July 1, 2002
-- When the forefathers of the United States devised a home for their fledgling government, a few necessities were imagined. Included among those first buildings, the Capitol would provide shelter for the leaders who gathered to represent citizens from across the breadth of the nation. Today, it stands in the same location selected by city planners over 200 years ago.
But besides serving as home to the legislative branch of the government, the Capitol Building might reasonably be expected to serve as some sort of historical or political metaphor for the country itself. After all, it houses those elected federal leaders who most closely mirror the larger nation that surrounds the District of Columbia. And though the history of the building is hardly without incident, its design has remained largely the same, centered around one distinguishing feature: the Capitol Dome.
For Morning Edition
, Kitty Eisele reports that the Capitol was, from its very inception, imagined as a monument to the form of government it would house. As part of Present at the Creation
, NPR's series on American icons, she explores the history of the dome that crowns the building and gives us one of our most enduring symbols of democracy.
Construction on the Capitol began in 1793, following the open contest suggested by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. None of the 17 original submissions proved satisfactory, but after the deadline had passed, one final design was proposed, this one by amateur architect William Thornton.
Thornton's design, which consisted of two wings -- one for each house of Congress -- on either side of a Neo-classical dome, immediately caught the eye of George Washington. He formally approved the plan on July 25, 1793, thinking it could be completed by 1800.
This estimate proved overly optimistic, however, with construction outlasting the first decade of the 19th century, as well as multiple architects. And while the wings of the building were nearing completion in the early 1810s, the dome was still nowhere to be seen, and funds were being channeled away from construction toward the imminent war with Great Britain.
As it turned out, construction wasn't just halted by the War of 1812: it was reversed. The British set fire to the still incomplete Capitol on Aug. 24, 1814.
The building wasn't completely destroyed, but in its reconstruction, many modifications were made to the original design. By the time the dome was started in 1818, a new architect, Charles Bulfinch, had control of the reins. Bulfinch wanted to make the dome bigger, and came up with two new designs to present to President James Monroe. One was his favored rendering, and another included a massive wooden dome sheathed in copper that he felt was ugly enough to make his preferred model look modest by comparison.
Unfortunately for Bulfinch, Monroe approved the more garish of the two proposals, and the copper dome was finished in 1824. It was met with almost unanimous disapproval.
"No one liked it," says Bill Allen, the Capitol's architectural historian. "They thought it looked like a helmet. Everyone just thought it was an ungainly, odd-looking roof over the rotunda."
By the 1850s, Congress had outgrown its quarters, and plans to triple the size of the building were put into motion. Taking advantage of both the opportunity to revise the less-than-favored dome and the technical innovations of the previous 30 years, new architect Thomas Walter came up with a new dome, along with extensions to the building.
Walter proposed the use of cast iron, a fireproof material that would allow the dome to be built higher at a lower cost. In 1856, the old dome was removed, its wood used as fuel for a steam engine in the new construction.
War broke out again in 1861, but this time it was internal. Again, the Capitol was unfinished, but instead of putting off all work, construction on the dome was pushed forward. Senate Curator Diane Skvarla says that the reason was practical: all the cast iron left on the grounds would rust if not put to use. However, with the country in upheaval, President Abraham Lincoln found himself face to face with a useful metaphor.
"Here was this dome, it was being forged out of the union. The union was going to stand preserved just as the dome was continuing," Skvarla says. "He just saw this great opportunity to use this metaphor to really bring the country together."
The dome finally reached completion in December 1863, topped off with a 19-foot classical bronze statue of a woman called "Freedom."
Today, visits to the Capitol are limited to guided tours due to increased security stemming from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the outside is getting a much-needed facelift. "Freedom," which has served as a literal lighting rod atop a building that has seen many metaphorical ones, is currently undergoing restorations.
Listen to a Jan. 6, 1999, report by All Things Considered
's Noah Adams on the the history of the Senate and Capitol
during the Clinton impeachment crisis.
Listen to a June 7, 2002, report on All Things Considered
about a spoof in The Onion
newspaper that Congress was threatening to move out of Washington unless a new Capitol building was built
Read a Present at the Creation
presentation on another Washington, D.C., landmark, the Lincoln Memorial
Learn more about the Capitol dome
at the Architect of the Capitol Web site.
Read about the rehabilitation of the dome
Visit a Library of Congress
exhibit on the Capitol.
Review the history of the Capitol's construction
Read about the dome's crowning feature, the Statue of Freedom
View details of The Apotheosis of Washington
, which has Capitol visitors craning their necks.
Take a virtual tour
of the Capitol.
Visit an online exhibit
at the U.S. Capitol
Learn about plans for a Capitol Visitor Center