Our Nation's Capitol

the Capitol Building

If you are like me you always wondered how do we know to spell our nation’s Capitol with an “o” and yet when we speak about Washington, DC, we say it is our country’s capital.  I read an interesting article about how to know which to use – the “o” or the “a”.  If you are referring to the building – think of the round dome – then you know you spell it with an “o”. Otherwise, when you are speaking about the location you use an “a”.  This is a great assistance to a teacher who must write it on the board and every time we see it, we wonder – Did we write it correctly?  Now you know how to figure this out.
Where we met our tour guide - the Visitor's Center

Now, back to the information today – Our Nation’s Capitol.  Did you know before Washington, DC was decided upon as the capital, our government met in 8 different cities? Congress met in Philadelphia, Annapolis, Baltimore, Lancaster, York, Princeton, Trenton, and even New York City. Imagine the difficulty the men had traveling to different cities during those early years when Congress needed to meet and decide upon laws and other legislation. In 1783, Congress decided to stop all this unnecessary traveling about and pick one location to meet from then on.  In the first Article of the Constitution, Congress was given the power to govern the decided upon location and, after Maryland and Virginia gave up land for the location, Washington, DC came into being.  We all know it was named after George Washington, our first president and Christopher Columbus who was responsible for bringing the first people to the Americas.

Today, September 18, 1793, George Washington laid the foundation stone of the famous building we all recognize as our nation’s capitol building. Washington helped chose the commissioners for the job, who then hired the French engineer, Charles L’Enfant to design the city.  He chose Jenkins’ Hill as the site of Congress’ new home because he said the site was “a pedestal waiting for a monument”.  Unfortunately, he would not give Congress any pictures of his designs so he was dismissed.  Thomas Jefferson held a competition and offered $500 to the winning design.   None of the plans submitted were liked, which proved the men knew what they wanted but obviously the designers did not.  Finally Dr. William Thornton, a Scottish physician asked if he could send in his plan and the commission agreed.  WOW!  They liked it! His design had three sections – a central section with a dome and two side sections – north and south – one for the Senate and one for the Representatives. On April 5, 1793 the plan was approved.  Finally, the men would have a central location to meet and discuss the laws of the land.

Walls of the Rotunda - friezes and pictures

Native Americans

Three architects were chosen, but only one saw the first phase completed because the other two kept changing the designs. The actual building was made of sandstone which had to be shipped from quarries in Virginia, the workers had to leave their homes and there was little money because we were a new country with little funds.  In 1796, only part of the building was finished.  So here it was three years later and only a small portion was done, but at least the men had a place to meet. More money needed to be allocated or the building could not be completed.  Finally in 1803, Congress agreed to set aside funds to finish the construction.  Just imagine – this was 10 years later!  Just what were our senators and representatives doing all this time? Where were they meeting?

plaque where Lincoln's desk sat

Henry Latrobe was asked to help finish the work. He made some modifications and soon the south wing was completed enough that the House could meet there.  In the meantime, the north wing was falling apart because it was taking so long.  He had to redesign the structure and  make it more suitable for its purposes.  Then along comes the War of 1812 and no more work could be done. Funds were needed to fight the war, so work on the Capitol had to stop.  Latrobe left.  The British set fire to the building on August 24, 1814.  Thank goodness it started to rain or the building would have been completely destroyed.  Latrobe was called back after the war and set to work restoring and continuing his work on the structure.  Unfortunately, he resigned in 1817, unable to complete his project because of numerous construction delays. 

His predecessor was Charles Bulfinch. He worked on the Capitol for nearly ten years. He designed the gardens and landscaping as well as worked on the dome.  If not for the interference of President James Monroe and John Quincy Adams, the dome would not be so high.  It is hard to imagine that the building was not big enough for the all the senators and congressmen from the new states.  Another competition had to be held to design additions to the building for the new men who were coming.  The sandstone used before would not work – it deteriorated so the new architect chose marble. The wings were extended and the old House chamber became the National Statuary Hall.  The Civil War halted construction once more.  The building was used as a barracks for soldiers, a military hospital, and a bakery (hmmm, this sounds interesting, doesn’t it?)  

The dome needed to be fixed and it was replaced by a cast-iron dome. The Statue of Freedom was designed and weighed nearly 15,000 pounds. Thomas Walter, an architect from Philadelphia was the final designer who helped finish all these last parts. And yet, the building was still not completed.  Marble terraces were added.  More than 100 years from the time Washington set the first foundation stone, the Capitol was completed although work continued to be done on it yearly.  Fireproofing was done, roofs had be to fixed, heat had to be piped in, air conditioning and lighting were added and more.  When advances were made in technology, those changes needed to be made in the Capitol. Even today, changes have been made.  In 2008, the Visitor’s Center was added to allow visitors to come and be given tours of this historic building.

See the burns from the War of 1812?

So what are some of cool parts of the Capitol?  All of them!!!

The dome – made of cast iron and built between 1855-1866.

The Dome and the statue of Freedom on top

The Rotunda – it’s the circular room that has famous statues and beautiful fresco paintings.

The Old Supreme Court Chamber – this is where our Supreme Court met from 1810-1860.  It’s a dark room in the shape of a semi-circle.

The Old Supreme Court

Supreme Court Room

The National Statuary Hall (which used to be the Old Hall of the House).  You can see plaques on the floor where men sat – like Abraham Lincoln.  Every state can sent 2 statues of important men from their history to be in the Hall.  This is where Mrs. Hoffman found her relative – Richard Stockton from New Jersey.

Gerald Ford

Thomas Jefferson

William Beadle

Sam Houston


Jefferson Davis

Alexander Hamilton Stephens

Frances E. Willard from Illinois

Ronald Reagan 

Richard Stockton from New Jersey

The Brumidi Corridors – These beautifully designed corridors on the first floor of the Senate bring to mind the halls of Versailles.  The corridors are named for the Italian artist – Constantino Brumidi, who designed the murals and decorated the rooms for 25 years until he died in 1880.

If you want to read a more in-depth history of the Capitol building, go to www.aoc.gov and you will find tons of information as well as an interactive look at the Capitol building.  

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