US Capitol, Washington, DC (3)

The view of the Capitol from the west side, around 1880-1897. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

This scene shows the west portico of the Capitol, the side of the building that faces the Mall and the Washington Monument. As discussed in an earlier post, which shows the view from the east side, the Capitol has been in use since 1800, although it has undergone significant changes during this time. The building was burned by the British in 1814 during the War of 1812, and it was subsequently rebuilt. This work was completed in 1826, but the Capitol was much smaller at the time, consisting of only a low dome and the two small wings on either side. The north wing, visible immediately to the left of the dome in this scene, housed the original Senate chamber, while the House of Representatives was located in the south wing.

By the mid-19th century, Congress had outgrown the building, so in the early 1850s work began on a major expansion, with two new wings that extended the Capitol further to the north and to the south. The project included new chambers for both the House and the Senate, which opened in 1857 and 1859, respectively. These wings are only partially visible in this scene, with the present-day Senate chamber on the far left, and the House chamber on the far right. Aside from these wings, the project also included a new, much larger dome, which was completed in 1863 and topped with the 19.5-foot bronze Statue of Freedom, as shown in these photos.

With the completion of the dome, the Capitol largely assumed its present-day appearance. The first photo was taken several decades later, around the 1880s or 1890s, and very little has changed in this view since then. Today, the west portico is probably best known as the site of the presidential inauguration, which occurs here every four years on January 20. However, for most of the building’s history the event was held on the east portico, and it was not until the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan that it was held here on the west side. This was done in part as a cost-saving measure, and also as a way to allow for more spectators, with the mile-long Mall providing plenty of open space and views of the Capitol. With the exception of Reagan’s second inauguration, which was held in the Capitol Rotunda, every ceremony since then has been held here. Of these, Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 reportedly drew the largest crowd, with an estimated 1.8 million visitors gathering on the Mall.

US Capitol, Washington, DC (2)

The U. S. Capitol, seen from the northwest around 1910-1920. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The Capitol in 2018:

This view of the Capitol is similar to one in a previous post, except it shows the building from the northwest instead of the northeast. As discussed in that post, construction on the Capitol began in 1793, and the partially-completed building was first used by Congress in 1800, when the federal government moved from Philadelphia to Washington. It subsequently burned during the War of 1812, and for several years afterward Congress met in temporary quarters on the current site of the Supreme Court building. Congress returned to the Capitol in 1819, although the building was not fully completed until 1826.

At the time, though, the exterior of the Capitol was very different from its current appearance. Instead of its current cast iron dome, it was topped with a low copper-covered wood dome, and on either side of the Rotunda were small wings for the House and Senate. However, as the country grew so did the size of Congress, and by the mid-19th century the Capitol was becoming too small. This resulted in a massive expansion project that began in the early 1850s and was completed in 1863. As part of it, new wings were constructed for the two houses of Congress, and a new, much larger dome was added above the Rotunda.

By the end of the Civil War, the exterior of the Capitol had largely assumed its current appearance. The first photo was taken about 50 years later during the 1910s, looking up the walkway towards the west portico of the building. Remarkably little has changed in this scene since then. Perhaps the only significant difference in the present-day scene is the barricade in the distance at the base of the steps, in place as a security measure. Otherwise, though, this view looks the same as it did a century ago, and the Capitol remains an iconic symbol of both Washington D. C. in general and the federal government in particular.

Statuary Hall, US Capitol, Washington, DC (3)

Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol, seen from the southeast corner around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in previous posts showing the north and south sides of this room, this was once the chamber for the U. S. House of Representatives, which met here from 1819 until the current chamber was opened in 1857. The room sat vacant for several years afterwards, amid a variety of proposals for its reuse. Then, in 1864 it was designated as the National Statuary Hall. Each state was invited to send two statues for display here, representing prominent citizens from the state’s history.

The states were slow in responding to this request, and the first statue, of Rhode Island’s Nathanael Green, did not arrive here until 1870. By the time the first photo was taken around 1904, there were 45 states in the union, yet only 27 statues here in the collection, 11 of which are shown in the photo. Going around the room from left to right, they are: Lewis Cass (MI), James Garfield (OH), William Allen (OH), Jacob Collamer (VT), Robert Fulton (PA), Nathanael Greene (RI), Roger Williams (RI), George Clinton (NY), Richard Stockton (NJ), James Shields (IL), and Philip Kearny (NJ).

Today, more than a century later, the Capitol’s collection is now complete, with 100 statues from all 50 states. This room still serves as Statuary Hall, although only 38 of the statues are currently here, and the rest are distributed throughout the Capitol building. Of the 11 from the first photo, only the statues of Cass and Fulton are still in this room, and only Fulton’s is visible in the second photo, just to the right of the mantlepiece in the lower right-center of the scene. Aside from the arrangement of the statues, though, very little has changed in this scene since the first photo was taken, and the room is one of several stops included on most public tours of the Capitol.

