unfinished at his death in 1880. The pedimental sculpture of the north, or Senate, wing entitled The Progress of Civilizationwas designed by Thomas Crawford in 1853, while he was resident in Rome; the figures were carved in marble at workshops on the Capitol grounds and put in place in 1863. Paul Wayland Bartlett's pedimental sculpture for the south wing, Apotheosis of Democracy, was unveiled in 1916.

Major renovations of the Capitol in the twentieth century include restoration of the original House and Senate chambers in 1901, redecoration of Walter's House and Senate chambers in 1949–1950 under Architect of the Capitol David Lynn, addition of a 32-foot-deep marble replica of Latrobe and Bulfinch's east facade between 1958 and 1962, and restoration of the original Senate and Supreme Court as museum rooms for the bicentennial in 1975–1976.

In 1874 Frederick Law Olmsted began redesigning the Capitol grounds, whose mature plantings were densely packed, obstructing views of the building. Olmsted's plan replaced the original central walkway on the west with a lawn and created two lateral approaches connected to Pennsylvania and Maryland avenues. On the north and south he opened oblique and side views across expansive lawns and created outdoor rooms walled with specimen trees in the grounds to the east. Curved roadways and walkways connected the grounds to the surrounding city following picturesque principles. In addition to these landscape elements, Olmsted planned new and elaborate stone terracing on the north, west, and south sides of the building, greatly extending Bulfinch's earlier terraces. Architectural features of the terrace, entrance gate posts, and retaining walls were designed by the English architect Thomas Wisedell under Olmsted's supervision and constructed between 1886 and 1892. The double monumental approaches flanking a great arcaded hemicycle mask two basement levels of the center section of the building and provide a broad, stable base to unify the 751-foot west front of the building. In the northwest quadrant of the grounds are Olmsted's rustic stone tower, actually a ventilation shaft (another is located in the southwest quadrant). There, too, is his grotto, planned as a cool retreat and public water fountain, where, in the tradition of grottoes, nature's architecture is shown in conjunction with man-made architecture.

The Library of Congress was located in the Capitol until a separate building was opened in 1897. It was to be an apsed rectangular room across the hall from the Senate chamber and was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe in the Egyptian Revival style, but plans for the facility were only partially implemented. Following the 1814 fire, the library was relocated in the western projecting wing and built following Charles Bulfinch's design. This was the room that housed Thomas Jefferson's private library, some 6,700 volumes purchased by the government for $23,950 after the original library was burned. Its double-story alcoves ranged along both sides of the long, narrow reading room, a common library arrangement. The library room was again a victim of fire in 1851; its successor was designed by Thomas U. Walter in 1853. Erected in cast iron to be fireproof, this, the third Library of Congress, was Renaissance Revival in style and followed the same general spatial organization as the two earlier libraries. In 1900–1901, after the Library of Congress building was completed, the library facility in the Capitol was dismantled and replaced by offices.

A separate library became necessary by 1870 with passage of the copyright law, which required that two copies of each work protected by the law be deposited there. Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Spofford established detailed criteria for the 1873 competition: a stone exterior measuring 340 by 270 feet to house at least 2 million volumes was to focus on a central circular reading room patterned on the British Museum library. Interiors entirely of iron would render the building fireproof. The height of its dome was limited to 70 feet so it would not compete with the Capitol dome. Although it was assumed that the new building would be contiguous to the Capitol, no site was selected prior to the competition.

On 22 December 1873, the newly founded firm of Smithmeyer and Pelz was awarded the $1,500 first prize from among twenty-six entries for its Renaissance Revival design (see CH12). Sen. Timothy O. Howe, a competition judge and chairman of the Joint Committee on the Library, led a congressional junket to numerous European national libraries in 1874. The congressmen later instructed the architects to prepare a larger building with more grandeur; many additional architects, including William Appleton Potter and H. H. Richardson, entered a second competition, held in 1874.

