Considering that eight architects had a hand in its creation over a period of 70 years, the Capitol Building of the United States located at East Capitol St NE & First St SE, Washington, DC 20004, United States, is remarkably coherent in style.
What is more, this great American landmark became an influential model for later civic and public buildings.
Its grand Neoclassical design is intimately tied to ideals ascendant during the founding of the new republic and bears the influence of similar ideals fermenting in pre-Revolutionary France during Thomas Jefferson as ambassador there.
In 1791 President Washington chose a 10-square mile (26 sq km) plot along the Potomac River as the site of a capital city.
A French engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, was selected to create an overall city design. His monumental plan accomodated present and future buildings balanced with lawns, gardens, and pathways in a geometric grandeur reminiscent of Versailles. This, he felt, would express the symbolic importance befitting the seat of this young democracy.
Designing a Temple of Democracy – Capitol Building architecture
However, Thomas Jefferson, a noteworth “gentleman architect” and by now Secretary of State, put his own imprimatur on the project.
Jefferson was an ardent proponent of the Neo-classical aesthetic that had captured the romantic imagination of the age.
He believed that the elegant proportions of ancient structures would evoke the chief values of the Enlightenment: reason order, and democracy.
“Embellished with Athenian taste,” he declared, the Capitol Building would become “the first temple dedicated to the sovereignty of the people.
Meanwhile, L’Enfant, who found himself butting beads with authority, was dismissed before he had drawn up a plan for the Capitol Building itself. In 1792 Jefferson proposed a competition for the building’s design. A late entry from William Thornton, an amateur architect and physician, won the approval of all.
Thornton’s design featured two rectangular wings connected by a central dome.
Its echoes of the Roman Pantheon, with its columns and pediments, must have been especially pleasing to Jefferson, who had modeled his design for Virginia’s state Capitol after a Roman temple.
President Washington laid the corner stone for the Capitol Building in 1793 in a grand Masonic ceremony.
The proceedings reflected the Founding Fathers’ membership of this secret society, whose beliefs harked back to the master builders of ancient Greece and Egypt.
Construction proceeded in fits and starts with a succession of early architects. But in 1803, Jefferson, who was now president, brought in Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a professional architect trained in Britain.
Latrobe oversaw design and construction for 14 years, including the re-construction required after the building’s near ruin by British arsonists during the war of 1812.
Later architects continued the lengthy process. Charles Bulfinch completed the Rotunda and first dome, and Thomas U. Walter expanded the north and south wings, fashioned a new, larger dome, and put forward the idea for a statue to top it.
The installation of the Statue of Freedom in 1863, accompanied by gun salutes, marked a culmination of sorts. In 1873 Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who masterminded New York’s Central Park, was put in charge of designing the terraces and grounds.
The Italian artist Constantino Brumidi worked for more than 25 years on much of the building’s extraordinary art and decoration, including the fresco on the dome’s canopy and the frieze in the Rotunda.
Today this stately five-level building with its approximately 540 rooms sprawls across some four acres (1.6 ha). The Capitol houses vast historic art and statuary collections, not to mention the U.S. Congress, and attracts millions of visitors each year.