IN the ordinary conversation of Washington, one rarely hears Congress mentioned by name. The respective functions of its two chambers are so generally understood that it is common to distinguish between them : the Senate yesterday did so-and-so ; something is about to occur in the House of Representatives. In speaking of the lawmakers collectively, the familiar phrase is “the gentlemen on the hill.” Washington has several hills, but “the” hill is by universal consent the one on which the Capitol stands.
To the visitor who knows the city only in its present aspect, the choice of this hill for the monumental building now crowning it seems most natural. This is not, however, the place originally considered for the purpose. James Madison favored Shuter’s Hill, an eminence a little west of Alexandria, now embraced in the tract set apart for George Washington Park. Thomas Jefferson supported Madison in this preference ; but President Washington, feeling that Virginia had already had -her full share of the honors in launching the new republic, insisted that the most important architecture at the seat of government should stand on the Maryland side of the Potomac. His view prevailed ; and, when the sites of the principal public buildings were marked on L’Enfant’s plan of the city, that selected for the Capitol was the elevation which, besides being fairly central, commanded in its outlook, and was commanded by, the greatest area of country on both sides of the river.
Like almost everything else architectural in Washington, the Capitol is a pile of gradual growth, subjected to many changes of detail in the plans. Sketches were submitted in competition for a prize ; the two competitors who came nearest to meeting the requirements, though adopted citizens of the United States, were respectively of French and English birth ; and the drawings finally evolved from the general scheme of the one modified by the more acceptable ideas of the other were turned over to an Irishman to perfect and carry out. Most of the credit belongs, undoubtedly, to Doctor William Thornton, a draftsman by profession, who afterward became Superintendent of Patents. The material used was freestone from a neighboring quarry. Only the north or Senate end was far enough advanced by the autumn of 1800 to enable Congress to hold its short session there, and the disputes which arose over the succeeding stages of the work led President Jefferson to call in Benjamin H. Latrobe of Richmond, the first architect of already established rank who had had anything to do with it. Under his direction, the south end was made habitable by 1811 ; and the House of Representatives, which till then had been uncomfortably quartered in such odd places as it could find, took possession. There was no central structure connecting the Senate and House ends, but a roofed wooden passageway led from the one to the other. In this condition was the Capitol when, in 1814, the British invaders burned all of it that was burnable.
The heavier masonry, of course, was unaffected by the fire except for the need of a little patchwork here and there ; but in his task of restoration Mr. Latrobe found himself so embarrassed by dissensions between the dignitaries who gave him his orders that after three vexatious years he resigned, and the celebrated Charles Bulfinch of Boston took his place. In 1830 Mr. Bulfinch pronounced the building finished and returned home, and for twenty years it remained substantially as he left it. Then, the needs of Congress having outgrown the space at their disposal, Thomas U. Walter of Philadelphia was ordered to prepare plans for an enlargement, and he was far-sighted enough to make the extension the vehicle for some other improvements. The great wings attached to the northern and southern extremities were built of white marble, which has rendered imperative the frequent repainting of the old freestone surfaces to match ; the dome was raised proportionally ; and additions made, then and since, to the surrounding grounds, have given the building an appropriate setting and vastly enhanced its beauty of approach.
This is, in brief, the story of the Capitol as we find it today. A stroll through it will call up other memories. As you look at the building from the east, you will be struck by the difference in tint between the painted main structure and the two marble wings. Imagine the wings cut off and the dome reduced to about half its present height and ended abruptly in a flat top, and you have in your mind’s eye a picture of the Capitol as Bulfinch left it, and as it remained till shortly before the Civil War. Its most conspicuous feature now is its towering dome, surmounted by a bronze allegorical figure of American Freedom. As the sculptor Crawford originally modeled the image, its head was crowned with the conventional liberty-cap ; but Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, objected to this on the ground that it was the sign of a freed slave, whereas Americans were born free. The cap was therefore discarded in favor of the present helmet of eagle feathers.