The site for the larger building became an issue. Judiciary Square, the Mall, and Capitol Hill were all suggested. A substantial addition on the west front of the recently completed Capitol was also considered. Between 1874 and 1886 Smithmeyer and Pelz prepared drawings specific to each location, with Italian and French Renaissance designs to the east of the Capitol, Italianate and Romanesque on the site of the present Botanical Garden on the Mall, and Gothic and German Renaissance for Judiciary Square (where the Pension Building was erected in the 1880s). In all cases their designs were predicated on the same plan, a rectangular building organized around a central reading room attached to the exterior envelope by arms containing book stacks. Although the clothing of the exteriors differed dramatically, all the designs maintained the same basic pattern of their 1873 winning design: an imposing central pavilion linked to corner pavilions by curtains that could vary in length depending upon the ultimate scale of the building.

Although professional librarians voiced the opinion that the new national library should be a model of functionalism, John L. Smithmeyer was an outspoken exponent of the library as “a museum of literature, science, and art … the mecca of the young giant Republic.” He viewed the building not simply as the repository of the books containing all human knowledge but also as the visual exposition of “an insight into the colossal array of knowledge which the human mind has accumulated and still gathers together.” 31In 1882 Congress paid Smithmeyer's expenses for a European trip to study national libraries in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Munich, and Vienna (Smithmeyer's native city). This experience reinforced his attitude that the Library of Congress should have three separate systems, one for the storage of books, one for scholars, and one to display for the general public American achievements within the context of world knowledge.

In 1886 Congress approved an 1885 “version” of the winning design to be erected on Capitol Hill. Although Frederick Law Olmsted devised a plan in which the library would be situated on its present two-block site without obstructing the view of the Capitol along Pennsylvania Avenue from the southeast, Smithmeyer insisted on placing his building centrally on the land acquired for it, thus cutting off a major vista in the city. In 1888, Thomas L. Casey of the Army Corps of Engineers took charge of construction. He named as architect his twenty-three-year-old son, Edward P. Casey, who had just graduated from architecture school. Smithmeyer and Pelz sued the government for the fees they had lost, claiming they had devoted a major portion of their careers to providing designs for the library. They never received additional compensation, and Edward P. Casey's name was placed above theirs on the cornerstone as one of the architects.

No further significant development took place on Capitol Hill until the relevant parts of the great Senate Park Commission Plan of 1902 were carried out in the first decade of the twentieth century. This master plan envisaged circumscribing the Capitol grounds with a series of Beaux-Arts-inspired buildings to serve the needs of the legislative and judicial branches, the genesis for the present arrangement of the House and Senate office buildings and the Supreme Court. A crucial feature of the plan was the removal of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station from the edge of the Mall at 6th Street and Constitution Avenue. Washington's new train station was named Union Station because it brought together under one roof all of the railroad companies operating lines to the national capital. Upon acquiring the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad, Alexander Cassatt, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad (and brother of the painter Mary Cassatt), was persuaded by Daniel Burnham (the chief architectural mind behind the Senate Park Commission Plan) to relinquish its prime location on the Mall and move to a site north of the Capitol where Massachusetts Avenue is intersected by Delaware Avenue, Louisiana Avenue, and 1st Street NE. In exchange Congress agreed to provide partial funding for construction of a tunnel necessary to serve all traffic to and from the south. Burnham was chosen as architect of Union Station in 1903; it opened to the public five years later (see CH10). Architects of contemporaneous railroad stations in other major American cities also saw these stations as significant modern building types, symbolic of progress and destined to participate in the transformation of American life. These stations were divided into two distinct parts, the functional train sheds—very wide to accommodate numerous tracks—and the passenger stations, which served simultaneously as symbol and container of the unpredictable movement patterns of the large numbers of people using them.

