THE BEGINNINGS OF WASHINGTON CITY, AND THE STORY OF THE HOME OF CONGRESS
The selection of parts of Virginia and Maryland as the site of the Federal District in which the National Capital was to be located was made only after many years of discussion.
In 1779 some of the members of Congress talked of buying a few square miles near Princeton, New Jersey, as a site for the government’s permanent home. Four years later, the trustees of Kingston, New York, sought to interest Congress in that location. In 1783 Annapolis, Maryland, offered the State House and public circle to ” the Honorable Congress ” for their use. Burlington, New Jersey, also entered the lists, while in June, 1783, Virginia offered the town of Williams-burg to Congress and proposed to ” present the palace, the capitol, and all the public buildings and 300 acres of land adjoining the said city, together with a sum of money not exceeding 100,000 pounds, this state currency to be expended in erecting thirteen hotels for the use of the delegates in Congress.”
In October, 1784, Congress decided to place the capital near Trenton, New Jersey. Later it was decided to have a second capital on the Potomac, Congress to alternate between the two locations.
Neither Congress nor the country was satisfied with this solution of the difficulty. After years of discussion, in September, 1789, one house of Congress fixed on the Falls of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania as the permanent site. The Senate amended their proposal by suggesting Germantown, Pennsylvania.
This action was reconsidered and a long dispute followed. Finally, in 1790, the site on the Potomac was selected, and Congress was ready to provide for the building of ” a palace in the woods.”
President Washington and Vice-President Adams disagreed as to the location of the Capitol building. John Adams wished to see it the centre of a quadrangle of other public buildings, but Washington urged that Congress should meet in a building at a distance from the President’s house and all other public buildings, that the lawmakers might not be annoyed by the executive officers.
The invitation to architects to present plans for the Capitol was made in March, 1792, five hundred dollars being promised for the best plan. None of the sixteen designs submitted were approved. Later two men, Stephen L. Hallet and Dr. William Thornton, offered such good plans that it was not easy to decide between them. The difficulty was solved by acceptance of Thornton’s design and the engagement of Hallet as supervising architect at a salary of two thousand dollars a year. This arrangement was not satisfactory; it be-came necessary to replace Hallet first by George Hadfield, then by James Hoban, the architect of the White House. Under his charge the north wing was completed in 1800.
The proceeds from the sale of lots in the new city proved woefully inadequate for the expenses of the building. Congress authorized a loan of eight hundred thousand dollars, but this loan could not be disposed of until Maryland agreed to take two-thirds of the amount, on condition that the commissioners in charge of the work add their personal guarantee to the government’s promise to pay.
Congress was called to hold its first meeting in the Capitol north wing on November 17, 1800. A few months earlier the government archives had been moved from New York. These were packed in ten or twelve boxes, and were shipped on a packet boat, by sea. The arrival of the vessel was greeted by the three thousand citizens of Washington, who rang bells, cheered, and fired an old cannon in celebration of the event.
At that time the foundation for the dome had been laid, and the walls of the south wing had been begun. Later a temporary brick building was erected for the House, on a portion of the site of the south wing. The legislators called the building ” The Oven.”
The south wing was completed under the guidance of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who also reconstructed the north wing and connected the two wings by a wooden bridge. That the building was far from satisfactory is evident from an article in the National Intelligencer of December 2, 1813, which spoke with disgust of the wooden passageway as well as of the piles of debris on every hand.
In less than a year after the printing of the criticism, conditions were far worse, for the British troops came to Washington on August 24, 1814. They piled furniture in the hall of the House, and set fire to it. The wooden bridge that connected the wings burned like tinder. In a little while nothing was left but the walls. ” The appearance of the ruins was perfectly terrifying,” Architect Latrobe wrote.
Thus was fulfilled in a striking way the prophecy made by John Randolph when he pleaded with Congress not to make war on Great Britain, ” All the causes urged for this war will be forgotten in your treaty of peace, and possibly this Capitol may be reduced to ashes.”
The next session of Congress was held in the Union Pacific Hotel, but by December, 1815, there was ready a three-story building, erected by popular subscription, which Congress used for three years, paying for it an annual rental of $1,650. This was called ” The Brick Capitol.”
Of course efforts were made to remove the Capital to another location, but Congress made appropriation for the reconstruction of the Capitol on the old site. Work was begun almost at once, and was continued until 1830, when the wings had been rebuilt as well as the rotunda and centre structure. In general appearance the building was the same as before the fire, but marble instead of sandstone was used for colonnades and staircases and floors. The beautiful capitals of the marble pillars were carved in Italy or prepared by workmen brought from Italy.
During the latter part of this period the rotunda was used for all sorts of exhibitions. Once a panorama of Paris was shown there, an admission fee of fifty cents being charged. Exhibits of manufactured goods were made in this ” no man’s land,” over which nobody seemed to have jurisdiction. In 1827 a congressman spoke in the House of the fact that ” triangles of steel to take the place of bells, stoves, stew pans, pianos, mouse traps, and watch ribbons were marked with prices and sundry good bargains were driven.” The general public felt that they had a right even to the hall of the House; frequently popular meetings were held there.
The present dome surmounting the rotunda is not the dome first planned. For Latrobe’s dome, which he did not build, a higher dome was substituted by Bulfinch. The present dome is the work of Thomas U. Walter, the designer of Girard College, Philadelphia, whose plans for the completion of the Capitol were approved in 1851. The burning of the western front of the centre building in December, 1851, proved a blessing in disguise, for Walter was able to rebuild the section in perfect harmony with the other portions. The House first occupied its present quarters on December 16, 1857, but the Senate was not able to take possession of its new hall until January 4, 1859.
The great structure was finished in 1865, work having been carried on throughout the Civil War. Though they knew that there would be delay in receiving payment for their work, the contractors insisted on continuing and completing what is one of the most harmonious public buildings in the world.
The patriotic contractors had their reward, for the building was ready to receive the body of President Lincoln when, on April 19, 1865, after the services in the White House, the casket was placed on a catafalque under the dome of the rotunda, that the people of the country whose destinies he had guided through four years of civil war might gather there to do him honor.