Like the ancient Romans we modern Americans have our Capitol as well as our Appian way; and whereas the first formal founding feast of Rome itself, was the lupine luncheon of Romulus and Remus with their four-footed hostess, the first formal founding feast of our Capitol, which accompanied the laying of its corner-stone, was also a feast out of doors. It was a barbecue. A great ox was roasted in what the newspapers of the day delightfully referred to as a “cavazion,” into which George Washington descended and from which he emerged, presiding over all of the ceremonies, at which, according to a narrative of the time, there was “every abundance of other recreation”which was not meant to be a doubtful statement!
Washington presided over the exercises as a Ma-son: and it has been stated and it is probably true that every President of the United States but two has been of the Masonic fraternity.
The corner-stone was laid on a September day of 1793 at what was then the southeast corner of the building, as it is expressed on a long inscription on a silver plate with the statement, signed by James Hoban and Stephen Hallatehis name however being usually spelled Hallettas architects, and by “Joseph Clark, R. W. G. M. P. T.”! whatever all this initialing may have meant.
Near the corner-stone, which is not far from the center of the east front of the building as it stands, is what at first seems an insignificant door into the basement story, under the center portico, but one may notice that the door is one of the special features of the Capitol, for it has beautiful pillars inside the doorway, with the famous corn-stalk design of Latrobe, a highly American ‘feature and design; and close beside it there is a beautifully designed spiral stair of marble with most graceful balustrades of wrought-iron.
It may be said that there were really several architects of the Capitol. At least there was a combination of plans and ideas. Hallett, of Philadelphia, at first came nearest to pleasing President Washington, and the committee that with him was to decide upon a design. There was a competition, and the prize of five hundred dollars was awarded to Hallett. Then came in some plans from a Doctor Thornton in the West Indies; a Quaker Englishman who had served as a cavalry officer in the Revolutionary War, and his plans pleased more than did those of Hallett. There were attempts to harmonize the two men and their plans, but as harmonizing was impossible Latrobe was made supervising architect. A man full of original ideas, with a wide knowledge of European architecture, he had even taken a commission for a while as captain in the Prussian army; and after his connection with the Capitol, he went west to Pitts-burg, near which city a town still bears his name, and still later to New Orleans, where he died.
The city has not been a one-man city nor has the Capitol been a one-man building ; and when Latrobe after a while was dropped, the still greater Bulfinch, the New Englander with experience on the Boston State House, was placed in charge.
Bulfinch had toured Europe as a young man in 1785. Even before that he had felt a tendency to-ward building, and in Paris had been aided to see things by the architectural-minded Thomas Jefferson, whom he met there. Writing of Paris, the buildings are what he first of all mentions. He then went through much of France and Italy, and in telling of the things of interest that he saw, he said: “particularly the wonders of architecture.”
It would seem as if his seeing so many fine buildings in Europe rather discouraged him when he came to the necessarily simple American towns. After he put up the Boston State House he believed that everything in the way of public buildings was built, and he actually influenced his own son from following architecture, believing that no more great buildings would be needed.
It is curious that no great part of the early Capitol was the work of professional architects. And it is curious that the White House was inspired by a building in Ireland and planned by a non-professional, and that the Capitol had as first designer a doctor from the West Indies. After all, architects are not valuable because of being architects but for the buildings they make: which obvious truth has been much too often overlooked.
The finest in America in early years were built by architecture-loving amateurs: as Monticello, by Jefferson. The three beautiful old brick State Houses of Massachusetts, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, were built at the early period when they were Province Houses. The two finest old buildings of Philadelphia, and they are still standing to prove their beauty, were designed, one by a local lawyer, the other by a local doctor !
The Capitol is on a plateau, eighty-eight feet above the Potomac River, and practically the same height above the low-lying land that stretches away from its western front. The length of the building is seven hundred and fifty-one feet, and the greatest dimension of its varying width is three hundred and fifty feet.
It is vast, huge, profoundly impressive. It thrills with pride every American.
Above the plateau on which the Capitol stands rises the dome, to a height of almost three hundred feet, and it is topped by a bronze statue of Freedom, by Crawford, which is itself within a few inches of twenty feet in height. Liberty wears a liberty cap but not of the European type but distinctively American, it being of eagles’ feathers. A most curious feature of this liberty cap, designed and used in this way, is that it was suggested to Crawford by Jefferson Davis !
These feathers are of the fine upstanding kind that Admiral Sampson had in mind when he was guest of honor at a dinner given by the bluff old English sea-dog Admiral Fisher. Sampson, so Fisher narrates, sat silent until the dinner was almost over even when toasts were proposed to himself and his country. Then he suddenly rose and said only, “It was a damned fine old hen that hatched the American Eagle!”
The building has a wealth of columns, terraces, balustrades, arcades; and in both fronts are majestic flights of majestic steps, giving important and temple-like approaches.
