The United States Capitol Building is a world-renowned architectural icon and one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. It is located at 100 Constitution Avenue (MAP) atop Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall. Though not at the geographic center of the Federal District, the Capitol forms the origin point for the District’s street-numbering system and the District’s four quadrants. I’ve ridden both to it and past it hundreds, if not thousands of times, and on this lunchtime bike ride Julius and I rode there again. And although I usually write in this blog about the lesser-known monuments and attractions in D.C., for this last lunchtime bike ride of the year before I take a little time off from work for the holidays, I time I decided to break from tradition and write about the Capitol.
It was Pierre Charles L’Enfant who chose the location within the new capital city for the building in which Congress could meet. Tasked with creating the city plan, he chose what was then known as “Jenkin’s Hill” as the site for the “Congress House”, with a “grand avenue” that would later be named Pennsylvania Avenue connecting it with the “President’s House”, and a public space stretching westward to the Potomac River. That public space is now known as the National Mall. However, in reviewing L’Enfant’s plan, Thomas Jefferson insisted the legislative building be called the “Capitol” rather than “Congress House”.
In the spring of 1792, Jefferson proposed a design competition to solicit designs for the Capitol and the President’s House. A four-month deadline was set, with a prize of five hundred dollars and a lot of land in the new capital city to go to the winner. Of the 17 submitted designs, all of them were turned down. A Scottish doctor named and amateur architect named William Thornton submitted the design which was eventually chosen, although it came in after the deadline for the contest. The following year Thornton was appointed to serve as the first Architect of the Capitol, a position that still exists today.
Thornton’s original design was later modified by the famous British-American architects Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Sr., and then Charles Bulfinch. On September 18, 1793, first President George Washington, along with eight other Freemasons dressed in masonic regalia, laid the cornerstone for the new Capitol Building. The original building was completed in 1800, and Congress met for the first time in the newly-created Capitol in November of that year, approximately 11 months after the death of George Washington. Eventually, the current cast-iron dome was added. A new southern extension for the House of Representatives and the Senate’s new northern wing, designed by Thomas U. Walter and August Schoenborn, were added in the 1850’s, giving us the building we see today.
Like the principal buildings of the executive and judicial branches, the Capitol is built in a distinctive neoclassical style and has a white exterior. Both its east and west elevations are formally referred to as fronts. However, the east side of the Capitol is the only one with level ground for a proper entrance, so it was intended for the reception of visitors and dignitaries. This gives the appearance that the building faces away from the Mall instead of toward it, like most other important buildings and monuments. But the Capitol and the statue on top face toward the east so that it faces toward the people who are entering it.
Books could be written about the complete history of the Capitol, its appearance, and other aspects of the building. But rather than go into that kind of additional detail, I decided to simply provide some of the information I find most interesting about the building that is the seat of the legislative branch of the Federal government and serves as a symbol of American democracy.
- The Capitol covers well over 1.5 million square feet on five separate levels, has 540 rooms, contains approximately 850 doorways, and has 658 windows, with 108 of those windows in the dome alone.
- The Dome is 8,909,200 pounds of cast-iron and was constructed between 1855 and 1866.
- The The building covers a ground area of 175,170 square feet, or about 4 acres, and has a floor area of approximately 16-1/2 acres. Its length, from north to south, is 751 feet 4 inches; its greatest width, including approaches, is 350 feet. Its height above the base line on the east front to the top of the Statue of Freedom is 288 feet.
- There used to be a law that no building in the capital city could be taller than the Capitol. But that law was short lived, and today it is only the fifth-tallest building in D.C. The Capitol is shorter than the Washington Monument, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Old Post Office and the Washington National Cathedral.
- The Capitol has its own subway, which has been there in some variation since 1909, and carries politicians from House and Senate office buildings to the Capitol.
- There are marble bathtubs in the basement of the Capitol where members of Congress would take baths back in the 19th century.
- The Capitol has its own crypt, which is located on the basement floor directly under the Rotunda. It is called that because President George Washington’s body was supposed to be entombed here. They even had holes dug for a viewing chamber where you could walk by and see him. But Washington’s wishes were to be buried at his home on the Potomac River, Mount Vernon.