Filling the pediment over the main portico is a bit of sculpture which enjoys the distinction of having been designed by John Quincy Adams, because he could not find an artist who could draw him what he wished. It consists of three figures : the Genius of America in the center and Hope and Justice on either side, Justice appearing without her customary blindfold. Flanking the main staircase are two groups of statuary. That on our left is called “The Discovery” Columbus holding aloft a globe, while an Indian woman crouches at his feet. It was done by the Italian sculptor Persico, who copied Columbus’s armor from the last suit actually worn by him. And now comes a bit of politics ; for Congress, having awarded this work to a foreigner, was besieged by a demand that the next order be given to an American, and accordingly engaged Horatio Greenough to produce “The Rescue,” which stands on our right. It represents a frontiersman saving his wife and child from capture by an Indian.
The portico has an historic association with another President besides Adams, for it was here that an attempt was made upon the life of Andrew Jackson.
At the close of a funeral service in the House of Representatives, he had just passed out of the rotunda to descend the steps, when a demented mechanic named Lawrence sprang from a place of hiding, aimed a pistol at him, and pulled the trigger. As they were less than ten feet apart, the President was saved only by the failure of the powder to explode. Lawrence instantly dropped the useless pistol and tried another, with like effect. Jackson never could be talked out of the idea that Lawrence was the tool of political conspirators who wished to put some one else in his place as President.
We enter the building between the bronze doors designed by Randolph Rogers, commonly called the “Columbus doors” because they tell, in a series of reliefs, the life story of the discoverer. In the rotunda, the center of the building, we find ourselves surrounded by paintings and sculpture dealing with historical subjects. Hung at even intervals are eight large canvases, of which four are by John Trumbull, a portrait painter who was also an officer of the patriot army in the Revolution. For the one representing the signing of the Declaration of Independence, old John Randolph could find no better designation than “the shin piece,” because “such a collection of legs never before came together in any one picture” ; but a more so done in neutral tints as to convey the suggestion of relief sculpture, depicting the most notable events in the history of America from the landing of Columbus to the discovery of gold in California. Six of the fourteen scenes were painted by Constantino Brumidi, and the others after sketches left by him. It was an ambitious design, in view of the rapidity with which history is made now and the brevity of the space. Only a trifling gap is left for all that has happened in the last sixty years or so, and Congress has had more than one debate over what ought to be crowded into the record of this interval. Among the subjects considered have been the emancipation of the slaves, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, and the freeing of Cuba ; but the proposal which has met with most favor is a symbolic treatment of the Civil War, not as a breach between the sections but as the cementing of a stronger bond. This was set aside be-cause the design outlined was a representation of Grant and Lee clasping hands under the Appomattox apple tree the objection being based on the discovery that the apple tree existed only in fiction, and that the real meeting-place of the two commanders was too unromantic for artistic use.
From the frieze our eyes ascend to the canopy, or inner lining of the dome, which hangs above us like an inverted bowl enclosing an elaborate fresco in colors. This, too, is from the brush of Brumidi. Although it is ostensibly allegorical, many of its sixty-three human faces are recognizable portraits, including those of Washington, Franklin, Hamilton, Robert Morris, Samuel F. B. Morse, Robert Fulton, and Thomas U. Walter, who was architect of the Capitol while the work was in progress. In a group representing War, with an armed goddess of liberty for its center, are heads resembling those of Jefferson Davis, Alexander H. Stephens, Robert E. Lee, and John B. Floyd. Whether the likenesses are there by the deliberate intent of the artist, or merely by accident, no one will ever know, as Brumidi died in 1880.
