Washington DC – Our Capital City

THE commissioners appointed to lay out the capital city were directed to “procure suitable buildings for the accommodation of Congress, and of the President, and for the public offices of the government of the United States”; and, shortly after the city was surveyed, they entered upon this portion of their duties. On L’Enfant’s design the Federal House for Congress” was designated as the Capitol,” and this name, meeting with the approval of President Washington, was adopted. It had been ascertained that the hill in the eastern section was” the central point ‘ of the city, and therefore it was decided to erect the Capitol there, with its front toward the east, where a spacious level plateau extended for two miles. It was believed that on this plateau the best houses would be erected. To the westward were swamps and woods, hillocks and creeks, and it was apparent that the eastern section was in every way better adapted for the homes of the cultivated and wealthy people who were expected to settle in the national city. But the city’s growth was almost entirely toward the west; and to-day the Capitol stands with its back to the populous and fashionable part of Washington. It has been humorously said that ” the Capitol is like the Irishman’s shanty, which had the front door on the back side.” It is proposed to reconstruct the western facade and make it similar to the eastern, and doubtless this will be done before many years.

A premium of $500 and a building-lot was offered by the commissioners for the best design of the Capitol, and in response to their advertisement sixteen designs were submitted by architects in the principal cities. These designs were carefully examined by Mr. Jefferson, the Secretary of State, and promptly rejected by him, being mostly beneath serious consideration. Mr. Jefferson had early ex-pressed a preference for ” the adoption of some of the models of antiquity, which have had the approbation of thousands of years.” In July, 1792, a French architect residing in New York, named Stephen L. Hallet, or Hallate, as it was sometimes written, sent a sketch of a design to the commissioners which met with favor, and he was invited to come t0 Washington and examine the locality chosen for the Capitol, in order that he might fully perfect his design, which, in many particulars, was satisfactory. About this time an amateur draughts-man, named Dr. William Thornton, an Englishman who had come to the United States after residing for some years in the West Indies, presented a highly colored and elaborated design to Washington and Jefferson, which so greatly pleased them that the President sent a communication to the commissioners requesting the adoption of Thornton’s design in place of Hallet’s, but suggesting that they do it with delicacy.” It was advised, however, that Mallet be engaged as supervising architect, as Thornton had no practical knowledge of architecture.

Hallet was informed of this request, doubtless ” with delicacy,” and immediately began to develop and improve his design. Thorn-ton also improved his, and for several weeks these aspirants for the distinguished honor of designing the Capitol of the new and vigorous American Nation, worked with intense rivalry and bitter feeling. A charge was made by Hallet that Thornton had stolen the major part of his design from his (Hallet’s) rough sketches, and had merely drawn out in detail the plans he had thus obtained. This charge was stoutly denied by Thornton, and his denial being satisfactory to the commissioners, they finally accepted his design, and awarded the premium to him. Although Hallet demurred at this award, and was greatly aggrieved by it, he was partially appeased by receiving the appointment of supervising architect of the Capitol, with a salary of £400 per year, and began work on the edifice.

On the 18th of September, 1793, the corner-stone was laid in the southeast corner of what was to be the north wing of the Capitol. In an ancient account of this event it is stated that ” a grand Masonic, military and civic procession was formed on the square in front of the President’s grounds, from whence it proceeded to the Capitol with martial music and flying colors, attended by an immense concourse of spectators. The ceremony was grand and imposing, and large numbers from various parts of the country attended.” On the corner-stone was placed a large silver plate, which was inscribed as follows:

” This southeast corner-stone of the Capitol of the United States of America in the City of Washington was laid on the 18th day of September, 1793, in the 13th year of American Independence, in the first year of the second term of the Presidency of George Washing-ton, whose virtues in the civil administration of his country have been as conspicuous and beneficial as his military valor and prudence have been useful in establishing her liberties, and in the year of Masonry 5793, by the President of the United States in concert with the Grand Lodge of Maryland, several Lodges under its jurisdiction, and Lodge No. 22, from Alexandria, Virginia.”

President Washington delivered an oration, it is believed, although no record of it can be found, and the Grand Master of the Maryland Masons made an impressive address. After the ceremony ” the assemblage retired to an extensive booth, where they enjoyed a barbecue feast.”

A few months after the corner-stone had been laid, a serious quarrel began between Architect Mallet and Dr. Thornton, who had been appointed one of the commissioners. Hallet was requested to furnish the commissioners with his various drawings and designs, but he peremptorily declined, and, in consequence, was dismissed from the public service. George Hadfield, an Englishman, who came highly recommended by Benjamin West, and also by James Hoban, the architect of the White House, was appointed in Hallet’s place, and remained until he, too, had a quarrel with the commissioners, and was forced to give up the position. Hoban continued the work, and finished the north wing in 1800.