Burnham connected Union Station to the city through numerous traffic arteries converging on a great semicircular plaza. A rendering of his design, published in 1906, depicts trolley cars, horse-drawn carriages, two automobiles, and numerous pedestrians filling the plaza that Burnham visualized as the focus for a monumental ensemble of public buildings. In 1986 plans to use the corresponding site to the east of Union Station, then a parking lot, for a government office building resulted in Edward Larrabee Barnes's Federal Judiciary Building to house administrative offices of the United States courts (1989–1992). The competition for its design was unusual in that teams of developers and architects working together were asked to submit proposals. Burnham intended connecting Union Station to the Capitol by developing Delaware Avenue NE as a monumental architectural approach. In 1908, when erection of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall was halted temporarily, Burnham suggested placing a seated figure of Lincoln within a huge open colonnade on the Union Station plaza. In 1912, in collaboration with the sculptor Lorado Taft, he designed the Columbus Fountain. During World War I, the adjoining blocks to the south were covered with temporary dormitories for women war workers; these same blocks were landscaped by the Office of the Architect of the Capitol between 1927 and 1932. In 1968 Congress passed legislation transforming Union Station into the National Visitors' Center in anticipation of the millions of tourists expected during the bicentennial year of 1976. The building continued to function as Washington's train station during its occupation by the National Visitors' Center (1976–1985). It continues to serve that function as well as an urban mall, which opened in 1988, designed by Benjamin Thompson Associates.

Two of the six Senate and House office buildings are of great architectural merit. The Russell Senate Office Building (see CH03) and the Cannon House Office Building (see CH02) were the initial steps in implementing the Senate Park Commission's suggestion to circumscribe the Capitol with a frame of classically inspired office buildings. In 1904 the New York firm of Carrère and Hastings agreed to the terms set by Architect of the Capitol, Elliott Woods: the architects would produce designs for the two buildings for a set fee, and Woods's office would produce the working drawings and oversee construction. Carrère and Hastings were the principal exponents of using French, particularly Parisian, prototypes (as opposed to classical Roman models associated with the firm of McKim, Mead and White); Woods selected the firm, even though he was wary of the “excesses” of modern French ornamentation. The problem was to provide buildings of appropriate richness and importance that would not compete visually with the Capitol. The sites of both buildings were identical, irregular rectangles bounded on one side by a diagonal boulevard. This site condition was a major factor in their design, as the architects chose to place the main entrances on the obtuse angles diagonally facing the Capitol, thus emphasizing their relationship to the central object they were to serve. The Cannon Building—whose space needs were greater—was designed around a central courtyard, enclosed on all four sides, while the Russell Building was initially U-shaped, with its fourth side not added until 1931–1933. Construction took place simultaneously on both buildings between 1905 and 1909. Upon completion they became instant classics, models copied elsewhere in the city and around the country.

Before occupying the room Benjamin Henry Latrobe designed for it in the Capitol, the Supreme Court was located in various temporary quarters in the building. The court did not sit in its own specially designed chamber until 1810, only to move four years later when the Capitol was burned by the British. In 1819 the court returned to its ground-floor location on the east front of the north wing where it remained until 1860. In that year the former Senate Chamber on the main floor of the Capitol was remodeled for its use until the present building was completed in 1935. The only external feature of the Capitol to attest to the court's residence therein is Thomas Crawford's sculpture entitled Justice and History (1863), located over the east door of the 1851–1859 Senate wing.

The 1901–1902 Senate Park Commission, in allocating plots on Capitol Hill for future government offices, placed the Supreme Court at the corner of East Capitol and 1st streets NE (see CH08). The building conforms to the trapezoidal site, with the narrow end facing the Capitol. On 25 May 1926, Congress passed the law authorizing acquisition of the site and in November the Public Buildings Commission began proceedings to purchase or condemn the land at an eventual cost of more than $1.75 million. Among those buildings destroyed was Latrobe's Old Brick Capitol, erected for the temporary accommodation of Congress in 1815.