The door on our left leads, through a short corridor, into what was once the Hall of Representatives. It is now known officially as the Hall of Statuary, but to irreverent critics as the National Chamber of Horrors, because of the varied assortment of marble and bronze images collected there. The room is semicircular, with a domed ceiling, a great arch and supporting pillars on its flat side, and a colonnade lining the horse-shoe. During the forty years that it was used for legislative purposes, a rostrum holding the Speaker’s table and chair filled the arch, and the desks of the Representatives were arranged in concentric curves to face it. Overlooking the chamber, and following most of the rear wall, ran a narrow gallery for visitors who did not enjoy the privileges of the floor; it derived an air of comfort from curtains hung between the columns of the colonnade and looped back so as to produce the effect of a tier of opera-boxes. Stay in the room a while, and you will understand why, for many years, the complaint of its acoustic properties was so constant, and a demand for a better hall so strong : it is a wonderful whispering gallery. There are spots in the tiled pavement where you can stand and hear the slightest sound you make come back from some point before or behind you, over your head, or under your feet. Go to the place where the semicircle ends on one side of the room, and I will go to the corresponding place on the other side, and, by speaking into the vertical fissures between the wall and the pillars at the two extremities of the great arch, we can converse in the lowest tones with as much ease as if we were side by side instead of a hundred feet apart.
A vivid imagination can people this hall with ghosts. Here some of the fiercest forensic battles were fought in early days over protective tariffs, internal improvements, and, above all, negro slavery. Here it was that Randolph’s piping voice denounced the Northern “dough-faces,” and here Wilmot launched his historic proviso. Here Alexander H. Stephens made his last effort to resuscitate the moribund Whig party, while Abraham Lincoln listened to his argument from a seat on the same side of the chamber. Here John Quincy Adams drew upon himself the fire of an incensed opposition by championing the people’s right to petition Congress, and here he fell to the floor a dying paralytic. Here John Marshall, the greatest of our Chief Justices, administered the oath of office to two early Presidents. And here it was that Henry Clay, as Speaker, delivered his address of welcome to Lafayette as the guest of the nation, and listened with becoming gravity to the Marquis’s response which, as it after-ward appeared, owed its excellent English to the fact that Clay had composed it for the most part himself.
The conversion of the hall from its former to its present uses was at the instance of the late Senator Morrill of Vermont, who procured legislation permitting every State in the Union to contribute two statues of distinguished citizens to this temple of fame. No restriction having been placed on the sizes of the figures, one result of his well-meant effort is a grotesque array of pigmies and giants, some of the personages biggest in life being most diminutive in effigy, while others of comparatively insignificant stature are here given massive proportions. Most of the notables thus immortalized are persons with whose names we associate a story. Here stand, for example, Ethan Allen as he may have looked when demanding the surrender of Fort Ticonderoga “in the name of the great Jehovah and the Continental Congress” ; Charles Carroll, who wrote Carrollton after his name so that the servants of the King, when sent to hang him for signing the Declaration, would know where to find him ; sturdy John Stark, who snapped his fingers at Congress and whipped the British at Bennington in his own fashion ; Muhlenberg, the patriot parson, throwing back his gown at the close of his sermon and standing forth as a Continental soldier ; and fiery Jim Shields, who once challenged Lincoln to a duel, but was laughed out of it when, arriving on the field, he found his adversary already there, mowing the tall grass with a cutlass to make the fighting easier!
Another corridor brings us to the present Hall of Representatives, which has been in use since the latter part of 1857. It is a spacious rectangular room, with a high ceiling chiefly of glass, through which it is lighted in the daytime by the sun and after nightfall by the modified glow of electric lamps in the attic. Its plan is that of an amphitheater, the platform occupied by the Speaker being at the lowest level in the middle of the long southern side. Facing this are the concentric curved benches of the members, Formerly the body of the hall was filled with desks but, as the membership increased with the population of the country, these were found to take up too much room, not to mention the temptation they offered for letter-writing and other diversions. Back of the Speaker’s chair hang a full-length portrait of Washington by Vanderlyn and one of Lafayette by Ary Schaeffer. The Washington is the conventional portrait as far as the waist-line, but the legs were borrowed from a prominent citizen of Maryland, who had a better pair than the General, and who consented to pose them for the benefit of posterity.
Now let us go back to the north or Senate wing of the building. On our way we swing around a little open air-well, through which we look down into the corresponding corridor of the basement. The well is surrounded by a colonnade supporting the base of a circular skylight. The columns are worth noticing, because their capitals are of native design, using the leaf of the tobacco plant somewhat conventionalized. They date from the period when the clerk of the United States Supreme Court, whose office is near by, used to receive a part of his compensation in tobacco.
