The United States Capitol, located in Washington, DC, houses the US Congress. Congress is the legislative branch of the federal government whose job is to pass laws and serve as the voice of the people and states within the national government. The history of the Capitol building is richly complex, straddling construction, destruction, reconstruction, expansion, preservation, and security. The Capitol consists of meeting chambers for the Senate and the House of Representatives, respectively, linked by a central domed Great Rotunda. Commissioned in 1792 through the nation’s first architectural competition, construction began in 1793 and was not completed until 1866. Its design has undergone a series of transformations spearheaded by European and American designers, including William Thornton, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Charles Bulfinch, and Thomas Ustick Walter, with important contributions from Stephen Hallet, George Hadfield, James Hoban, Robert Mills, and Montgomery C. Meigs. These changes were prompted by its destruction in 1814 as a result of the British occupation of Washington, DC, and by growth in the country’s size and population, which saw Senate and House of Representative members quadruple in number along with increases in staffing and congressional committee needs requiring additional office and meeting space. The Capitol is situated on a prominent hilltop site in Washington, DC, originally in direct view with the White House, which is the symbolic home of the federal government’s executive branch. Since 1897 monumental civic buildings, including the Library of Congress and Supreme Court (originally housed within the Capitol) as well as a series of office buildings for congressional members and staff linked by underground tunnels, surround the structure. Today the Capitol campus comprises over 570 acres and includes landscaped grounds, the United States Botanic Garden, office buildings, a residence hall for Capitol pages, parking garages, and a power plant. Enshrined within American popular imagination as the “People’s House” or “Temple of Liberty,” the Capitol remains a powerful symbol of unity and national governance. The building and its interiors embody democratic ideals and challenges inherent in American culture, including its construction by enslaved African Americans and the enshrinement of problematic “heroes” through its sculpture and artwork. Recent events in January 2021 have focused renewed attention on the fragility of the Capitol as a symbol of national consensus. Despite its air of timelessness, changes continue to be made to the building and, much like America, the Capitol remains a work in progress.
The best recent studies of the architectural development of the Capitol are Allen 2005, Reed 2005, and Scott and Lee 1993. These should be supplemented with Bushong 1998, a critical introduction and annotation of Glenn Brown’s magisterial two-volume History of the United States Capitol published in 1900–1903, the helpful compilation of primary materials US House of Representatives 1904, and the popular guidebook Hazelton 1914, which assesses the Capitol’s design and construction to 1900. Kennon 2000 presents a thoughtful, thematic overview of art and design issues relating to the Capitol and its interiors through focused essays by noted scholars and experts. Bacon, et al. 1995 and Kerwood 1973 are useful encyclopedic and bibliographic compilations relating to the Capitol, its history, and its operations. Trusted digital resources relating to the history and preservation of the Capitol complex may be found at the official websites for the Architect of the Capitol as well as the US Senate Historical Office, the US House of Representatives History Office, the US Capitol Historical Society, and the US Capitol Visitor Center.
Allen, William C. History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction and Politics. Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2005.
The most comprehensive current account of the design and construction of the Capitol campus, including discussions of artwork, sculpture, and interior furnishings. Includes illustrations and detailed notes and bibliographic citations prepared under the direction of the Architect of the Capitol and its staff. This is a paperback reprint of the 2001 edition.
Definitive digital resource presenting detailed information and resources on the history of the Capitol campus design and construction by the agency responsible for its preservation and development.
Bacon, Donald C., Roger H. Davidson, and Morton Keller, eds. The Encyclopedia of the United States Congress. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Comprehensive guide featuring illustrated scholarly essays with bibliographic citations on the United States Congress, its operation, and its history. Over one thousand entries by noted authorities with relevant entries, including Architect of the Capitol, Art in the Capitol, Capitol Grounds, Ceremonial Activities, Dome and Great Rotunda, and History of the Capitol.
Bushong, William B. “Glenn Brown and the United States Capitol.” In Glenn Brown’s History of the United States Capitol. By Glenn Brown, 1–21. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1998.
Annotated reprint of Glenn Brown’s History of the United States Capitol published in two volumes in 1900 and 1903. Bushong draws on meticulous research and scholarship in providing an introductory essay and annotations, which enhances Brown’s comprehensive account of the architecture and art of the Capitol and includes a revised and updated bibliography based on Brown’s sources between 1794 and 1900.
Hazelton, George Cochrane. The National Capitol: Its Architecture, Art and History. New York: J. F. Taylor, 1914.
Popular 19th-century guidebook to the Capitol building and its art first published in 1897. Well-Illustrated with appendix of selected historical manuscripts between 1792 and 1832, including correspondence from George Washington, Charles Bulfinch, and others. Hazelton’s work set the stage for Glenn Brown’s more detailed 1901 account of the Capitol’s design and construction (see Bushong 1998).
Kennon, Donald R., ed. The United States Capitol: Designing and Decorating a National Icon. Athens, OH: University of Ohio Press, 2000.
Authoritative scholarly work on Capitol architecture and art from 1790 to 1997. Essays by noted scholars address understudied topics, including the Capitol surveyorship of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Thomas Ustick Walter’s search for architectural propriety, as well as Constantino Brumidi’s painting techniques in the Senate corridors, Albert Bierstadt’s history paintings in the Capitol, and the development of the National Statuary Hall as one of the oldest collections of public sculpture in the United States.
Kerwood, John R., ed. The United States Capitol: An Annotated Bibliography. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1973.
Dated but useful detailed bibliography of published sources relating to the Capitol, its history, and its operations. Extensive entries on the design and construction of the Capitol, including descriptive commentaries and lists of congressional reports with content summaries. For a still useful architectural bibliography of the Capitol, see Coppa & Avery Consultants, The United States Capitol: An Architectural Overview (Monticello, IL: Vance Bibliographies, 1980).
Reed, Henry Hope. The United States Capitol: Its Architecture and Decoration. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005.
Lavishly illustrated work examining the Capitol’s design and interior details. The book has a helpful, detailed glossary of the building’s classical decorative elements, including examinations of the dome, porticos, entablatures, and painted interior stucco work. Reed also illustrates rooms closed to the general public, assesses the impact of the Capitol’s design on statehouses, and includes biographies of artists and designers.
Scott, Pamela, and Antoinette J. Lee. “Monumental Capitol Hill.” In The Buildings of the District of Columbia. By Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, 113–148. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Standard scholarly reference work on the architecture of the Capitol and its environs by two acclaimed historians of Washington, DC, architecture.
US House of Representatives. Documentary History of the Construction and Development of the United States Capitol Building and Grounds. 58th Cong., 2d Sess., House Report 646. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1904.
Encyclopedic compilation of textual materials including government documents, excerpts from transcripts of relevant congressional debates, and official correspondence relating to the design and construction of the US Capitol between 1792 and 1902. Sections covered include the design competition, early construction, rebuilding after the 1814 fire, Capitol extension, the new dome, grounds, terraces, and the East front extension proposal.
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