Statuary Hall, US Capitol, Washington, DC (2)

Statuary Hall in the U. S. Capitol, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in more detail in an earlier post, this room was once occupied by the U. S. House of Representatives, which met here from 1819 until the opening of its current chamber in 1857. The House has two earlier chambers here on this same spot, starting in 1801 with a temporary brick structure. A more permanent chamber was completed here in 1807, although it was destroyed just seven years when the British burned Washington during the War of 1812.

This particular view faces the semicircular northern wall of the room, with the Rotunda and the Senate wing visible in the distance down the hallway. When completed, this wall was the rear of the House chamber, so this would have been the view looking up the central aisle from the Speaker’s rostrum. The chamber is surrounded by marble Corinthian columns, and the original design also included two statues. One of these, The Car of History, is visible in this scene above the doorway. It features the muse Clio recording history as she travels in a winged chariot that represents time, and it was created by sculptor Carlo Franzoni and installed in 1819.

The chamber remained in use by the House for nearly 40 years, and during this time it was the scene of many important debates and other events in the period leading up to the Civil War. However, by the mid-19th century the House was in need of a new chamber, in part because of the poor acoustics caused by the curved ceilings, and also because the steady admission of new states began to cause crowding here. Starting in the early 1850s, the Capitol underwent a major expansion, including the addition of a new dome and two large wings to accommodate new chambers for both the House and Senate. The House wing was completed in 1857, directly behind the spot where these photos were taken, and the House subsequently vacated this chamber.

In the years that followed, this space was the subject of several different proposals, including one that would have divided it into two floors of conference rooms. However, in 1864 it was designated as the National Statuary Hall, and each state was invited to send two statues to put on display here. The statues were slow in arriving, and it was not until 1971 that all 50 states were represented here. By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century there were about two dozen statues in the collection. Two of them, representing New Hampshire, are visible here in the first photo, with John Stark on the left and Daniel Webster on the right. Both arrived here in 1894, and they were both the work of noted sculptor Carl Conrads.

Today, more than a century after the first photo was taken, this room is still used as Statuary Hall. In 1976 it was partially restored to its original appearance, including the addition of curtains behind the columns, but otherwise this scene still looks essentially the same as it did at the turn of the 20th century. The statues themselves have been rearranged over the years, though. Because of overcrowding and structural concerns about the weight of the many statues, many have since been relocated to other parts of the Capitol. Thirteen of them, one from each of the original states, are now in the crypt below the rotunda, including New Hampshire’s statue of John Stark. The state’s other statue, of Daniel Webster, is still here in the room, although it is not visible from this particular angle.

Old Senate Chamber, US Capitol, Washington, DC

The Old Senate Chamber at the U. S. Capitol, around 1902, during its time as the courtroom of the Supreme Court. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The United States Capitol was first used in 1800, the same year that the government moved to Washington D.C. from its temporary location in Philadelphia. Aside from a short interruption in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when the British burned much of Washington, the building has remained in use ever since, although it has undergone significant changes and expansions since then.

In its original form, the Capitol consisted of two wings, connected by a central rotunda that was topped by a low wooden dome. The south wing was occupied by the House of Representatives, which met in the chamber that is now known as Statuary Hall. Here on the north side of the building was the Senate wing, which had a chamber that was somewhat smaller than the House’s, given the smaller number of senators.

As with the House chamber, this Senate chamber was rebuilt after the War of 1812, and the work was completed in 1819. It was designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and it is semicircular in shape, reflecting the appearance of an ancient amphitheater. Other classically-inspired features include the marble Ionic columns, which are similar to the Corinthian ones found in the House chamber. The room was built with two visitor galleries, with one along the curved wall behind the senators, and the other above the front of the room, as shown in this scene.

This chamber was the home of the Senate for the next 40 years, from 1819 to 1859. It was the scene of many important events in the years leading up to the Civil War, and for much of this time the Senate was dominated by the Great Triumvirate, consisting of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Representing the three major regions of the country at the time, these men were three of the most powerful American politicians of the Antebellum period, and they were involved in many debates in this room.

However, perhaps the single most noteworthy incident in this room occurred on May 22, 1856, when abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was nearly caned to death at his desk by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks. The attack was prompted by a speech that Sumner had given here two days before, in which he harshly criticized slavery in general and South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler in particular. Brooks, who was Butler’s cousin, then waited until Sumner was nearly alone here in the chamber, and began bludgeoning him with his cane while pinned Sumner under his desk.