To the eastward the level land stretches off superbly, with first a great paved esplanade for vehicle approach and then the great open park, wide as the great Capitol, stretching out liberally away to the Congressional Library. At the western front the land drops quickly away to the level, eighty feet be-low. Bulfinch, when he first saw the Capitol, whose construction he was commissioned to continue, at once saw that there was danger in the nearness of so heavy a building to the edge, and he gave great care to strengthening and planning retaining walls and the stairways which are still such an aspect of this approach.
An astonishing feature of the Capitol is the insignificance of the main entrance-way on either front. Latrobe’s own idea as to this was to have a beautiful Grecian portico at the central entrance.
On the pediment of the grand central portico is an effort at designing a group of sculpture, by John Quincy Adams, who was then a versatile Secretary of State. It represents what Adams himself called the “Genius of America,” with the Goddess of Liberty morally and neatly supported by Justice and Hope.
The dome of the Capitol, so magnificent in appearance in its exterior, loses nothing of magnificence in its interior view. It is almost one hundred feet in diameter and its lower portion, the Rotunda, is surrounded by a series of large historical paintings, of which those by John Trumbull are by far the best. This same John, who won high fame as a painter, had taken active part in the Revolutionary War, had become a colonel, and had been made military secretary by Washington. He was the son of Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, the original “Brother Jonathan.”
As did such a proportion of early American painters, he went to Europe to complete his artistic training, and while there, there arose within him the ambition to make for his nation a series of paintings representing the most important features of American history. He went back and forth among the European cities, seeking out and portraying such historical American characters as were then on the other side of the Atlantic : including John Adams, who was representing America in London, and Jefferson who was similarly in Paris. This part of his work covered some years following the close of the War of 1812. Abigail Adams, seeing one of his American paintings in London wrote: “Ile is the first painter who has undertaken to immortalize those great actions that gave birth to our Nation. By this means he will not only secure his own fame, but transmit to posterity characters and actions which will command the admiration of future ages.” Coming back to America, he sought out other living Americans, and for those who were dead he copied the best available portraits. Washington himself, he not only remembered but had made of him, in the course of the Revolutionary War, what is always considered one of the most interesting of Washington portraits.
It was after more than thirty years of preparation that the American Government commissioned him to paint four great paintings.
Most important is the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, the arrangement of the figures being made as Jefferson, Franklin and others described it to him. In looking at different prints or engravings of his Signing one notices, and wonders about, the fact that they are not all quite alike as to the members included or their postures. They are almost alike, but the differences have come from Trumbull’s having made several slightly varying replicas of this painting: one being in New Haven and another of them being in Hartford.
Besides the painting of the Declaration there are three other large paintings by Trumbull, bought by the Government, and placed here around the lower part of the Rotunda. The second picture is of the Surrender of Burgoyne and was painted from sketches made on the spot by Trumbull in 1777.
It shows among the trees of the locality a score or so of officers all without hats, an unusual feature. The third painting represents the Surrender of Cornwallis ; and the marching of the British soldiers between the lines of French and Americans is not fanciful but represents the scene just as Trumbull saw it, he having been present. The fourth and last Trumbull painting is of the Resignation of Washington as commander-in-chief.
If any one wishes to see the coat worn by Washington on the occasion, it may be seen at the National Museum, and the commission which he surrendered is preserved in the Department of State, and the room is still in Annapolis !
Never was a better criticism made of the great marble reliefs which have been placed around the Rotunda than was made by a Menominee Indian chief. He looked at the sculpture of the landing of the Pilgrims, over the eastern doorway, and said: “Indians give white man corn.” He gazed for a time at one of the Indians making the treaty with Penn and said: “Indians give white man land.” He then turned to Pocahontas saving the life of Captain Smith, and here his sober comment was : “Indian saves white man’s life.” Then he looked at the relief over the last door, of Daniel Boone with his foot on the body of a dead Indian, plunging his knife into the heart of another : and at this his eyes gleamed and he said sternly : “See! White man kills Indian.”
It used to be, for no reason quite apparent, that Washington was called the city of magnificent distances. Had the Capitol been called the building of magnificent distances, it would have been another matter, for there are what seem to be interminable corridors.
One’s first impression is naturally that the Capitol is used almost altogether by the Senate and the House of Representatives, but their meeting halls take much less than half of the total space of the building, the main part of it being given up to committee rooms, document rooms, offices of clerks, cloak rooms, lunch rooms, reception rooms, corridors and libraries. In addition, between the Rotunda and the Hall of Representatives, is Statuary Hall. Between the Rotunda and the Senate Chamber is the United States Supreme Court. In the passages are signal lights, so arranged as to tell whether or not either body is in session.
