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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Survey of
Historic Sites and Buildings

National Historic Landmark United States Capitol
District of Columbia
United States Capitol
United States Capitol

Capitol Hill, Washington.

An architectural masterpiece reminiscent of an ancient Roman temple, the Capitol sits on the crest of a knoll dominating the Capital City. It is not only a national shrine, but also a worldwide symbol of liberty and a monument to the hopes and aspirations of all mankind. Since 1800, except for a few short periods, it has been the seat of Congress; the flag flies over it day and night. Within its walls, political forces affecting the destiny of our land have recurrently and dramatically clashed. They have been resolved in the enactment of laws influencing the lives of all Americans.

U.S. Capitol
View of the Capitol's east front, where most Presidents have been inaugurated. (Library of Congress.)

THE Capitol and Congress are closely associated with the selection of the Presidents, the ceremonial aspects of their office, and their role in the Government. The Chief Executives are officially elected in the Capitol. They take their oaths of office and deliver their inaugural addresses in public ceremonies at the east front. They deliver many speeches to the Congress. Most of them held congressional seats prior to their ascent to the higher office; and two even returned afterward for further service. In death, the Presidents are mourned in the rotunda.

Congress, in joint session, counts the electoral ballots to determine the President and Vice President. When no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives elects the President. This occurred with Jefferson in 1801, and with John Quincy Adams in 1825. The two Houses established a special commission to settle the disputed election of 1876, and Hayes emerged the winner. In the early years of the Republic, before national conventions were introduced, congressional caucuses nominated Presidential candidates.

U.S. Capitol
This daguerreotype by John C. Plumbe, Jr., taken about 1846, is the earliest known photographic image of the Capitol. This dome was later replaced, and the wings substantially extended. (Library of Congress.)

Congress is also empowered under certain circumstances to remove the Chief Executive or to ascertain whether or not a disabled one should remain in power. In 1868 the House impeached Andrew Johnson, and the Senate tried but acquitted him. In 1974 the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment for President Nixon, but he resigned before the full House could consider them.

Thomas Jefferson, in 1801, was the first Chief Executive to be inaugurated at the Capitol. He walked over from his nearby boardinghouse and took his oath of office in the Senate Chamber. Other subsequent early Presidents spoke their vows there or in the House Chamber. Beginning with Andrew Jackson, in 1829, they have customarily been sworn in during outdoor ceremonies at the east front, though in a few instances bad weather and other factors have dictated that they be held within the Capitol or elsewhere. For example, because of World War II security precautions, the fourth inaugural of Franklin D. Roosevelt was conducted at the White House.

Vice Presidents succeeding to the Presidency upon the death or assassination of their predecessors have assumed office in more subdued ceremonies at a variety of locations. Only two of these ceremonies transpired at the Capitol: in 1850, when Millard Fillmore took his pledge of office in the House Chamber following Taylor's death; and in 1881, after Garfield's assassination, when Chester A. Arthur repeated, in the Vice President's Office, the oath he had earlier rendered in his New York City home.

John Adams, in 1800, was the first Chief Executive to address a joint session of Congress in the Capitol. Woodrow Wilson, in 1913, broke the custom initiated by Adams' successor, Jefferson, that the President should not appear there in person. Frequently since Wilson's time others have personally delivered State of the Union speeches and other communications to the Congress.

Many Chief Executives, earlier in their careers, served as Senators or Representatives. Several Vice Presidents, who presided over the Senate, subsequently rose to the highest office in the land. Two former occupants of that post, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson, served in Congress. The former suffered a stroke in the House Chamber and died in a nearby room.

In the central rotunda, nine Presidents or ex-Presidents have lain in state—Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Taft, Hoover, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson—as well as such notables as the Unknown Soldiers of World Wars I and II and Korea, Adm. George Dewey, and Gens. John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. In 1835 Andrew Jackson, while President, escaped an assassination attempt in the rotunda while he was attending funeral services for a Congressman.

Senate Chamber
In the Senate Chamber on May 16, 1868, Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas casts his decisive "not guilty" vote during the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson. Although the latter was not present, he was represented by counsel. (Engraving, after a sketch by James E. Taylor, in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 6, 1868, Library of Congress.)

THE Capitol, which was positioned at the hub of Washington's streets by city planner Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant, sits on Capitol (originally Jenkins) Hill. In April 1793 Dr. William Thornton, a physician by profession but architect by avocation, won the design competition. George Washington laid the corner stone in September. Work soon began, laborers using light gray sandstone from the quarries in Aquia, Va. But Thornton clashed with a series of professional architects who were supervising construction, some of whom wished to make major alterations in his design. He acquiesced, however, to changes that James Hoban, their supervisor and the White House architect, recommended.

When the Government moved from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800, Congress and the Supreme Court crowded into the newly finished north (Senate) wing, the first part of the structure to be completed. The next year, the House moved into a temporary building that was erected within the foundations of the south wing. In 1804 the progress of construction necessitated return of the House to the north one. The year before, Benjamin H. Latrobe had taken charge of the building. Four years later, the House Chamber was finished, and it was then connected with the Senate side by a covered wooden walkway.

During the War of 1812, in August 1814, British troops raided Washington and set fire to many buildings, including the unfinished Capitol. A heavy rainstorm and a small group of patriots quenched the flames and saved it from total destruction. Congress reconvened the next month in the Patent Office Building (formerly Blodgett's Hotel), the only Government structure to escape burning. From late the following year until 1819, sessions were held in a hastily erected structure, known as the Brick Capitol, which stood on part of the site of the present Supreme Court Building (1935); outside it, in 1817, James Monroe took his first Presidential oath.

