The United States Capitol, popularly known as the Capitol, located on Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall in Washington, DC, is one of the most important historically important, and architecturally impressive buildings in the nation. Standing proudly as an example of the 19th century neoclassical architecture crowned with a massive dome and a monument to the American people, it has housed the meeting of the House of Representatives in the south wing and the Senate in the north wing for more than two centuries. Situated on a plateau 88 feet above the level of the Potomac River, and covering a massive area of 1.5 million square feet, the magnificent building commands a westward view across the US Capitol Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument 2.25 km (1.4 miles) away and the Lincoln Memorial 3.54 km (2.2 miles) away.
Initially, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who was entrusted with the task of creating the new capital city, chose the site for the Congress House, known in those days as the Jenkin’s Hill. But following his dismissal in February 1792 by George Washington, due to his non-cooperation with the Commissioners of the Federal Buildings, a competition was arranged in the spring of 1792, for the selection of a suitable design for the Capitol. However, all the 17 submitted designs were rejected as they were considered crude and amateurish.
But months after the closure of the design completion, a new design under cover of a letter was submitted on 31 January 1793 by Dr. William Thornton, a physician living in the British West Indies, requesting an opportunity for the late-submission of his design. His design, inspired by the eastern front of the Louvre and the Paris Pantheon for the centre portion of the design, was highly praised by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the then secretary of state, and it was officially approved in a letter dated 5 April 1793, and Thornton was engaged as the first Architect of the Capitol. Subsequently, cornerstone of the historic building was laid by George Washington on 18 September 1793.
However, as Thornton was not a technical man and had no knowledge about building technology, Stephen Hallet, the runner-up in the design competition, was appointed to serve as the superintendent of construction. But he was quickly removed as he tried to impose inappropriate changes of Thornton’s design and was replaced first by George Hadfield and then by James Hoban, the architect of the White House. The north wing of the building was completed first, ready for holding the session of Congress on 17 November 1800, and in the following year, Jefferson became the first president to be inaugurated at the Capitol, which became a traditional ceremony since then.
After that, Benjamin Henry Latrobe was hired as the Surveyor of Public Buildings in 1803, who completed the south wing in 1811, along with the remaining work of the north wing. Although Latrobe meticulously followed the design of Thornton for the exterior, he used his own imagination to decorate the interior. Perhaps his best contribution is the Corinthian-type columns with the capitals depicting the tobacco leaves, symbolizing the nation’s wealth, and the corn cobs, representing the country’s bounty.
Unfortunately, within a short time after the completion of both the wings, the Capitol was ransacked and partially burned by the British troops during the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. Reconstruction began in 1815and was completed in 1819 when the wings were joined and the first copper-sheathed dome was built. However, work continued till 1826 for the addition of the centre section with the front steps, the columned portico, and an interior Rotunda. However, soon it became clear that the Capitol is not sufficiently big to accommodate the growing number of legislators from the newly admitted states, and in 1850 Congress approved a competition to design for the extension of both the wings of the Capitol.
Thomas Ustick Walter, an architect from Philadelphia who won the competition, completed the extension of the south wing in 1857 and the north wing in 1859. However, another major architectural change of the Capitol during the extension project was the replacement of the old dome with a 287 feet (87 m) high cast-iron dome, designed after the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, created by Michelangelo. The majestic dome is equipped with a large oculus in the inner dome, through which The Apotheosis of Washing can be seen, painted on a shell, and suspended from the supporting ribs. Subsequently, the 19.5 feet (6 m) tall bronze statue, created by Thomas Crawford and titled Freedom, was installed on the top of the dome’s crowning cupola on 2 December 1863. The major expansion project in 1958 included a 32.5 feet (10 m) extension of the Eastern Portico, and the original sandstone Corinthian columns were replaced with Georgia marble during the process.
The massive building of the US Capitol contains no less than 540 rooms, 658 windows, inclusive of 108 in the dome alone, and about 850 doorways. Out of the five levels of the building, the first floor is mainly occupied by the different committee rooms and allotted to various congressional officers. However, apart from that, the Hall of Columns, the Brumidi Corridors, or the hallways of the first floor of the Senate side of the Capitol, decorated with the murals created by Constantino Brumidi, the restored Old Supreme Court, and the Crypt beneath the Rotunda, all are accessible to visitors. The second floor contains the Senate in the north wing, the Chambers of the House of Representatives in the south wing, and the offices of the congressional leadership. However, the public areas on the floor include the Rotunda, a semi-circular place under the dome in the centre, and a circular ceremonial space, serving as a gallery of paintings and sculptures of significant people and depicting important events in the nation's history. The semicircular chamber, located south of the Rotunda, served as the Hall of the House until 1857, now designated National Statuary Hall, housing a part of the Capitol's collection of statues donated by each of the fifty states in commemoration of notable persons in their histories. The third floor allows access to the viewer’s galleries from which visitors can watch the proceedings of the House and the Senate when Congress is in session. But the fourth floor, the basement, and the terrace level of the US Capitol are out of reach of the visitors, as occupied by offices, machinery rooms, workshops, and other support areas.
The US Capitol is the centerpiece of the Capitol campus, which includes the principal Congressional office buildings, along with three library of Congress buildings. Apart from being the meeting place of the United States Congress, the US Capitol also serves as a museum of American art and history, visited by around 3’5 million people each year from around the world/