The US Capitol, one of best-known symbols of democracy, has been the center of America’s legislative process for 200 years. A fine example of Neo-Classical architecture, its interior contains frescoes, murals, and statuary influenced by ancient Greek and Roman designs. George Washington laid the foundation stone in 1793, and by 1800, although unfinished, the Capitol was occupied. Construction resumed under architect Benjamin Latrobe, but the British burned the building in the War of 1812. Restoration began in 1815. Many features, such as Brumidi’s murals and the Statue of Freedom, were added later.
By the 1850s, the original dome was too small for the enlarged Capitol. Moreover, it leaked and was deemed a fire hazard. In 1854, $ 100,000 was appropriated for architect Thomas U. Walter’s new dome, which was constructed of cast iron. Walter’s double-dome design recalls the Pantheon in Paris. Sculptor Thomas Crawford created a 19.5-ft (6-m) high bronze to crown the dome, and in 1863, during the American Civil War (1861-5), the Statue of Freedom — a Classical female figure standing on a globe with the national motto, E Pluribus Unum (Out of many, one) — was raised atop the 287-ft (87.5-m) high dome.
THE ROTUNDA FRIEZE
Thomas U. Walter’s 1859 drawings showed a recessed, bas-relief sculpture in the Rotunda. The plan changed, and by 1877, a fresco 8 ft 4 in (2.5 m) high and 300 ft (91 m) in circumference was being painted. The Frieze of American History has 19 panels, which begin over the west door and move clockwise around the Rotunda. The first panel is the only one to contain allegorical figures, with female personifications of America and History. The rest recount major events in US history, including Columbus’s landing, the colonization of New England, the Declaration of Independence, the discovery of gold in California, and the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903.
In 1864, Congress invited each US state to contribute two statues of notable citizens to stand in the National Statuary Hall. Soon, the collection grew too large, and much of it can now be seen in the Hall of Columns and in the various corridors of the Capitol. Statues of former US presidents Washington, Jackson, Garfield, and Eisenhower can be seen in the Rotunda. In the Statuary Hall are statues of General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis; King Kamehameha I, unifier of Hawaii; Robert Fulton, inventor of the first commercially successful steamboat; Huey P. Long, Depression-era demagogue; Sam Houston, president of the Republic of Texas; and Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee alphabet.
Hall of Columns
This is lined with statues of notable Americans.
Completed in 1865, the 180-ft (55-m) high Rotunda is capped by The Apotheosis of Washington, a fresco by Constantino Brumidi.
Originally made of wood and copper, the 1854 dome was designed by Thomas U. Walter.
This has been home of the US Senate since 1859.
These are lined with frescoes, bronzework, and paintings by the Italian-American artist Constantino Brumidi (1805-80).
View of the US Capitol
The US Capitol marks the precise center of Washington and the city’s four quadrants radiate out from the middle of the building.
Old Senate Chamber
Occupied by the Senate until1859, this chamber was then home to the Supreme Court for 75 years. It is used mainly as a museum space today.
Created by Randolph Rogers (1825-92), these doors are made of solid bronze and depict Christopher Columbus’s life and his discovery of America – a theme echoed throughout the works of art in the Capitol.
National Statuary Hall
This 95-ft (29-m) long and 60-ft (18-m) high hall was designed to resemble an ancient Greek theater. It is topped by a magnificently painted dome.
Carved on the pediment are striking Classical female representations of America. These are flanked by figures of Justice and Hope.
The 40 Doric columns of the circular crypt support the Rotunda and the enormous 9-ton iron dome. Completed in 1827 under architect Charles Bulfinch (1763- 1844), the central rose denotes the city’s division into quadrants.
1791-92: The site is chosen for a new national capital; the city of Washington, D.C., is designed and mapped.
1829: The original Capitol building is completed, after work by three successive architects.
1851: The foundation stones are laid for new wings, which are built by Thomas U. Walter.
1983-93: The west front and west terrace are restored.