A few steps more bring us to the Court itself, sitting in a chamber considerably smaller than the Hall of Statuary, but laid out on the same plan. This was the first legislative chamber ever occupied in the Capitol, having been till 1859 the Hall of the Senate. Here it was that Thomas Jefferson was twice inaugurated as President. Here Daniel Webster pronounced the famous “reply to Hayne” which every boy orator once learned to spout from the rostrum. Here Preston Brooks made his murderous assault upon Charles Sumner, and here Henry Clay delivered the farewell address which we used to find in all the school readers. On the walls of this chamber once hung the life-size oil portraits of Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette, which were presented by the Government of France to the Government of the United States just after our Revolution, and which disappeared when the British burned the Capitol in 1814. The room has always suffered from the same bad acoustic properties which caused the House of Representatives to exchange its old hall for its new one ; and it has a similar whispering gallery, so that a court officer in one corner can communicate with a colleague in the other in a tone so low as to be inaudible to any one else.
Since it took possession here, the Court has rendered its legal tender and anti-trust decisions, and a number of others of historic importance. In this room sat, in 1877, the Electoral Commission which decided that Mr. Hayes was entitled to take office as President. Here occurs, every day during a term, the one ancient and impressive ceremonial which can be witnessed at our seat of government. At the stroke of noon there appears at the right corner of the chamber the crier, who in a loud voice announces : “The Honorable the Supreme Court of the United States !” All present attorneys, spectators, and minor functionaries rise and remain standing while the members of the Court enter in single file, the Chief Justice leading. The lawyers bow to the Justices, who return the bow before sinking into their chairs. Thereupon the crier makes his second announcement : “Oyez! Oyez ! Oyez ! All persons having business with the Honor-able the Supreme Court of the United States are admonished to draw near and give attention, as the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!”
All the Justices wear gowns of black silk. John Jay, the first Chief Justice, relieved the somber monotony of his by adding a collar bound with scarlet, but the precedent was not followed. The Court has sometimes been styled the most dignified judicial tribunal in the world, and doubtless it deserves the compliment. Certainly no American need blush for its decorum. The whole atmosphere of its chamber is in keeping with the fact, reverently voiced by one of its old colored servitors, that “dey ain’t no appeal f’m dis yere Co’t ‘xcep’ to God Almighty.” The arguments made before it are confined to calm, unemotional reasoning. The pleaders do not raise their voices, or forget their manners, or indulge in personalities or oratory while debating : and the opinions of the Court are recited with a quietness almost conversational. These opinions are very carefully guarded up to the moment they are read from the bench ; but now and then, after a decision has become history, there leaks out an entertaining story of how it came to be rendered.
One such instance was in the case of an imported delicacy which might have been classed either as a preparation of fish or as a flavoring sauce. The customs officers had levied duty on it as a sauce, and an importer had appealed. The Justices, when they came to compare notes, confessed themselves sorely puzzled, and one of them suggested that, since the technical arguments were so well balanced, it might be wise to fall back upon common sense. That evening he carried a sample of the disputed substance home to his wife, who was an expert in culinary matters.
“There, my dear,” said he, “is a sauce for you to try.”
During the early days of the Civil Was, a party of Northern zouaves, passing through the city on their way to the front, entered the Senate Hall during a recess and tried to identify Davis’s desk. They frankly avowed their purpose of destroying, if possible, the last trace of the Confederate President’s connection with the United States Government ; but Bassett refused to be coaxed, bribed, or bullied into revealing the information they wished. Their persistency presently aroused his fears lest they might come back later and renew their attempt in his absence ; so he resorted to diplomacy and made them a little speech, reminding them that, no matter what Mr. Davis might have done to provoke their indignation, the desk at which he had sat was not his property, but that of the Government which they had come South to defend. His reasoning had its effect, and, admitting that he was right, they went away peaceably.