- A bust of Abraham Lincoln located in the crypt and sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, has only one ear. The ear on the bust was originally supposed to face to the north because the sculptor believed Lincoln listened to Northern views and not those of the South. The ear now faces the South with its placement in the room.
- Directly below the crypt there is a nuclear fallout shelter.
- At any given time, several United States flags fly over the Capitol building and the flags have been flown continuously day and night since World War I. Two flagpoles are located at the base of the Capitol Dome on both the East and the West sides. Two other flagpoles are located above the North Wing (the Senate side) and the South Wing (the House side) and are flown only when the Congress is in session. There are also several additional flagpoles located west of the Dome and are not visible from the ground, these flagpoles are used to meet the congressional requests for flags flown over the Capitol.
- The U.S. Supreme Court also convened in the Capitol Building for 135 years, until moving into its own building in 1935.
- There is a myth that the Capitol is haunted by an evil demon cat. The reason this myth exists is because of mysterious paw prints in the sandstone floor just outside of the former Supreme Court Chamber. They still have not found an explanation for the paw prints.
- The Senate chaplain’s office has a rare oval window and it is one of the very few windows that still opens. It can be seen on the left side of the west front.
- For the first couple of decades, beginning in the fall of 1800 when the Federal government moved to D.C., the Capitol building was used during the administrations of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison for Sunday religious services as well as for governmental functions.
- Today there is still a private, locked chapel that is for the exclusive use of members. According to the architect of the Capitol: “Its only purpose is to provide a quiet place to which individual senators and representatives may withdraw a while to seek divine strength and guidance, both in public affairs and in their own personal concerns.”
I’ve seen the Capitol Building almost every workday for the past thirty years. But I learned new things about it as a result of this bike ride. That’s just one of the reasons I ride. And I look forward to more rides next year. There are currently 435 posts on this blog about different places I’ve been to, events I’ve attended, or other interesting things I’ve seen throughout the city while out and about on my bike. But I have an ever-growing list of more places to which I still want to ride. And that list contains more places than the number places where I’ve already been. So I anticipate that I will continue to be riding not only next year, but for the foreseeable future.
Note: The following historic photos obtained from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Top Left – Historic American Buildings Survey Copy of old photograph East Front of Capitol Dome under Construction, Showing Clairvoyee and Gates. (Library of Congress Call Number: Habs DC,Wash,1–1 .
Top Middle – West front of the United States Capitol, with the new cast-iron dome under construction. In the foregrd. is the Tiber Creek or Washington City Canal and the octagonal greenhouse for the Botanic Garden (Library of Congress Call Number: Lot 12332 [item] [P&P]. Contributor: Montgomery Meigs. Date Created: November 16, 1860.)
Top Right – Construction of Capitol Dome. (Library of Congress Call Number: Lot 12251, p. 49 [P&P]. Contributor: Benjamin Brown French. Date Created: Between 1860 and 1863.)
Bottom Left – Inauguration of Mr. Lincoln,
Photograph shows crowd attending ceremony; construction on dome of U.S. Capitol in background. (Library of Congress Call Number: LOT 12251, p. 41 [P&P]. Contributor: Benjamin Brown French. Date Created: March 4, 1861.
Bottom Middle – Photograph showing Capitol building with scaffolding surrounding Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom atop the dome. (Library of Congress Call Number: Unprocessed in PR 13 CN 1995:149 [item] [P&P], Date Created: between 1860 and 1863.)
Bottom Right – Photograph showing Union soldiers with rifles at attention in front of the Capitol. (Library of Congress Call Number: Lot 12251, p. 55 [P&P]. Contributor: Benjamin Brown French. Date Created: May 13, 1861.)
Note: A complete renovation and restoration of the iconic Capitol dome was just recently completed. In 2014, scaffolding was erected around the Capitol Building’s massive dome for a three-year restoration project, the first major overhaul of the dome in more than half a century. After removing 14 layers of lead paint, applying 1,215 gallons of “Dome White” paint, the fabrication and replacement of exterior ornamentation, repairing deficiencies and over 1,300 different cracks in the cast iron and, finally, removing more than a million pounds of scaffolding, the Architect of the Capitol announced just last month that the restoration effort is officially complete. So the freshly painted and restored Capitol Building and dome will look pristine next month when it serves as the backdrop for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump.
[Click on the photo to view the full-size version]