In 1803 the construction of the south wing was placed in the hands of Benjamin II. Latrobe, who had come from London, where he had thoroughly studied architecture with Cockrell, one of the leading architects of his day. He arrived in the United States in 1796, and in Norfolk, Va., was introduced to Judge Bushrod Washington, a nephew of the President, who took him to Mount Vernon to form the acquaintance of Washington. Latrobe made a favorable impression upon the President, and was frequently consulted by him in regard to the public buildings. When he was engaged as the architect of the Capitol, the commissioners gave him full power to construct the south wing, and also to remodel the north wing, which had been very poorly constructed, in accordance with his own plans. He finished the work in 1811, and then connected the wings by a large wooden scaffolding, or bridge, which occupied the place of the present Rotunda. The walls of the wings were constructed of sandstone, quarried on an island in Acquia Creek, a small stream that empties into the Potomac River about forty miles below Washington; and the bricks used for the interior work were made in kilns, erected on the Capitol grounds. Congress had occupied the building since 1800, and at the time the British troops invaded the city, on Aug. 24, 1814, the new Capitol looked quite imposing on its hilltop.

The British army, commanded jointly by General Ross and Admiral Cockburn, reached Capitol Hill early in the evening, flushed and excited by their victory at Bladensburg. As General Ross rode toward the Capitol his horse was killed by a shot fired from a house in the vicinity. The shot was apparently aimed at the British general, and it so enraged the troops that, after setting fire to the house containing the sharpshooter, they marched quickly to the Capitol, and fired several volleys into its windows. A regiment then marched into the hall of the House of Representatives, ” the drums and fifes playing ‘ The British Grenadiers,'” and the soldiers were formed around the Speaker’s chair. Admiral Cockburn was escorted to the post of honor, and, seating himself, derisively called the excited assemblage to order. ” Shall this harbor of Yankee Democracy be burned ? All for it say aye ! ” he shouted. There was a tumultuous cry of affirmation, and then the order was given to fire the building. The pitch-pine boards were torn from the passage-way between the wings, the books and papers of the Library of Congress were pulled from their shelves and scattered over the floor, valuable paintings in a room adjoining the Senate Chamber were cut from their frames, and the torch applied to the combustible mass. Presently clouds of smoke and columns of fire ascended from the Capitol, and it seemed doomed to destruction. The soldiers discharged army rockets through the roof of each wing, and when the fire was burning furiously, left the building and marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to fire the other public edifices. The wooden passage-way, and the roofs and interiors of the wings were burned, but the walls were saved, as the flames were extinguished in time by a severe rain which set in within half an hour after the fire had begun, and continued all the evening.

Congress held its first session after the British invasion in Blodgett’s Hotel, which occupied the site of the present Post-Office building. The Capitol was ordered rebuilt, and in December, 1816, Congress leased a building which the citizens of Washington had erected near the eastern grounds of the Capitol, and held its sessions in it for several years. This building has always been known as the Old Capitol.” In it John C. Calhoun died on the 31st of March, 1850; and during the Civil War it was used as a prison for Confederates. Henry Wirz, the keeper of Andersonville prison, was hanged in its yard on Nov. 10, 1865. It is now standing, and is used for business purposes and for residences.

At the time the Capitol was burned, Latrobe, its real architect, was in Pittsburg, aiding in the construction of a steamboat for Robert Fulton. He was immediately recalled to Washington, and, after a thorough examination, reported that the Capitol could be easily re-stored, as its foundations and walls were unimpaired. Latrobe was a man of infinite resource. He could speak five modern languages fluently, and was also familiar with Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He was an inventor, and a discoverer. In the Loudon Hills, in Virginia, he discovered the beautiful mottled marble, known as breccia,” which he used extensively in the interior of the Capitol. He invented what President Madison called the American order of architecture,” using designs of Indian corn, the cotton blossom, and the tobacco-leaf for columns and capitals instead of the acanthus. Until 1817 he labored assiduously to restore and improve the Capitol, and to him the credit is due for tile old hail of the House of Representatives, now the National Statuary Hall; the old Senate Chamber, now used by the Supreme Court; the Law Library Chamber, and the old lobbies. When he resigned, and Charles Bulfinch was engaged as the architect, the understanding was that the Capitol should be completed in accordance with the designs he had made.

Bulfinch was a native of Massachusetts. He had constructed the old State House in Boston, and had performed other notable work. For ten years he devoted himself to the Capitol, following Latrobe’s plan to a great extent. He completed what were then called the wings, and connected them by the central Rotunda, with a low dome, and also built the main hall of the Library of Congress. In 1827 he reported to Congress that the Capitol was finished, and three years later, resigned the position of architect and returned to Boston. The edifice was declared “majestic,” and “perfect in all its adaptations.” It covered about one and one-half acres, and was three hundred and fifty-two feet long, and seventy feet high to the top of the balustrade. To the top of the dome it was one hundred and forty-five feet high. Its construction had cost $2,433,814.