United States Capitol
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HOURS: Mon.-Sat. 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.;
tours Mon.-Sat. 8:50 a.m.-3:20 p.m.;
closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, and Inauguration Day
The majestic dome of the U.S. Capitol dominates the Washington skyline, an enduring symbol of the U.S. government and not unintentionally of democracy and freedom. Rising 288 feet above high ground once known as Jenkins Hill, the Capitol dome—at 4,455 tons, the largest cast-iron dome in the world—and its building are the centerpiece of the 450-acre Capitol Campus, which contains Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress.
Often assumed by visitors to be the White House, the U.S. Capitol is home to the Senate and House of Representatives, which have met here since 1800, with one interruption between 1814 and 1819 (after the British burned the building in the War of 1812) and despite the noted absence of the Confederate States during the Civil War.
Designed over the course of 200 years by at least five architects, the Capitol originally was conceived by physician and amateur architect Dr. William Thornton as a sandstone structure with two wings for the chambers of the bicameral legislature, connected by a round center hall topped with a neoclassical dome.
President George Washington approved the design and laid the building’s cornerstone in 1793. But less than 50 years later, as the country expanded, Congress needed more space. A new design called for doubling the Capitol’s size and encapsulating the facade in marble.
Since the redesign dwarfed the building’s existing classical dome, Architect Thomas U. Walter drafted plans for a larger cast-iron dome. Construction began in 1856, and although funds became tight at the onset of the Civil War in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln insisted the work continue—a move that cemented the dome’s role as a symbol of the republic. “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on,” Lincoln told Army chaplain John Eaton. The exterior was completed in 1863, topped by a 19-foot bronze statue, Freedom, by sculptor Thomas Crawford.
The newest addition to the Capitol was finished in 2008, a 580,000-square-foot Capitol Visitor Center tucked under the historic Capitol’s East Front that serves as a sheltered entrance and exhibit hall for the 3-5 million people who visit the building each year. The visitor center is the jumping-off point for most Capitol tours, which is the only way to view the historic Capitol’s interior.
The highlight of any Capitol visit is the Rotunda, a 96-foot-wide circular hall at the heart of the building that is used largely for ceremonial events. In this grand space, under a ceiling that stretches 180 feet high, 10 U.S. presidents—the most recent being Gerald Ford in 2007—have lain in state, an honor given to senators, representatives, notable military leaders, and a few noteworthy civilians, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and civil rights activist Rosa Parks.
The Rotunda is known for its grand architecture and impressive art, including the fresco masterpiece The Apotheosis of Washington by Italian painter Constantino Brumidi, and eight 12- by 18-foot historical paintings of historic American events such as the much-replicated Declaration of Independence by Connecticut artist John Trumbull, seen on the $2 bill.
Adjacent to the Rotunda is the opulent National Statuary Hall, where nearly all the statues in the complex were crammed until 2008. Each state is allowed to display two statues within the U.S. Capitol. Statuary Hall served as the House of Representatives from 1819 to 1857, but it was never considered adequate for the purpose because its half-domed roof causes echoes throughout the chamber. The design also created what is called a “whispering gallery” in the space: be careful what you say here, because in some locations, a hushed exchange can be heard clearly and audibly at the opposite end of the hall.
During the capital’s slow season (often November through February, excluding a brief period around Christmas and New Year’s) or if a tour group is small, Capitol guides may show off the Old Supreme Court Chamber (which served justices from 1819 to 1860) and the Old Senate Chamber, both richly decorated halls that illustrate the Capitol architects’ design genius and their Bicentennial-era redecorator’s penchant for red drapes.
Of note in the Old Senate Chamber is a porthole portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale and the vice president’s desk, a curved mahogany table topped with a canopy featuring a mahogany valance, gilt eagle, and shield.
Capitol tours take up to an hour. Those interested in the history of the building will want to leave time to explore the Capitol Visitor Center’s exhibit hall, which features models of the capitol and architectural artifacts of the building. To obtain tickets, contact your senator or representative, or book them through www.visitthecapitol.gov.
© Patricia Nevins Kime from Moon Washington DC, 1st Edition