The attack rendered Sumner unconscious, but Brooks continued to beat him until several other congressmen intervened. By this point, he had suffered serious trauma to his head and spinal cord, and it took three years before he had recovered enough to resume his duties in the Senate. In the meantime, the attack helped to further polarize the already divided nation, with southerners praising Brooks while northerners condemned his actions as an attack on free speech itself. Within less than five years, South Carolina would become the first state to secede from the Union, and it would begin the Civil War with its bombardment of Fort Sumter.

Even as the nation was dividing, though, the Capitol itself was growing. Westward expansion had led to the admission of many new states over the years, and the original congressional chambers were becoming crowded. This was particularly evident here in the Senate chamber, with the number of senators increasing by nearly 50 percent between 1819 and 1858, from 44 to 64. As a result, by the early 1850s work had begun on a massive expansion of the Capitol, creating two new, much larger wings beyond the original ones. The new House chamber was completed in 1857, followed by the new Senate chamber in 1859.

Both of these new chambers are still used today, and the old ones have since been repurposed. The former House chamber became the National Statuary Hall, and starting in 1860 the Senate chamber was occupied by the U. S. Supreme Court, which had previously met in the room directly underneath it. It would go on to be used as the courtroom of the Supreme Court for the next 75 years, before its current building opened across the street from the Capitol in 1935.

During this time, the Supreme Court heard a number of important cases here, perhaps the most notable of which was the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which ruled that segregation was legal under the “separate but equal” doctrine. This was followed by the Lochner era of the court’s history, from 1897 to 1937, when the court took a politically conservative approach to economic regulations. Using the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the court struck down many state and federal laws, including those that limited weekly working hours, prohibited child labor, and established minimum wages.

Many prominent Supreme Court justices served on the bench here in this room. When the court first moved here in 1860, the chief justice was Roger B. Taney, who had served in that capacity since 1836. He remained on the court until his death in 1864, making him the second-longest tenured chief justice in history, but he is probably best known as the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Other notable justices who served here included John Marshall Harlan, the sole dissenting vote in the Plessy case; Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who coined the phrase “shouting fire in a theatre” in a 1919 court opinion; Charles Evans Hughes, the chief justice who frequently clashed with Franklin D. Roosevelt over the president’s New Deal policies; and former President William Howard Taft, who served as chief justice from 1921 to 1930.

It was during Taft’s time as chief justice that he began lobbying for a separate building for the Supreme Court. This would not only relieve the overcrowding here in its Capitol quarters, but it would also reflect the court’s role as a separate, independent branch of the federal government. After Taft’s retirement and death in 1930, his successor Hughes continued these efforts, and two years later construction began on the present-day Supreme Court building. The site was directly across First Street NE from the Capitol, on the spot where the Old Capitol Prison had previously stood. The building was completed in 1935, and the court subsequently vacated this space here in the old Senate chamber.

The first photo was taken around 1902, and it shows the room’s appearance when it was used by the Supreme Court. At the time, the layout of the room bore little resemblance to its time as the Senate chamber. The senators had taken their desks with them when they moved in 1859, and the vice president’s dais at the front of the room was replaced by a long bench for the justices, as shown in the first photo. Probably the only object left from the Senate in that photo is the gilded wood eagle, located in the center above the chief justice’s chair. It was installed here as early as 1838, and it originally sat atop a wood shield. After the Supreme Court moved into here, the shield was placed above the door on the outside of the chamber, although the eagle remained at its perch the front.

After the Supreme Court left in 1935, this room was used intermittently for meetings, committee hearings, and even by the Senate itself on several different occasions during the mid-20th century, while its current chamber was undergoing renovations. Then, in 1976 the room underwent a major restoration in order to return it to its Senate-era appearance. This included the installation of 64 replica mahogany desks, which are arranged in four semicircular rows, reflecting the arrangement of the room in 1859.

Several original furnishings were returned to the room, including the vice president’s desk at the front, although the table in front of it is a reproduction. The eagle and shield were also reunited as part of this restoration, and they once again hang at the front of the room. Another original object here is the portrait of George Washington, visible directly above the eagle in the present-day photo. It was painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1823, and the Senate purchased it in 1832 and hung it here above the gallery. The painting was removed when the Senate left in 1859, but it was returned here in 1976.

Today, the room remains in its restored appearance, and it is periodically used by the Senate for special events, such as mock swearing-in ceremonies. Photography is not allowed in the Senate chamber, where the senators typically take their oaths of office, so the mock ceremonies here allow the press to take photographs of the occasion. Aside from these types of events, the room is also open for some public tours, although visitor access is limited to just the central aisle, as shown in the present-day photo.

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.