US Capitol, Washington, DC

The dome of the United States Capitol, seen from the southwest side of the building, around 1902. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The history of the United States Capitol dates back to 1793, when George Washington laid the cornerstone of the building. It was first used by Congress in 1800, when the south wing was completed, and the north wing followed in 1807. However, the Capitol was burned by British forces during the invasion of Washington in 1814, and it would not ultimately be completed until 1826. At the time, though, the building looked very different from its current appearance. As shown in this earlier post, it consisted of only rotunda, topped by a low dome, and a small wing on either side of it.

It was not until the 1850s that the Capitol began to take on its current exterior appearance. As the nation grew, so did the size of Congress, and this required the construction of new legislative chambers here in the Capitol. This led to new, larger wings next to the old chambers, along with a larger dome to better suit the scale of the expanded building. The new House and Senate chambers were completed in 1857 and 1859, respectively, but the dome would take longer. As discussed in another previous post, it was still very much unfinished at the outbreak of the Civil War, but it was ultimately completed in 1866.

This dome would become the most distinctive part of the Capitol, serving as a symbol for both Congress and the federal government as a whole. Unlike the rest of the building, the dome is made of cast iron, and at 288 feet it is the tallest cast iron dome in the world. It was the work of architect Thomas U. Walter, who based his design on notable European domes, such as those of the Pantheon and St. Paul’s Cathedral. At the top of the dome is the Statue of Freedom, a 19.5-foot, 15,000-pound bronze statue that was designed by sculptor Thomas Crawford and installed in 1863.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, the Capitol had largely assumed its modern-day appearance. Aside from a late 1950s expansion of the east front, on the opposite side of the building, nearly all of the work done to the building since then has involved conservation and restoration. Today, more than 115 years after the first photo was taken, this particular scene has remained virtually unchanged. However, perhaps the only difference is the level of security at the Capitol. The first photo shows a group of five people descending the steps, but today these steps are closed, and the only public access to the Capitol is through the Capitol Visitor Center, located on the opposite side of the building.

Statuary Hall, US Capitol, Washington, DC

The National Statuary Hall, formerly the U.S. House of Representatives chamber in the Capitol, around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The scene in 2018:

This room in the United States Capitol was constructed between 1815 and 1819 as the House of Representatives chamber. However, the House had actually met here at this site since 1801, when a temporary structure was built here while the Capitol was still under construction. This was replaced by a permanent House chamber in 1807, but this was subsequently burned during the British invasion of Washington in 1814. It was soon rebuilt, though, with designs by architects Benjamin Henry Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch.

The room is semicircular, and shaped like an ancient amphitheater. It is surrounded on all sides by locally-quarried marble columns, which are topped by white marble Corinthian capitals that were imported from Italy. The original design of the room also included two statues, both of which are still here. One is located directly behind where this photo was taken from, and the other, Liberty and the Eagle, is visible above the columns in the center of the room. It was the work of sculptor Enrico Causici, and it features a female depiction of Liberty, holding the Constitution in her outstretched right hand. To her right is an eagle, and to the left is a snake on a column.

Several years after its completion, the House chamber became the subject of an 1823 painting by Samuel F. B. Morse, who had a successful career as a painter before turning his attention to telegraphy. His painting, included below, shows the view of the room from the left side, at approximately a right angle from where these two photos were taken. It is now on display a few blocks away from here at the National Gallery of Art, providing a rare glimpse into this room during the years that it was used by the House of Representatives.

The House of Representatives met here until 1857, when the present House chamber was completed. During this time, this room was the site of many important events. In the years before presidential inaugurations were consistently held outdoors, several such ceremonies were held here, including James Monroe (1821), John Quincy Adams (1825), Andrew Jackson (1833), and Millard Fillmore (1850). Both of James Madison’s inaugurations (1809 and 1813) were also held here, although these occurred before the postwar reconstruction of the chamber. In addition to being inaugurated here, this chamber was also the site of John Quincy Adams’s election to the presidency. None of the four candidates in the 1824 election had received a majority of the electoral votes, so it was left to the House to choose the president here.

Adams’s association with this room would ultimately go far beyond his highly-contested presidential election. Two years after his defeat for re-election in 1828, he became the only ex-president to be elected to the House of Representatives, and he would go on to serve here for nearly 17 years. It was also here that, in 1836, the House instituted the Gag Rule, which blocked discussion of any anti-slavery petitions. This was designed to silence northern abolitionists, particularly Adams, who became perhaps the most vocal opponent of the rule. It would eventually be repealed in 1844, thanks in large part to his efforts, and Adams continued to be be one of the most outspoken abolitionists in the House until his death in 1848. On February 21 of that year, he suffered a stroke while at his desk here in the House chamber, and he died two days later in the adjacent speaker’s room.