Back of the Senate chamber are two rooms set apart for the President and Vice-president respectively. Till lately, the President’s room as a rule has been occupied only during a few closing hours of a session, when the President wishes to be readily accessible for the signing of such acts as he approves. Sometimes he has spent the entire last night of a Congress here, returning to the White House for breakfast and coming to the Capitol again for an hour or two before noon. President Wilson has used the room more than any of his recent predecessors, going there to consult the leading members of his party in Congress while legislation is in course of preparation or passage.
The Vice-president’s room has been more constantly in use as a retiring room for its occupant during the intervals when he is not presiding over the sessions of the Senate. On its wall has hung for many years a little gilt-framed mirror for which John Adams, while Vice-president, paid forty dollars, and which was brought with the other appurtenances of the Senate from Philadelphia when the Government removed its headquarters to Washington. Many of the frugal founders of the republic were scandalized at the extravagance of the purchase, and one gravely introduced in the Senate a resolution censuring Adams for having drawn thus heavily upon the public funds “to gratify his personal vanity.” What these good men would say if they were to revisit the Capitol now and see in the same room with the forty-dollar mirror a silver inkstand that cost two hundred dollars and a clock that cost a thousand, we can only imagine. It was in this room, by the way, that Vice-president Wilson died in November, 1875, after an attack of illness which suddenly overcame him at the Capitol and was too severe to justify his being carried to his home.
On the floor below are two other points of interest. We shall do well to descend, not by the broad marble staircases in the north wing, but by an old iron-railed and curved flight of stone steps a little south of the Supreme Court. Note, in passing, its columns, as truly American in design as those above-stairs to which attention has already been directed ; for they conventionalize our Indian corn, the stalks making the body of a pillar and the leaves and ears the capital. The first point we shall visit is the crypt, which is directly under the rotunda. It is a vaulted chamber originally intended as a resting-place for the body of George Washington. There was to have been a circular opening in the ceiling, so that visitors in the rotunda could look down upon the sarcophagus, above which a suspended taper was to be kept continually burning. The light was duly hung there, and not extinguished for many years ; but as Washington’s heirs were unwilling to allow his remains to leave Mount Vernon, the rest of the plan was abandoned.
A little way north of the crypt we come to the room that the Supreme Court occupied for about forty years after the restoration of the Capitol. Out of it was sent the first message with which Samuel F. B. Morse announced to the world the success of his invention, the magnetic telegraph. Morse was perfectly convinced that his device was workable, but he had exhausted his means before being able to make a satisfactory experiment. He therefore asked Congress for an appropriation to equip a trial line between Washington and Baltimore. Some of the members scoffed at his appeal as visionary ; others intimated that he was trying to impose upon the Government ; only a handful seemed to feel enough confidence in him and his project to vote for the appropriation. After a discouraging struggle lasting till the third of March, 1843, Morse was at the Capitol watching the dying hours of the Congress, when his friends advised him that his cause was hopeless, and he returned to his hotel and went to bed.
Before breakfast the next morning he received a call from Miss Annie Ellsworth, daughter of the Commissioner of Patents, who brought him the news that after he had left the Capitol his appropriation had gone through, and the President had signed the bill just before midnight. To reward her as the bearer of glad tidings, Morse invited her to frame the first message to be sent to Baltimore. It took more than a year to build the line and insure its successful operation ; but on May 24, 1844, in the presence of a gathering which filled the court chamber, the inventor seated himself at the instrument, and Miss Ellsworth placed in his hand a phrase she had selected from the twenty-third verse of the twenty-third chapter of the Book of Numbers : “What hath God wrought !” In less time than it takes to tell the facts, the operator in Baltimore had received the message and ticked it back without an error. In that hour of his triumph over skepticism and abuse, Morse could have asked almost anything of Congress without fear of repulse.
