District of Columbia
November 17, 1800 to Present
In 1788, the state of Maryland ceded to Congress "any district in this State, not exceeding ten miles square," and in 1789 the state of Virginia ceded an equivalent amount of land. In accordance with the "Residence Act" passed by Congress in 1790, President Washington in 1791 selected the area that is now the District of Columbia from the land ceded by Maryland (private landowners whose property fell within this area were compensated by a payment of £25 per acre); that ceded by Virginia was not used for the capital and was returned to Virginia in 1846. Also under the provisions of that Act, he selected three Commissioners to survey the site and oversee the design and construction of the capital city and its government buildings. The Commissioners, in turn, selected the French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant to plan the new city of Washington. L'Enfant's plan, which was influenced by the gardens at Versailles, arranged the city's streets and avenues in a grid overlaid with baroque diagonals; the result is a functional and aesthetic whole in which government buildings are balanced against public lawns, gardens, squares, and paths. The Capitol itself was located at the elevated east end of the Mall, on the brow of what was then called Jenkins' Hill. The site was, in L'Enfant's words, "a pedestal waiting for a monument."
A view of the Thorton Capitol of Washington by William Russell Birch (1755-1834) before it was burnt down by the British. Image is from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
The most curious feature of Thornton's design for the Capitol is his treatment or, rather, treatments of the west front of the central block. In plan, it would seem that from the competition period onwards, the central space overlooking the Mall was to be organized as a colonnaded, semi-circular projection behind which was located the grand conference room. The idea of employing a monumental staircase on the west to descend from that portico and the principal story may have occurred to Thornton as early as April 1793. At that time he visited the site and became acquainted with the conference room's problems, it having been fixed below the western crest of Capitol Hill. In any case he enthusiastically suggested the staircase to President Washington two years later, observing that such a feature would give his modified west front "the magnificence of a Roman temple." As long as the conference room remained a part of the design, the west wall of that room overlooked a giant portico. Congressional impatience with the mounting costs and slow pace of construction, however, steadily grew, particularly after 1795, and the design of the central block became increasingly uncertain.
Thornton's idea of placing a high (and apparently light) tempietto-like dome above the conference room seems in part to reflect these changing circumstances as well as the problem posed by the site itself. But the drawings for the west front that survive in the William Thornton collection also reflect a cataclysmic event in the history of the early republic, the death of George Washington in December 1799. Several drawings are closely related to Thornton's sketches for free-standing monuments, most of which could only have been intended as memorials to (if not tombs for) the first president. These west front drawings, unlike others that have been lost and a surviving perspective sketch dated 1800 in the White House collection (which probably should be attributed to Thornton), appear to substitute a memorial or mausoleum to replace the conference room. The semicircular west wall was made solid and given decoration consistent with such a monument rather than a working legislative chamber. Thornton's papers contain no description of this radical change, or alternative design, for the central block of the west front. For these reasons, and because of his ideas of good taste in architecture, it is doubtful, in spite of the appearance presented by two surviving elevations drawings, that Thornton--or more significantly, any of those in government who had responsibility for the building--ever seriously advocated the idea of constructing two domes atop the Capitol's central section.
The shifting politics of the period does provide a meaningful context for the change from conference room to monument on the Capitol's west front. When Congress convened for the first time in the City of Washington in December 1800, the question of where President Washington was to be buried had not been settled. In early 1800, while still in Philadelphia, members had resolved to bury him in the Capitol, as mandated by Thornton's premiated plan. By the end of the year, however, only the north wing of the Capitol was in a state of readiness. This presented a dilemma that, together with political considerations, gave impetus to the idea of constructing a separate mausoleum. Such a project was sure to siphon off appropriations and further delay completion of the Capitol. These were certainly sufficient reasons for Thornton to attempt to redirect the debate with an alternative design for the west front. In any event, the mausoleum proposal failed to pass the Senate by a single vote in March 1801, and after the inauguration of President Jefferson, the matter of a Washington monument was dropped. Thornton was consulted on design matters relating to the Capitol by President Jefferson and his successors, but after 1802, when the Commissioners of the District of Columbia were abolished, he exerted little influence.
Benjamin Henry Latrobe was hired by President Jefferson in 1803 to fill the position of "Surveyor of Public Buildings," with the principal responsibility of constructing the Capitol’s south wing. He was also responsible for work at the President’s House and the Navy Yard. After the south wing was completed in 1807 Latrobe began reconstructing the interior of the north wing. Construction funds were withheld after 1810, and Latrobe’s public employment came to an end.
At the time, the U.S. Capitol was still being constructed and consisted of only the north and south wings connected by a wooden walkway spanning the area intended for the center building. Damage to parts of the wings was severe, but the building was not completely destroyed. Fortunately, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe had used fire-proof building materials, such as sheet iron, marble, sandstone, zinc and copper. His extensive use of masonry vaulting also proved to be practical as well as aesthetic. As a result, the exterior structure survived and many of the interior spaces remained intact.
The British focused their destructive work on the principal rooms, foregoing the lobbies, halls and staircases, thus securing their escape route. In the south wing, soldiers ignited a giant bonfire of furniture slathered with gunpowder paste in the Hall of the House of Representatives (now National Statuary Hall). The heat from the fire grew so intense that it melted the glass skylights and destroyed much of the carved stone in the room, including Guiseppe Franzoni’s life-size marble statue of Liberty seated on a pedestal, located above the Speaker's rostrum. Downstairs, the Clerk's office was transformed into an inferno of burning documents and furniture; this fire produced a heat so great it forced the British to retreat from the south wing, leaving half of the rooms on the first floor unscathed.
The Thorton Capitol after burning by the British, by George Munger, 1814
In the Supreme Court Chamber, on the first floor of the north wing, troops piled furniture from nearby rooms to create another great bonfire, severely damaging the Doric stone columns. Upstairs, a large room that then housed the Library of Congress' collection of over 3,000 books served as a ready stockpile of fuel. The space burned so fiercely that it endangered a portion of the exterior stone wall. From the library, winds spread the flames to the Senate Chamber, where the damage to the art and architecture was also severe. Upon seeing the flames of the Capitol from his temporary residence at the Octagon House, French minister Louis Sérurier remarked, “I have never beheld a spectacle more terrible and at the same time more magnificent.”
Today, to see the sandstone areas of the building that survived the fire, make your way to the Small House Rotunda on the second floor of the Capitol and look at Latrobe’s variation on the Corinthian columns adorned with water leaves, installed in 1807. Then, head across the Rotunda and down the stairs to the east vestibule on the first floor of the north wing, where the architect's "corn cob" columns still stand. It was through the original door of this domed vestibule that the British fled the burning building into the night. After members of Congress returned to the city and saw the damage, a number called for the movement of the federal government to Philadelphia or another more established, more metropolitan city. While the option to rebuild proved more popular, one wonders, if the destruction of the Capitol and other buildings had been complete, would those who advocated relocation have prevailed? - Architect of the U.S. Capitol
|Brick Capitol, photograph by Matthew Brady, Circa 1865|
The earliest known photographic image of the U.S. Capitol, taken in 1846. credit: Library of Congress; photo by John Plumbe.
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