Washington – The Capitol

The crowning glory of Washington is the Capitol, its towering dome, surmounted by the colossal statue of America, being the prominent landmark, seen from afar, on every approach to the city. The total height to the top of the statue is three hundred and seventy-five feet above the Potomac River level. The grand position, vast architectural mass and impressive effect of the Capitol from almost every point of view have secured for it the praise of the best artistic judges of all countries as the most imposing modern edifice in the world. From the high elevation of the Capitol dome there is a splendid view to the westward over the city spread upon the lower ground beyond the base of Capitol Hill. Diagonally to the southwest and northwest extend two grand avenues as far as eye can see—Maryland Avenue to the left leading down to the Potomac, and carrying the line of the Pennsylvania Railroad to the river, where it crosses over the Long Bridge into Virginia; and Pennsylvania Avenue to the right, stretching to the distant colonnade of the Treasury Building and the tree-covered park south of the Executive Mansion. Between these diverging avenues and extending to the Potomac, more than a mile away, is the Mall, a broad en-closure of lawns and gardens. Upon it in the fore-ground is the Government Botanical Garden, and behind this the spacious grounds surrounding the Smithsonian Institution; while beyond, near the river bank, rises the tall white shaft of the Washington Monument, with its pointed apex.

On either side spreads out the city, the houses bordering the foliage-lined streets, and having at frequent intervals the tall spires of churches, and the massive marble, granite and brick edifices that are used for Government buildings. In front, to the west, is the wide channel of the Potomac, and to the south and southeast the Anacostia, their streams uniting at Greenleaf’s Point, where the Government Arsenal is located. On the heights beyond the point, and across the Anacostia, is the spacious Government Insane Asylum. Far away on the Virginia shore, across the Potomac, rises a long range of wooded hills, amid which is Arlington Heights and its pillared edifice, which was the home of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Mrs. Washington and General Washington’s adopted son, and was subsequently the residence of General Robert E. Lee, who married Miss Custis. Spreading broadly over the forest-clad hills is the Arlington National Cemetery, where fifteen thousand soldiers of the Civil War are buried. At the distant horizon to the left rises the spire of Fairfax Seminary, and beyond, down the Potomac, is seen the city of Alexandria, the river between being dotted with vessels. To the northwest, behind the Executive Mansion, is the spacious building of the State, War and Navy Departments, having for a background the picturesque Georgetown Heights, just over the District boundary, their tops rising four hundred feet above the river. Farther to the north-ward is Seventh Street Hill, crowned with the buildings of Howard University, and beyond it the distant tower of the Soldiers’ Home. All around the view is magnificent ; and years ago, before the city expected to attain anything like its present grandeur, Baron von Humboldt, as he stood upon the western verge of Capitol Hill and surveyed this gorgeous picture, exclaimed : ” I have not seen a more charming panorama in all my travels.”

After the British burnt the original Capitol, it was rebuilt and finished in 1827 ; but the unexampled growth of the country and of Congress soon demanded an extension, which was begun in 1851. It is this extension which supplied the wings and dome, de-signed and constructed by the late Thomas U. Walter, that has made the building so attractive. This grand Republican palace of government, stretching over seven hundred and fifty feet along the top of the hill, has cost about $16,000,000. The old central building is constructed of Virginia freestone, painted white, the massive wings are of white marble from Massachusetts, and the lofty dome is of iron. The dazzling white marble gleams in the sunlight, and fitly closes the view along the great avenues radiating from it as a common centre. The architecture is classic, with Corinthian details, and, to add dignity to the western front, which overlooks the city, a magnificent marble terrace, eight hundred and eighty-four feet long, has been constructed at its base on the crest of the hill, which is approached by two broad flights of steps.

The Capitol is surrounded by a park of about fifty acres, including the western declivity of the hill and part of the plateau on top. Upon this plateau, on the eastern front, the populace assemble every fourth year to witness the inauguration of the President when he is sworn into office by the Chief Justice, and delivers his inaugural address from a broad plat-form at the head of the elaborate staircase leading up to the entrance to the great central rotunda. In full view of the President, as he stands under the grand Corinthian portico, is a colossal statue of Washington, seated in his chair of state, and facing the new President, as if in solemn warning. The rotunda is the most striking feature of the Capitol interior; it is nearly one hundred feet in diameter, and rises one hundred and eighty feet to the ceiling of the dome, which is ornamented with fine frescoes by Brumidi. Large panelled paintings on the walls just above the floor, and alti rilievi over them, represent events in the early history of the country, while at a height of one hundred feet a band nine feet wide runs around the interior of the dome, upon which a series of frescoes tell the story of American history from the landing of Columbus. But, most appropriately, the elaborate decorations, while reproducing so much in Indian legend and Revolutionary story, are not used in any way to recall the Civil War. Away up in the top of the dome there is a Whispering Gallery, to which a stairway laboriously leads.

The old halls of the Senate and House in the original wings of the Capitol are now devoted, the former to the Supreme Court and the latter to a gallery of statuary, to which each State contributes two subjects, mostly Revolutionary or Colonial heroes. Beyond, on either hand, are the extensive new wings—the Senate Chamber to the north and the Representatives’ Hall to the south. Each is surrounded by corridors, beyond which are committee rooms, and there are spacious galleries for the public. Each member has his chair and desk, the seats being arranged in semicircles around the rostrum. In practice, while the House is in session, the members are usually reading or writing, excepting the few who may watch what is going on, because they are specially interested in the matter under consideration; and the member who may have the floor and is speaking is actually heard by very few, his speech being generally made for the galleries – and the official stenographers and newspaper reporters. Debate rarely reaches a point of interest absorbing the actual attention of the whole House, most of the speech-making seeming to be delivered for effect in the member’s home district, this method being usually described as “talking for Buncombe.” The other members read their newspapers, write their letters, clap their hands sharply to summon the nimble pages who run about the hall upon their errands, gossip in groups, and otherwise pass their time, move in and out the cloak- and committee-rooms, and in various ways manage not to listen to much that goes on. Nevertheless, business progresses under an iron-clad code of procedure, the Speaker being a despot who largely controls legislation. The surroundings of the Senate Chamber are grander than those of the House, there being a gorgeous “Marble Hall,” in which Senators give audience to their visitors, and magnificently ornamented apartments for the President and Vice-President. The President’s Room is only occupied during a few hours in the closing scenes ‘ of a session, this small but splendid apartment, which has had $50,000 expended upon its decoration, being a show place for the remainder of the year.