Statuary Hall was originally the meeting room of the Representatives and it was in this room that all the early Representatives spoke, including Clay and Webster, Calhoun, Randolph and Cass. It was in this room that former President John Quincy Adams, then a Representative from Massachusetts, was struck down by paralysis only to die two days later in an adjoining apartment. Henry Watterson, then a lad, and at the present day only recently dead, after a life of unususal prominence and activity, was near Adams when he fell, and went with him as he was carried into the ante-room and knelt beside him, fanning him. Watterson, it may be added, was very fortunate as a young man as to being present on important occasions. He was just naturally born that way. He stood close to Lincoln at Lincoln’s first inauguration, narrowly observed him, as only a young man like Watterson could, and wrote down that the new President looked dignified, firm and self-possessed, and “as if he had been delivering inaugural addresses all his life.”
All through the corridors and in vistas or niches are statues or paintings of Americans and American events calculated to stir patriotic feelings. It gives a national and historic background to transact public business near paintings such as the “Battle of Lake Erie” and the “Attack on Chapultepec.”
Statuary Hall, a semi-circular room nearly one hundred feet in its greatest width and whose ceiling is a high half dome, was originally and for many years the Hall of the House of Representatives, and it is a very much more beautiful and more impressive room than the present Hall of the House of Representatives.
It was in the time of the Civil War that the suggestion was made and approved that this earlier Hall of the House should be used as a hall of memorial statuary of great Americans, each State to choose its own two examples and to present the statues in either marble or bronze.
In a way this room is like that part of Westminster Abbey where there are so many monuments and memorials, for both the English collection and the American contain a marked proportion of men whose particular fame has already been forgotten. At the same time both collections are impressive in their showing that both nations are striving to do honor to those who have honored them and to point out to posterity the great national achievements of the past.
An amusing and in some respects even absurd feature of Statuary Hall is that some physically insignificant men have large statues. and tower above such physically great men as Washington and Webster.
The statue of Webster was not sent by Massachusetts, whose adopted son he was, but by New Hampshire, where he was born. Massachusetts did not forgive Webster’s notable speech, which was taken to be in favor of slavery. Whittier, the Quaker, killed him with a few strokes of the pen in the tremendous “Ichabod,” one of the most terrible of attacks.
Yet in spite of this loss of prestige, Joseph H. Choate has declared that to Webster, more than to any other man, was owing the fiery promptitude with which the North sprang to arms in defense of the UnionWebster having been pre-eminently the defender of the Constitution.
Ethan Allen, who was not a particularly large man, was a man not only of heroic deeds, but he was provided with a statue of heroic size by the State of Vermont. Ethan Allen would not have objected to over publicity, for one day, when he attended church in a Vermont town, the minister spoke in the highest terms of the men of Bennington, but did not name Ethan Allen as a hero of the battle; where-upon Allen arose in his pew and said, “Please let the Almighty know I was there!”
Washington and Robert E. Lee naturally are Virginia’s favorite sons, Washington’s statue being by the famous Houdon, who had been employed by Virginia to make a Washington statue and who lived for a time at Mount Vernon studying his subject. Richmond has the original and the city of Washing-ton a replica. Lee’s was placed here in the 1900′s.
In 1921 the Suffragists had a three-headed statue made out of a monster block of marble, out of which rise three heads intended to represent Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony. The Suffragists hoped that this statue would be placed either in Statuary Hall or the Rotunda, and, to be ready for its unveiling, it was hauled up into the Capitol by powerful winches. Passing there, within a few days after its unveiling, I saw the workmen conveying the statue down again, as it was declared to be too heavy for any part of the floor, and it is now tucked away in the crypt.
When Statuary Hall was the Hall of Representatives, it was recognized as having poor acoustic properties. However, so many admirable things were said there that this was largely overlooked. Here the then Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, eloquently welcomed Lafayette as the guest of the nation, and here Lafayette, in eloquently flowing periods, repliedso eloquently and so flowingly in fact, that shrewd listeners quickly realized that al-though the words were spoken by Lafayette they were in reality the composition of Henry Clay.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, who restlessly went to Washington, in the course of the Civil War, took comfort in finding artists busily at work in esthetic embellishment of the dome of the Capitol while other people were so worried about the fate of the nation. At those very times, down in the basement floor, barrels of cement had been placed as barricades; some of the basement corridors were used for storing army provisions; there were rooms making a great wartime hospital, and in other parts of the basement bakeries were in operation, making as many as sixteen thousand loaves of bread a day for the army.
One is well repaid by wandering through the old part of the basement area, with its scores of heavy columns, its passages, its remarkable domed vault. Here underneath the center of the Rotunda, it was early planned to place forever the body of George Washington. The plan got so far that his widow gave her formal assent to it. For some unknown reason the plan was dropped, but not until a “keeper of the crypt”what a feudal flavor the title ha !had been appointed. And for fifty years a salary was paid for the supposititious performance of the duties of keeper of the crypt.