Among those present in the chamber when Adams collapsed was Abraham Lincoln, a freshman representative from Illinois. Although they had only been colleagues in the House for a year, Lincoln was selected to serve as a pallbearer at Adams’s funeral, which was also held here in the House chamber. This would prove to be a fitting selection, as Lincoln would eventually accomplish Adams’s lifelong goal of abolishing slavery. Today, plaques on the floor of this room mark the locations of both Lincoln’s desk – located in the rear of the room on the far right side of this scene – and Adams’s desk, which was also on the right, but near the front of the room.

Overall, this room was the site of some of the most important debates and acts of legislation during the antebellum period of American history. The Missouri Compromise was introduced and debated here in 1820, only a year after the room was completed, and it set the policy for the admission of new states for more than three decades. However, in 1854, only a few years before the House relocated to its current chamber, the Missouri Compromise was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This law was hotly debated here on the floor of the House before eventually passing by a narrow margin, and it would prove to be one of the major controversies that ultimately led to the start of the Civil War.

The admission of new states was a considerable source of strife within the House of Representatives throughout the first half of the 19th century, but it also posed a more logistical problem for the House. When this room was completed in 1819, the country had 22 states, with a total of 187 representatives serving here. However, by 1857 there were 31 states, with plenty more potential states on the horizon, and the House had grown to 237 representatives. This overcrowding, combined with notoriously poor acoustics in the room, led Congress to expand the Capitol in the 1850s. On the exterior, the most noticeable changes were the addition of two new wings for new legislative chambers, and a new, larger dome in the center of the building. The current House chamber – located through the doors in the distant center of this scene – was completed in 1857, and the current Senate chamber was completed in 1859 on the opposite end of the building.

After the House moved out, there were several different proposals for re-using this room, including as an art gallery, as space for the Library of Congress, or dividing it into two floors of conference rooms. It would remain vacant for several years, though, with Congress likely being more preoccupied by the Civil War than by redesigning rooms in the Capitol. However, in 1864 this room was designated as the National Statuary Hall, and each state was invited to send two statues of prominent individuals from their history.

The first statue arrived here in 1870, but it would take another century before every state was represented by at least one statue, and it was not until 2005 that each state had two statues here. When the first photo was taken around the turn of the 20th century, the collection included about two dozen statues, eleven of which are visible in this photo. From left to right, these include Roger Sherman (CT), Jonathan Trumbull (CT), Peter Muhlenberg (PA), Ethan Allen (VT), Lewis Cass (MI), James Garfield (OH), William Allen (OH), Jacob Collamer (VT), Robert Fulton (PA), Nathaniel Greene (RI), and Roger Williams (RI).

Over time, as the collection of statues grew, this room became too overcrowded. The dozens of heavy statues also raised structural concerns, so many of them were ultimately relocated to other parts of the Capitol. Today, there are 38 here in Statuary Hall, although only three of the ones visible in the first photo are still here in this room. Of these, only Lewis Cass is still visible from this angle, with his statue standing between the two columns on the left, only a few feet from where it stood a century earlier in the first photo. One of the statues from the first photo, William Allen, has been entirely removed from the Capitol; his statue was replaced in 2016 by one of Thomas Edison.

Overall, aside from rearranged statues, the Statuary Hall has not seen too many changes since the first photo was taken over a century ago. However, in 1976 it was partially restored to its early 19th century appearance, using Morse’s painting as a guide. This included the addition of curtains behind the curtains, along with a replica of the original chandelier in the center of the room. As a result, the present-day appearance of Statuary Hall actually bears a better resemblance to the old House chamber than it did when the first photo was taken.

Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, Washington, DC

The east front of the United States Capitol, during the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1861. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Capitol in 2018:

The first photo was taken around the same time as the one in a previous post, but this one shows the view from further back, with the entire unfinished Capitol dome in view, along with the crowd that had assembled for Lincoln’s first inauguration. It was the culmination of the highly-contentious 1860 presidential election, which saw the splintering of the Democratic Party into regional factions. Lincoln won the four-way race amid threats of secession from the south, and by the time he was inaugurated on March 4, 1861, seven southern states had followed through on their plans.

Because of this, there was a great deal of uncertainty on the day that the first photograph was taken. The start of the Civil War was just over a month away, and there were still plenty of questions about whether the South would be allowed to peacefully secede, or if the newly-inaugurated president would send an army to stop them. Appropriately enough, the backdrop to this event is the unfinished dome of the Capitol. Begun six years earlier, this new dome was still very much a work in progress during Lincoln’s inauguration, and it seemingly represented the as yet unfinished work of uniting the northern and southern regions of the nation.

