What is the history of the United States Capitol Building?
Early in the history of the United State, the Capitol Building, or United States Capitol, was authorized and built in the newly formed capital of the US in Washington D.C. It was to serve as the seat of the legislative branch of the US government from 1800, when the legislative branch was moved from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. The site of Washington was seen as a compromise between Northern and Southern states which had disputed where the seat of government for the United States should be.
Construction and Early History
The history of the Capitol building begins with the passage of the Residence Act of 1790, which mandated a formal seat for the US federal government. Norther states would have preferred a site such as New York or Philadelphia as the likeliest place for the seat of the US government; however, after the federal government agreed to take on Revolutionary War debt from northern states, the northern states agreed to Washington D.C. becoming the newly built seat of government. The US government gave the transition period for the legislative branch to be transferred to D.C. 10 years, with this period lasting between 1790-1800, with Philadelphia serving as the temporary home of the branch. The French-American engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant designed the new capital city of Washington D.C., where he planned for the 'Congress House,' as the Capitol was envisioned to be called, to be located on its present site on Jenkin's Hill (now called Capitol Hill). A broad avenue would connect the President's House (White House) with Congress House. Early on, the founders of the United State's used ancient Rome as their example. Thomas Jefferson, in particular, saw the Temple of Jupiter in Rome as an example of what the future Congress House would look like. In fact, Thomas Jefferson had pushed to change then name from Congress House to the Capitol after the hill in which the Temple of Jupiter stood, which was one of seven hills of ancient Rome.
After a competition held on what the Capitol would look like, where the winner would get $500, the architect architect William Thornton, inspired by the Louvre and the Paris Pantheon was chosen as the main design. A rival to Thornton, Stephen Hallet, a French architect, wanted a grander building and was very critical of Thornton's suggestion. Eventually, the two architect's designs were integrated to form much of the core of the Capitol. Later, Thomas Ustick Walter and August Schoenborn would also have great influence on the current building by designing the north wing and dome respectively. On September 18, 1793, President George Washington laid the foundation of the Captiol, with a ceremony taking place in which he and eight other Freemasons dressed in their masonic clothing. By 1800, the Capitol building was ready to be used for its designed purpose. Interestingly, early in its history the Capitol was also used as a church for Sunday services, with the speaker's podium serving as the pulpit. Although the Senate wing was not finished, on November 17, 1800 both the House and Senate were in session in the Capitol for the first time. By 1812, both wings of the Capitol were complete.
The first time the Capitol was breached was on August 24, 1814, when British forces entered Washington and burned parts of the city and Capitol. No breach would occur again until the events of January 6th, 2021. Within a year of the first breach and partial burning, the Capitol was being reconstructed, led by two military engineers (George Bomford and Joseph Gardner Swift). During reconstruction of the building, Congress continued to meet but in another building called the Old Brick Capitol that was demolished in 1929. The Capitol was reused for its legislative purpose continuously since 1819. In 1850, the building was significantly expanded to include the new House and Senate wings. The original dome was replaced with a new cast-iron dome that was much larger than the original low, timber-framed design. Thomas U. Walter designed the dome to be 100 feet, with inspiration come from Les Invalides in Paris. A significant part of the construction in the 1850s was carried out slave labor. The Statue of Freedom was placed on top of the dome in 1863. New additions occurred to the East Front of the Capitol in 1904, as the large dome and its weight put extra strain on the building. In 1958, the East Portico was extended. Corinthian columns from the original building were also replaced as part of this larger project, with the original columns now used as part of a large display in the National Arboretum. Since 1960, the Captiol has been declared as an official National Historical Landmark in the United States. In 1993, on September 18, 1993, the Capitol's bicentennial was celebrated by re-enacting the masonic ceremony conducted by Washington and others, with Senator Strom Thurmond, a Freemason, leading the ceremony. Until 1981, the East Front of the Capitol was used for Presidential inauguration; the West Front has been used since 1981 for this event. On December 2, 2008, the United States Capitol Visitor Center opened to the public, the same date the dome finished in 1863, with the building dedicated to tell the history of the site and act as a starting point for tours of the Capitol.