On Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall in Washington sits the U.S. Capitol building. The structure has experienced construction, burning, rebuilding, expansion, and restoration since its 1793 beginnings. The building is five levels above ground with 600 rooms; the building's area of 1.5 million square feet is similar to 750 2000-square-foot houses packed together. The architectural style is neoclassical, with an abundance of supportive and decorative Corinthian columns featuring capitals (the top of the column) with an American variation of classical acanthus leaves, thistles, and tobacco leaves.
The building holds numerous offices, historic rooms, and art galleries, with the Senate Chamber in the north wing and the House Chamber in the south wing. The circular rotunda, with its high round ceiling, takes center stage. A ceremonial space serves as a gallery of paintings and sculptures depicting significant people and events in the nation's history.
The center structure of the Capitol features a dome designed by Thomas U. Walter and constructed from 1856 to 1866. Huge amounts of building material were required. The dome, weighing about 4,500 tons, required almost 9 million pounds of cast ironwork to be bolted together. To support the dome, columns were set on brackets embedded in 5 million pounds of masonry. The dome is encircled by windows and is 215-feet tall, that is more than 2 90-foot pine trees set on top of each other, from the base to the top of the Statue of Freedom. The almost 20-foot bronze sculpture was created by Thomas Crawford, and installed in 1863. (MDart10/Shutterstock) The original entrance to the Capitol was completed in 1863 during the administration of John Adams, and led to another part of the building, not the Rotunda, as the existing Rotunda was not completed until 1866. Thomas Crawford completed the “Justice and History” sculpture along the entry. Represented by two female figures resting against a globe, “Justice” holds a book inscribed "Justice/Law/Order" in her left hand; her right hand rests on a pair of scales. “History” holds a scroll inscribed "History / July / 1776." The arched glass doorway is steel-encased and light fixtures present hand-forged iron. (Courtesy of Deena Bouknight ) The curved sandstone walls within the Capitol Rotunda are divided by fluted Doric pilasters and present a showcase of sculptures. In 1871, Vinnie Ream completed a marble sculpture on a red granite base of Abraham Lincoln holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. She began the work in 1866, when she was only 18. (Courtesy of Deena Bouknight) Inside the Capitol rotunda, sandstone walls rise as high as an 18-story building. The frescoed frieze wraps completely around the dome, in the belt just below a circle of windows, and was painted by three artists, Constantino Brumidi, Filippo Costaggini, and Allyn Cox. At the crest of the dome is the fresco, “The Apotheosis of Washington,” which was painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865. (Courtesy of Deena Bouknight) The National Statuary Hall, south of the Capitol Rotunda, is built in the shape of an ancient amphitheater and is one of the earliest examples of Greek revival architecture in America. The columns in this room are made of variegated Breccia marble quarried along the Potomac River. A plaster sculpture, “Liberty and the Eagle,” by Enrico Causici, overlooks the grand space from a niche above the colonnade. (Courtesy of Deena Bouknight) A smaller domed enclosure, the Senate Rotunda, is surrounded by columns. Constructed after the 1814 capital city fire as a result of the War of 1812, this rotunda is decorated in painted leaves and flowers of the native American tobacco plant on the columns’ capitals and painted rosettes on the coffers (sunken panels in the dome). The dome’s centerpiece chandelier, weighing almost a ton, is bedecked with crystals. (Courtesy of Deena Bouknight) One of the oldest parts of the Capitol, the Old Senate Chamber is located north of the Capitol Rotunda; from 1819 until 1859, this was the Senate’s original meeting space. The room is semicircular covered by a half dome. The room was designed to maximize sound so speakers could be heard and seen. The central, semicircular skylight is bordered by smaller circular skylights, which enabled the chamber to be flooded with natural light. (Courtesy of Deena Bouknight) Would you like to see other kinds of arts and culture articles? Please email us your story ideas or feedback at [email protected]