In 1928 the United States Supreme Court Commission was formed, consisting of the chief justice (former President William Howard Taft, who had been its major promoter), an associate justice, congressmen, and the architect of the Capitol. Taft resigned in 1930 and was succeeded by Charles Evans Hughes, who saw the building completed. Taft suggested Cass Gilbert of New York as architect. Surviving sketches dating from as early as November 1927 indicate that Gilbert anticipated his appointment. From a first plan with the building in the center of East Capitol Street until his final design of 1932, Gilbert consistently conceived of the building as a dominant temple form intersecting a lower rectangular mass, thus visually and physically separating the court's main function and symbolic content from its day-to-day operations. Gilbert aligned his raised octastyle porch axially with Walter's east portico of the Capitol's north wing and expanded on Crawford's theme of the interrelationship between justice and history to develop an appropriate and extensive iconographical program.

Gilbert was uncompromisingly Beaux-Arts in his approach to what he may have considered to be the last of the really significant government buildings to be erected in Washington. The opulence of design and materials of the Supreme Court initially seems odd, considering that its building history coincided with the worst years of the Great Depression. It was, however, only one of hundreds of public buildings undertaken by the federal government during the 1930s to help stabilize the American economy. It was erected for nearly $100,000 less than the initial appropriation of $9.74 million.

In 1928 industrialist Henry Clay Folger selected Washington over Chicago, New York, and Stratford-upon-Avon to build a library to house his unparalleled collection of Shakespeareana. The Folger Shakespeare Library (see CH15), conceived as an important research institution, was located on East Capitol Street to be near the Library of Congress. Folger hired Alexander B. Trowbridge, former dean of Cornell University's College of Architecture, to advise him on selecting an architect and to act as his intermediary. Folger's initial preference for the stylistic clothing of his library was Elizabethan. Trowbridge convinced Folger that it was desirable to maintain uniformity of classical forms and principles in Washington's public architecture, particularly for a building close to the Capitol. Folger's desire for an Elizabethan interior, however, was honored.

Trowbridge recommended the French-born and -trained Paul Philippe Cret to Folger as an architect who would design a modern building in a classical spirit free from imitation of specific historical prototypes. Cret's earlier use of low-relief sculpture to convey the purpose of buildings influenced the choice, as Trowbridge had suggested to Folger that sculptural subjects drawn from Shakespeare's plays should ornament the library. Throughout the 1920s, Cret had experimented with ways to maintain the evocative qualities of historically derived architecture yet respond to the European modernist reactions against imitation and repetition. Cret's solution was to simplify his volumes by reducing their number and the complexity of interrelationships and by treating their surfaces in a more planar manner. He also rethought the role of architectural and sculptural decoration. This process of simplification resulted in two masterworks by Cret in Washington, the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Federal Reserve Board Building (see FB08, p. 210). Formal dedication took place on 23 April 1932, the 368th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth.

Tremendous growth in the holdings of the Library of Congress necessitated an annex building three decades after the original building was completed. The law funding the $8 million building was not passed until 1935, seven years after the land acquisition. Architect of the Capitol David Lynn was placed in charge of the project, and his office selected a Washington firm. When Pierson and Wilson, with Alexander B. Trowbridge as consulting architect, designed the annex to the Library of Congress they consciously responded to both the Library of Congress and the diminutive Folger Library that bordered its site. In composition, scale, and organization the annex was allied institutionally and iconographically to the main library building, but in horizontal massing, materials, fenestration patterns, and modernized classical detail the architects hoped to complement Paul Cret's masterpiece without overpowering it. Within these constraints, Pierson and Wilson successfully designed a modernized classical building with exceptional Art Deco details, particularly in the interiors.


Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.

Quoted in Sual K. Padover, ed., Thomas Jefferson and the National Capitol (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1946), p. 59.

John L. Smithmeyer, "The National Library Building—The Proposed Plan," Library Journal6 (1881): 77–81.

Writing Credits

Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee

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