The Capitol building itself is actually significantly older than this dome, though. Construction began in 1793, and the Senate and House wings were completed in 1800 and 1811, respectively. However, the building was burned in 1814, during the War of 1812, and its reconstruction was not ultimately finished until 1826. At the time, the building was topped by a low dome, which is visible in the first photo of another previous post. As the country grew, though, so did the Capitol building, and two new wings were added in the 1850s. As a result, the old dome looked out of proportion to the old building, so construction began on the current one in 1855.

During the early 19th century, the Capitol became the primary site of presidential inaugurations. At first, these ceremonies were held indoors, in either the Senate of House chambers, but in 1829 Andrew Jackson became the first president to be inaugurated here on the East Portico. This started a tradition that, with few exceptions, continued into the late 20th century. Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration was the last to be held here on the East Portico, and since 1981 the ceremony has – with the exception of Ronald Reagan’s 1985 inauguration in the Rotunda – been held on the West Portico, on the side of the building facing the National Mall and the Washington Monument.

Four years to the day after the first photo was taken, Lincoln’s second inauguration would also be held here on the East Portico. By then, the exterior of the dome had been completed, and Lincoln’s goal of reuniting the nation had likewise been largely accomplished, with the end of the Civil War only weeks away. However, less than a week after Lee’s surrender, and only 42 days into his second term, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, who had actually attended the second inauguration here, and had later claimed that he could have killed Lincoln during the event if he had wanted to.

Today, more than 150 years after the first photo was taken, the East Portico does not appear to have changed much. However, it actually underwent a major expansion starting in 1958, when a new portico was built 32 feet 6 inches in front of the old one. Aside from being built of marble, as opposed to the sandstone of the original walls, this new portico was essentially a duplicate. The old walls remain intact inside the building, although the original columns were removed and now stand in the National Arboretum. The 1958 renovations also involved the removal of two statues that once flanked the east steps. On the left, mostly hidden from view in the first photo, was Luigi Persico’s Discovery of America, and on the right was Horatio Greenough’s The Rescue. Both of these statues featured particularly unflattering depictions of Native Americans, and neither have been put on public display since then.

The other significant addition to this part of the Capitol occurred in the early 2000s, when the Capitol Visitor Center was constructed here. Consisting of 580,000 square feet of floor space on three floors, this massive expansion is almost entirely hidden from view in this scene, as it is located directly under the plaza in front of the East Portico. From this angle, the only visible signs of this underground complex are several skylights, including one on the far left side of the scene.

Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, Washington, DC

The inauguration of Abraham Lincoln on the east steps of the US Capitol, on March 4, 1861. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The same view in 2018:

Although today regarded as one of the greatest US presidents, in 1861 there was much uncertainty surrounding the impending presidency of Abraham Lincoln – several southern states had already succeeded, and more would do so in the coming months, and in just over a month the Confederacy would open fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, thus beginning the Civil War.  During this time, the Capitol was under construction – other views of the inauguration show the fact that the dome was still very much incomplete, and this is often seen as a metaphor of the United States at this time – still very much a work in progress. Today, presidential inaugurations are held on the other side of the Capitol, and a lot has changed on the east front, as mentioned in the previous post about the Capitol.

US Capitol East Face, Washington DC

The east face of the US Capitol, as seen in 1846. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Daguerreotype Collection.

1840s

The scene in 2018:

This is probably the oldest photo I’ve posted so far on this blog, and it illustrates just how many changes have been made to the US Capitol since it opened in 1800.  In fact, the Capitol of 1846 was very different from the original building – it was heavily damaged in 1814 when the British burned much of Washington.  By 1826, it had been reconstructed, this time with the central dome and the rotunda underneath it.

By 1850, construction began on the expansion of the building – the original legislative chambers were no longer big enough for the senators and representatives of the newly-formed states, so the present-day chambers were added on in new wings.  The original chambers are still there, and the location can still be seen in the 2012 photo, to the left and right of the dome.  The dome itself it probably the most obvious change – the newly-expanded building looked rather silly with such a short dome, so it was rebuilt between 1855 and 1866.

One difference that isn’t as noticeable is the front portico and the columns.  Although they appear to be the same, the entire east portico was expanded and rebuilt 32 feet 6 inches outward, starting in 1958.  During this expansion, the columns themselves were replaced, and the original ones are now on display at the National Arboretum a little over 2 miles away.