Not all the associations which cling about the Capitol are confined to politics or legislation, science or business. The old Hall of Representatives was, in the early days of the last century, long used for religious meetings on Sundays, the Speaker’s desk being converted temporarily into a pulpit. One of the first preachers who held stated services there was a Swedenborgian. When the custom had become well established, most of the clergymen of the city consented to take the Sundays in a certain order of succession. Sir Augustus Foster, a secretary of the British Legation during Jefferson’s administration, has left us his impressions of the meetings :
“A church service can certainly never be called an amusement ; but, from the variety of persons who were allowed to preach in the House of Representatives, there doubtless was some alloy of curiosity in the motives which led one to go there. Though the regular Chaplain was a Presbyterian, sometimes a Methodist, a minister of the Church of England, or a Quaker, sometimes even a woman,, took the Speaker’s chair, and I do not think there was much devotion among the majority. The New Englanders, generally speaking, are very religious ; but though there are many exceptions, I cannot say so much for the Marylanders, and still less for the Virginians.”
Probably this comment on the worldly element entering into the meetings was called forth by their gradual degeneration into a social function. The hall came to be regarded as a pleasant Sunday gathering-place for friends who were able to see little of one another during the secular week. They clustered in knots around the open fireplaces, apparently quite as interested in the intervals afforded for a bit of gossip as in the sermon. The President was accustomed to attend from time to time ; and possibly it was by his order that the Marine Band, nearly one hundred strong and attired in their brilliant red uniforms, were present in the gallery and played the hymn tunes, as well as some stirring march music. Their attendance was discontinued later, as their performances attracted many common idlers to a hall already crowded almost to suffocation with ladies and gentlemen of fashion, and thus increased the confusion.
Partly as a result of this use of the hall, the habit of treating Sunday as a day for social festivities of all sorts reached a point where the strict Sabbatarians felt called to remonstrate. One, a clergyman named Breckenridge, preached a sermon denouncing the irreligious frivolities of the time, which created a great sensation. He addressed his remarks directly to Congress. “It is not the people,” said he, “who will suffer for these enormities. It is the Government. As with Nineveh of old, your temples and your palaces will be burned to the ground, for it is by fire that this sin has usually been punished !” And he cited instance after instance from Bible history, showing how cities, dwellings, and persons had been burned for disrespect of divine law.
One day in the fall of 1814, after the British had left the city scarred with blackened ruins, Mr. Breckenridge was passing the Octagon house, when he was hailed by Dolly Madison from the doorway.
“When I listened to that threatening sermon of yours,” she exclaimed, “I little thought that its warnings would be realized so soon.”
“Oh, Madam,” he answered, “I trust that the chastening of the Lord may not have been in vain !”
It was, however, as far as any permanent change in the habits of the people was concerned. There was a brief interval of greater sobriety due to the sad plight of the community ; then Sunday amusements resumed their sway with as much vigor as of old.
Although to the eye of the casual visitor the Capitol seems so quiet and well-ordered a place that it practically takes care of itself, the truth is that it is continually under pretty rigid surveillance. It has a uniformed corps of special police, whose jurisdiction covers everything within the limits of Capitol Park ; besides this, the Superintendent of the Capitol has general oversight of the building, and the officers of the House and Senate look after their respective wings. When Thomas B. Reed of Maine became Speaker, he found the House wing a squatting ground for a small army of petty merchants who had crept in one by one and established booths for the sale of sandwiches and pies, cigars, periodicals, picture cards, and souvenirs, obstructing the highways of communication between one part of the building and another. He proceeded to sweep them all out. There was loud wailing among the ousted, and some who could command a little political influence brought it to bear on him, but in vain; and for more than twenty years thereafter the corridors remained free from these intruders. With the incoming of the Sixty-third Congress, however, discipline began to relax, and, unless the House acquires another Speaker with Mr. Reed’s notions of propriety and the force of will to compel obedience, we shall probably see the hucksters camping once more on the old trail.
