Washington DC – Early Years Of The Capitol

DURING the twenty years ensuing, the Capitol was considered sufficient for the use of the Nation. Robert Mills, a Washington architect, was placed in charge of it, and made sundry small improvements from time to time. In 1850 the necessity for better accommodations for both Houses of Congress, the number of members having greatly increased, compelled an enlargement of the building. It was decided to ” extend the wings by greater wings, called extensions,” which were to be constructed of marble, and connected with the original Capitol by wide corridors. Thomas U. Walter, of Philadelphia, who had built Girard College, was secured as architect, and he retained the position until 1865. He arranged a plan for the extensions, and immediately began the work of construction. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, the accomplished engineer, was appointed as the superintendent and inspector.

On the 4th of July, 1851, the corner-stone of the south or House extension was laid by President Fillmore, assisted by the Grand Lodge of Masons of the District of Columbia, the Grand Master wearing the regalia worn by President Washington as Master Mason when he laid the corner-stone of the original edifice, nearly fifty-eight years before. An eloquent oration was delivered by Daniel Webster, Secretary of State, which was listened to by a vast assemblage. Beneath the corner-stone this record was deposited:

“On the morning of the first day of the seventy-sixth year of the Independence of the United States of America, in the city of Washington, being the 4th day of July, 1851, this stone, designated as the corner-stone of the Extension of the Capitol, according to a plan approved by the President, in pursuance of an act of Congress, was laid by Millard Fillmore, President of the United States, assisted by the Grand Master of the Masonic Lodges, in the presence of many members of Congress; of officers of the Executive and Judiciary Departments, National, State, and District; of officers of the Army and Navy; the corporate authorities of this, and neighboring cities; many associations, civil, military, and Masonic; officers of the Smithsonian Institution, and National Institute; professors of colleges and teachers of schools of the District of Columbia, with their students and pupils; and a vast concourse of people from places near and re-mote, including a few surviving gentlemen who witnessed the laying of the corner-stone of the Capitol by President Washington, on the 18th day of September, 1793. If, therefore, it shall be hereafter the will of God that this structure shall fall from its base, that its foundations be upturned, and this deposit brought to the eyes of men, be it known that, on this day, the Union of the United States of America stands firm; that their Constitution still exists unimpaired, and with all its original usefulness and glory, growing every day stronger and stronger in the affections of the great body of the American people, and attracting more and more the admiration of the world. And all here assembled, whether belonging to public life or to private life, with hearts devoutly thankful to Almighty God for the preservation of the liberty and happiness of the country, unite in sincere and tervent prayers that this deposit, and the walls and arches, the domes and towers, the columns and entablatures, now to be erected over it, may endure forever ! God save the United States of America !

The extensions were constructed of white marble, tinged with blue, from quarries at Lee, Mass.; and the one hundred massive columns around them, each consisting of a single block of marble, were quarried in Cockeysville, Md.

It was proposed to construct a new and grander dome to take the place of ” the small wooden thing ” that surmounted the Capitol, and the way in which the first appropriation of $100,000 was obtained for the purpose is described thus: ” Mr. Walter prepared plans for a complete extension of the Capitol — new wings, new dome, and a new marble front for the middle or sandstone building, and as he knew very well that Congress would never vote the great sum required in the most economical way, that is in bulk, he first submitted the wings. Next, as Congress was about adjourning at the end of a session, and they were all very merry at a night session — ladies on the floor, and everything lively—the new dome was presented splendidly painted in a picture, and adopted at once.” The money first appropriated was barely sufficient to remove the old dome, which was constructed of wood, brick, and stone, with a sheathing of copper. The new dome required nine years for its construction, and cost $1,250,000.

The extensions were finished in November, 1867, and the Capitol then presented the stately appearance it has to-day. Nearly $10,666,666 had been expended for its reconstruction, which, with the cost of the original edifice, made the total expenditure a little less than $13,000,000. General Meigs, the superintendent, made a report to Congress, in which he said, ” I have labored faithfully and diligently to construct this building in such a manner that it would last for ages as a creditable monument of the state of the arts at this time in this country.”

From 1867 to the present time nothing of consequence has been done to the exterior of the Capitol. Edward Clark, of Philadelphia, is the architect in charge. The interior has been variously adorned, and the grounds greatly improved. Walter’s plan included the extension of the eastern facade so as to cover the ” deep cuts” made by the Senate and House extensions, which would give an unbroken series of columns; and it is proposed to rebuild the front and the back of the main or original building with marble, to take the place of the sandstone, which requires very careful painting every year to prevent it from crumbling. These changes will doubtless be made, in time.