Ultimate Guide to the U.S. Capitol
One of the most famous landmarks in the world, the 19th-century Neoclassical-style U.S. Capitol attracts millions of people each year. The building’s majestic cast-iron dome, adorned by the bronze Statue of Freedom, soars 285 feet into the air.
In addition to the Legislative Branch of the federal government, the Capitol also houses unique and valuable pieces of art and sculpture. Situated atop Capitol Hill, the edifice is located at the eastern end of the National Mall. Although not at the geographic center of Washington, D.C., the Capitol sits at the intersection of the District’s four quadrants and is the origination point for the city’s street numbering system. The Capitol is just one of the iconic sights you’ll see on aboard a DC Duck Tour.
Construction of a Landmark
Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the architect who laid out the plans for the Federal District, was originally selected to design the Capitol. When he was dismissed, a competition was held to select a new plan, which was ultimately won by Dr. William Thornton, a Scottish-trained doctor from the West Indies. Due to Thornton’s inexperience, work on the building was supervised by a series of architects that included James Hoban, who designed the White House. George Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793 and the first session of Congress was hosted in the completed North Wing in 1800. Three years later, Benjamin Latrobe took charge of construction and finished the South Wing as well as the building’s linking passageway by 1813.
The Rebuilding Years
In retaliation for the attack on Toronto early on in the War of 1812, British forces captured the city of Washington, D.C. and torched several buildings, including the Capitol. The building was spared when a rainstorm extinguished the flames. Latrobe was initially hired to oversee the repairs; he made changes to the original plans and introduced new materials like marble. Boston architect Charles Bulfinch replaced Latrobe in 1817. Bulfinch redesigned the central portion of the building to include a taller dome.
During the 1860s, as Congress grew in concert with the nation, the Capitol was expanded to double its length. The dome was also replaced with the current architectural feature that was designed by Thomas Walter. Work on the extensions was completed in 1868. During the renovations, this famed building also served as a barracks, hospital and bakery for Union troops during the Civil War. In the mid-20th century, the building’s stonework was changed from sandstone to marble.
A Present Day Masterpiece
The U.S. Capitol now covers more than 175,000 square feet. As the home of the national legislature, the building is also a museum, focal point of the National Mall and historical landmark of Washington, D.C.
Under the Dome
The Capitol’s central dome sits atop the Rotunda, which is flanked by the two original smaller wings and the two newer larger and modern wings. The Rotunda ceiling contains a fresco entitled “The Apotheosis of Washington” painted in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi. His work, the “Frieze of American History,” encircles the base of the dome. The artist also painted various murals of events that helped shape U.S. history along with native flora and fauna. These masterpieces adorn hallways known as the Brumidi Corridors. Notable artwork extends to the National Statuary Hall Collection, which features two statues of notable persons from each state. A metal staircase with 365 steps, representing each day of the year, leads to a walkway atop the Capitol dome.
From Burying Place to Exhibit Hall
The Crypt is located on the ground floor of the Capitol. It was originally designed to be the burial place of George Washington. Because Washington was laid to rest at Mount Vernon in accordance with his wishes, the Crypt houses various exhibits as well as Gutzon Borglum’s oversized sculpture of Abraham Lincoln’s head. A compass star in the floor denotes the location where the city is divided into four quadrants.
A Supreme Office Space
The Hall of Columns is home to 28 fluted columns along with statues from the National Statuary Hall collection. The ground floor of this area is also the location for the Old Supreme Court. Before 1935 and the construction of its current chambers, the Supreme Court met inside the Capitol. From 1810 until 1860, the court met in a room in the North Wing that had previously been the lower half of the Senate chamber. From 1860 until 1935, the court met in the ornate Old Senate Chamber, where the legislative body convened until completion of the Capitol expansion. The Old Senate Chamber is the setting where Representative Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner with a cane. Use of the chamber is now limited to ceremonial events.
Representation Through Portrait
The House of Representative chamber is adorned with relief portraits of famous lawgivers and lawmakers throughout history. These include Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, Hammurabi and William Blackstone. The only portrait that features a full front depiction is the one of Moses, which is displayed directly opposite the Speaker of the House’s ceremonial chair.
The Sprawling Grounds
History is Blooming
Frederick Law Olmsted designed the park-like Capitol Grounds in 1898. The plans included the addition of the marble terraces on the north, east and west sides of the building. Covering over 270 picturesque acres, the Capitol Grounds include lawns, planting beds and monumental sculptures. The lush landscape features more than 100 varieties of historic and commemorative trees along with thousands of flowers that provide seasonal displays of color. The curved pathways feature numerous benches where visitors can rest and admire the scenery. Situated on East Capitol Street, Capitol Plaza has six large, red granite lamp piers with wrought iron enclosed light fixtures and bronze light posts. Located north of the Capitol, the Summer House is a hexagonal, open-air brick structure that encloses a fountain and brick chairs.
Touring the Capitol
The entrance to the Capitol Visitor Center is located on East Capitol Street at the intersection of 1st Street, N.E. Tickets to tour the building are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis beginning at 9 a.m. each day. In addition to a 13-minute orientation film, the Visitor Center has a gift shop, cafeteria and exhibitions related to the Capitol. The tour, which takes approximately one hour, highlights the Rotunda, the Crypt and Statuary Hall. When tour groups are small, the guide may also include the Old Supreme Court and the Old Senate Chamber.
Flying of the Flag
While the Senate meets in the North Wing, the House of Representatives confer in the South Wing. An American flag flies over the chamber of each legislative body whenever they are in session. Depending on your travel itinerary, try to visit when both chambers are scheduled to be in session. You’ll know you’re among some of the most influential leaders in our nation.
Develop a Game Plan
March through June is the busiest time for touring this landmark. School groups and other visitors come to the Capitol to see the cherry blossoms and other attractions while enjoying the pleasant weather. If you intend to walk the Capitol Grounds after your DC Duck tour, keep in mind that Washington has a humid, subtropical climate with four distinct seasons. While spring and fall are generally pleasant, summer highs can exceed 90 degrees and winter temperatures average near freezing.
Nearby Points of Interest
A Few Steps Away
Once your tour of the Capitol is complete, head across the street for more Washington, D.C. history. The Library of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court are located directly across First Street, NE from the Capitol. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, the Museum of the American Indian and the National Gallery of Art are also within walking distance of the Capitol.
Continuing Your Day of Sightseeing
The U.S. Botanical Garden is situated just to the south of the Capitol. The botanical garden features exotic plantings, a butterfly garden and a glass-enclosed conservatory. Continuing with nature-themed and outdoor activities, north of the Capitol building is Upper Senate Park. Enjoy the tree-lined lawn and ornate fountain while also visiting the Robert Taft Memorial and Carillon. The Ulysses S. Grant Memorial is found just west of the Capitol.