Outside of the building the rules are as well enforced as inside. When Coxey’s Army of the Commonweal marched upon Washington in 1894, its leader advertised his intention to make a speech from the Capitol steps, calling upon Congress to provide work and wages for all the idle laborers in the country. Under the law, no harangue or oration may be delivered anywhere on the Capitol grounds without the express consent of the presiding officers of the two chambers of Congress. Remembering the way the lawmakers had been intimidated by a mob at Philadelphia in the early days of the republic, neither the Speaker nor the President of the Senate was willing that Coxey should carry out his plan; and the Capitol police, without violence or display of temper, made short work of the proposed mass meeting. On another occasion, the performers for a moving-picture show attempted to use the steps of the Capitol as a background for a scene in which a man made up to resemble the President of the United States was to play an undignified part ; the police pounced down upon the company, confiscating the apparatus and escorting the actors to the nearest station-house. A like fate befel an automobilist who, on a wager, tried to drive his machine up the steps of the main portico. Occasionally a bicycler, ambitious to descend this staircase at full speed, has proved too quick-witted for the officers, but as a rule they are at hand when needed.
Now that we are outside, let us look around. To the eastward lies the part of the city broadly designated as Capitol Hill. As far as the eye can reach, it is a beautiful, evenly graded plateau an ideal residence region as far as natural topography, verdure, sunshine, and pure air are concerned. It is the part which George Washington and other promoters of the federal city picked out for its residential end, and the Capitol was built so as to face it. These circumstances made it a favorite locality for speculative investment, and the prices at which early purchasers of land held out against later comers sealed its fate : the tide of favor turned toward the opposite end of the city, and the development of the northwest quarter took a start which has never since halted. The first plans of Capitol Park included on its eastern side a pretty little fish-pond, circular in shape, which must have been about where the two raised flower-beds with mottled marble copings now flank the driveway to First Street.
The west front of the Capitol overlooks a gentle-slope pleasantly turfed and shaded. The building itself descends the slope a little way by an esplanade-and a series of marble terraces, from which broad flight of steps lead down nearly to the main street level.. The perspective view of the Capitol is much more impressive from this side than from the other, thanks to an admirable piece of landscape gardening. In old times, the lawns on the west side were used by the residents of the neighborhood for croquet grounds,. and the whole park was enclosed in an iron fence, with gates that were shut by the watchmen at nine every evening against pedestrians, and at a somewhat later hour against carriages. With characteristic impatience. of such restraints, sometimes a Congressman who had stayed at the Capitol past the closing hour would save himself the trouble of calling a guard to open the gate, by smashing the lock with a stone. The increasing frequency of such incidents undoubtedly had much to do with causing the removal of the fence.
No point in the city affords so fine facilities for fixing L’Enfant’s plan in the mind of the visitor and enabling him to find his way about the older parts of Washington, as the Capitol dome. A spiral staircase, the doors to which open from obscure parts of two corridors, leads first to the inside circular balcony crowning the rotunda. This is worth a few minutes’ delay to test its quality as a whispering gallery. The attendant in charge will show you how, and, if you can lure him into telling you some of the funny things he has seen and heard in his eyrie, you will be well repaid.
More climbing will bring you to an outside perch, which forms a sort of collar for the lantern surmounting the dome. Now open a plainly printed map of Washington and hold it so that the points of the compass on the map correspond with those of the city below you. With a five minutes’ walk around the base of the lantern, to give you the view from every side, you will have mastered the whole scheme designed by L’Enfant. Here are the four quarters northeast, southeast, southwest, northwest as clearly spread before you on the surface of the earth as on the paper in your hand. (Here is the Mall, with its grass and trees, leading up to the Washington Monument and abutting on the executive reservation where stand the White House, the Treasury, and the State, War and Navy Department buildings). Well out to the northward you can descry a tower which fixes the site of the Soldiers’ Home, and to the southward the Potomac, flowing past the War College and the Navy Yard. East of you loom up the hills of Anacostia. On all sides you see the lettered streets running east and west, intersected by the numbered streets running north and south, while, cutting both diagonally at various angles, but in pursuance of a systematic and easily grasped plan, are the avenues named in honor of the various States of the Union. Once let this chart fasten itself in your mind, and there is no reason why, total stranger though you may be, you should have any difficulty in finding your way about Washington.