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Thursday, April 25, 2013

The U.S. Capitol

Capitol reflections at sunset.
In studying famous architectural landmarks, I've always been as much fascinated by what was and what might have been as by what is. In no case has this been more the case than in looking at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. This magnificent, stately, sprawling, domed structure has not always been so magnificent, so stately, or all the other adjectives incorporated above. Like the nation it represents, colonial architect William Thornton's original drawings for the Capitol bear only slight resemblance to what we see today. However, they're far more familiar than a proposal by a James Diamond (influenced by Thomas Jefferson). His design was for a modest, two-story building crowned by an equally modest Florentine ribbed dome (topped by what appears to be a rather immodest "chicken"). The design featured a ground-floor arcade of decidedly Spanish influence. There were ten other designs submitted hoping to win the $500 prize, and this was one of the better ones.

Capitol design by James Diamond--love the bird on top.
Dismayed at the lack of architectural talent among colonial architects, Jefferson (an architectural critic, if not an actual architect himself) approached his friend, William Thornton, to submit a design, which he did, and with which he won the prize (you might say the contest was fixed). He became the first of a long line of Capitol architects, which later included Benjamin Latrobe, Charles Bullfinch, Thomas U. Walter, and August Schoenborn (the latter two far more responsible for what we see today than any of the others). Latrobe came on board after the British burned the Capitol, while Bullfinch was responsible for the original dome. Walter and Schoenborn designed the current north and south wings as well as the present dome.

The U.S. Capitol, Spring, 1814 (computer recreation)
George Munger's 1814 painting of the aftermath of the British invasion.
When the British set fire to the place in 1814, the central section, not to mention the dome, did not yet exist. Connecting the sandstone House and Senate chambers was a wooden, two-story covered passage (upper image). Fortunately, as George Munger's painting (above)suggests, sandstone is relatively fireproof, so in the process of rebuilding, the Bullfinch designed and completed the rotunda with a rather unimpressive flat dome which served its purpose up until the Civil War era when the current structure took shape.  President Lincoln insisted the work go, on despite the war, as a symbol that the union would endure.

An early distant view of the Capitol by August Kollner dates from 1839 and illustrates the
"simplicity" of Bullfinch's dome.
When the Capitol sprouted wings after the Civil War, Bullfinch's dome was seen as ridiculously ineffectual from a design standpoint. So, a cast iron version on a masonry, colonnaded drum took it's place. Of course the whole east front of the building had to be rebuilt in 1904 to help support it's massive eight-million pound weight. Then in 1958, a whole new east front was built some 35 feet in front of the old to correct a poor visual impression. This time they used marble, instead of sandstone. The Capitol remained largely unchanged from then until June of 2000 when a 580,000 square foot underground visitor center was created beneath the east plaza of the Capitol, as much out of security concerns as for the comfort and edification of visitors, following a 1998 shooting incident on the ground floor of the Capitol in which two Capitol police were killed.

Cutaway drawings of Thomas Waller's
19th century Capitol dome give some insight
into both the complexity of the construction
project and why the east front of the building
had to be rebuilt...twice (1904 & 1958)
Architecturally, despite it's humble beginnings, the Capitol is an ongoing tribute to skill and good tastes of a long line of designers, architects, and engineers over more than 200 years. In it we can see the influence of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome and St. Paul's Cathedral in London. In return, a number of state capitol buildings since the Civil War bear a striking resemblance to the U.S. Capitol.

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