Latrobe had undertaken restoration of the Capitol immediately following the war, but in 1817 Charles Bulfinch replaced him. Two years later, the Senate and House Chambers, somewhat modified from the original plans, were finished. Meanwhile, construction of the projected central portion of the edifice, including its east and west fronts and rotunda, had begun. The latter, which was surmounted by a wooden, copper-covered dome, was essentially completed by 1824. But neither the Senate nor the House assumed any responsibility for it. For a few years, a multitude of hucksters invaded it and turned it into a marketplace; they sold everything from vegetables to ribbons and pianos.

McKinley inauguration
President McKinley delivering his second inaugural address at the east front of the Capitol, in 1901. (Library of Congress, Frances Benjamin Johnson.)

The present House and Senate wings (1851-59), extensions of the old south and north ones, were constructed to provide more spacious quarters for Congress. Under the direction of Thomas U. Walter, they were built of Massachusetts and Maryland marble. Within a few years, the old House Chamber became Statuary Hall; and the Supreme Court, which had been meeting on the ground floor in the room underneath, took over the old Senate Chamber. It remained there until the present Supreme Court Building was finished in 1935. During the later part of this time, former President Taft held the Chief Justiceship. The Electoral Commission that decided the election of 1876 included some Justices and met in the old Senate Chamber.

To improve architectural proportions with the new Senate and House wings, the present and taller cast-and wrought-iron dome over the rotunda was designed to replace the wooden one. Begun in 1855, it was completed during the middle of the Civil War, late in 1863, when Thomas Crawford's bronze "Statue of Freedom" was hoisted into position atop the new dome. Simultaneously, fire from 12 fortifications surrounding the city echoed a 35-gun salute from Capitol Hill. During the war, the rotunda served as a barracks and hospital.

Although the porticoes and other exterior details were not finished until a few years later and various renovations have occurred over the course of time, the only major alteration since the Civil War has been the extension of the east facade (1958-62), a new marble front between the Senate and House Chambers that followed the design of the old sandstone one.

Wilson giving speech
President Wilson presents his war message to a joint session of Congress on April 2,1917. During this speech, he employed the phrase "The world must be made safe for democracy (Library of Congress.)

THE gleaming white Capitol rises majestically at the east end of the Mall. The gracefully landscaped grounds surrounding it on all sides have been greatly enlarged from the extent originally envisioned. Frederick Law Olmsted planned their present arrangement, including the plaza to the east and the west, south, and north stone terraces, under which are offices. Just outside the west grounds are memorials to Grant and Garfield.

The vista from the west facade—down the Mall to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial—is magnificent. Massive colonnaded porticoes project from this front and its two extended wings. The terraces, which stretch along this side and the flanks of the building on the ground-floor level, hide the basement, which is above ground, from the approaches.

The famed dome of the Capitol, modeled after European examples, springs from a drum-like base, which is surrounded by a peristyle colonnade of 36 fluted Corinthian columns. Inside the colonnade is a group of long semicircular windows; atop it is an exterior gallery. Above the peristyle, a clerestory features additional semicircular windows. A row of console brackets separates the clerestory from the ribbed surface of the cap of the dome. Medallion windows are set in the spaces between the ribs. A lantern decorated with a colonnade of 12 fluted Corinthian columns surmounts the cap, which is crowned by the Statue of Freedom.

The east front looks directly out over the broad open east plaza—a concourse of humanity on Inauguration Day—and across to the U.S. Supreme Court Building and the Library of Congress. Double porticoes of giant 30-foot Corinthian columns dominate the facades of the three main sections. Wide marble stairways lead up to each of the porticoes, the central portions of which are set forward and topped by sculptured pediments. The inaugural stand, a temporary structure, is erected quadrennially over the central steps in front of the entrance to the main rotunda.

Capitol rotunda
Ex-President Kennedy's body lies in state in the rotunda of the Capitol. (Library of Congress, Architect of the Capitol Collection.)

The interior of the Capitol is divided into about 540 rooms, on five main levels. Besides the House and Senate Chambers, it includes a President's Room, an office for the Vice President, and various staff facilities. Senators and Representatives maintain their offices in the House and Senate Office Buildings, which are adjacent to their respective wings of the Capitol and connected to it by subways.

The Senate Chamber has changed little over the years, but contains modern lighting and acoustical facilities. The mahogany desks, arranged in a semicircular pattern, face the rostrum, where the Vice President presides. Visitor galleries are on the second level. The President's Room, near the Senate Chamber, is richly appointed. Chief Executives have sometimes utilized it to sign congressional bills. Woodrow Wilson took his oath of office privately there in 1917 because his inaugural fell on a Sunday. The next day, he was sworn in publicly on the east portico. The House Chamber is similar to the Senate in that its rows of seats, of walnut, are alined in a semicircle around the Speaker's rostrum and the galleries are above. It is, however, a much larger room and Congress uses it for joint sessions.

The Capitol's artwork honors the Presidents and other outstanding individuals and groups. The main rotunda features statues of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, and Garfield. On the interior of the dome is the remarkable fresco "The Apotheosis of Washington," painted from scaffolds by Constantino Brumidi, much of whose work is also visible elsewhere within the structure. On this gigantic canopy in a prodigious feat of solitary workmanship, he employed his artistic powers to scale heroic figures to appear life size from below.

The frieze, circling the walls below the fresco and picturing events in U.S. history, is partially the work of Brumidi. He died in 1880, before he could complete it, a task accomplished by Allyn Cox. Below the frieze hang four large paintings by John Trumbull that commemorate the War for Independence and another four on different themes by other artists. Below the rotunda, on the basement floor, is the empty crypt intended as a tomb for George Washington, who preferred to be buried at Mount Vernon.

Other sections of the building consist of offices, committee rooms, and other facilities for Congressmen. Guided tours of some of the public rooms begin in the rotunda.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004