The U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC, is surely one of the most recognisable buildings in the world. It is not just a monument to Democracy but also a place of work where the government’s legislative branch sits and makes important decision that not only affect America but quite often the world.
I was in DC walking the monuments and memorials, and the dome of the Capitol was present in so many of the views. I just knew I had to pay a visit and experience it both inside and out. I also wanted to learn more about the iconic building itself.
If you have the time and are in Washington, DC, then there is no excuse not to stop by as a tour is absolutely free.
The Difference Between Capitol and Capital
In short, the capital is the main city where the government does its work. The Capitol is the building where the government sits. Capitol, as in the government building, is always capitalised.
This is true of each of the states too. So, for example, the capital of Kansas is Topeka, and their Capitol is situated there. That was a great tour too.
It is thought that the word Capitol comes from an association with Capitoline Hill in Rome, one of the most important of the 7 hills in Rome that was home to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
Formerly called Jenkin’s Hill, Capitol Hill was given its present name by Thomas Jefferson in 1793.
Before you even start the tour, as you walk up Capitol Hill, you can’t help but admire the building with your own eyes. For many, like me, you may have only seen it before in films, on TV, or more and more these days, in the news.
It has a design that is unmistakable, and draws its design from a mixture of buildings. The original building architect, William Thornton, was inspired by the east front of the Louvre in Paris for the actual building, and the Pantheon in Paris for the centre dome area.
Over the many years it was under construction, the builders and designers changed so it was modified many times over with the result being what you see today.
Capitol Visitor Centre
As you look at the Capitol from the outside you see an historic building, started over 200 years ago, but under your feet is the visitor centre.
The entrance to the tour is underground in a state of the art area that is relatively new. Stepping inside, you enter a huge hall where tickets are checked.
A Brief History
Before you leave the visitor centre and begin the tour proper on foot, you get to watch a 15 minute video that shows a brief history of the Capitol, including its ups and downs and its importance.
It is a great intro before you enter and it helps fill in any gaps that might arise in your knowledge of the country’s history and how the government works here.
September 18, 1783, is when the building got its start. In fact, George Washington laid the foundation cornerstone in the southeast corner.
The build was slow, with the initial Senate Wing finished in 1800 and the House Wing completed in 1814. However this was also the time of the 1812 War, and in 1814 the British marched on Washington, DC and set fire to the Capitol (as well as the White House and other important buildings).
The building was saved from complete ruin by a rainstorm at the time and construction began once more. Complete in 1826, this was never going to be enough, for as states joined the union, extra space was needed for their representatives which had more than doubled since the 1700s.
By 1850 the numbers of representatives in Congress had grown from 69 to 233. And the number of state senators had grown from 30 to 62. This required a huge expansion of the building, and with it a new dome was added. If you have ever watched the film ‘Lincoln’ it does correctly depict the dome still being built during the Civil War.
By 1868 the building was finally completed and the grounds could be finished. Of course, the number of people working in the Capitol have only continued to grow and the Capitol has had to make accomodations for them all. The Library of Congress moved into its own space in 1897, and later, in 1935, the Supreme Court moved into its own building.
As you go through the tour you get to see and experience some of this timeline with your own eyes. Here are the highlights, experiences and learning I gained.
In the middle of the tour you enter The Rotunda, and as soon as you step inside you see what an impressive sight it is. It is here in the Rotunda that you’ll learn about the history and founding of the nation, not just with your eyes but also with help from a knowledgeable tour guide.
A circular area with walls rising 15 metres (48 feet) and carrying on up into the dome, the walls feature a selection of historically significant paintings.
The 2 that caught my eye were ‘Declaration of Independence’ by John Trumbull and ‘Baptism of Pocahontas’ by John Chapman.
You will also find 6 other paintings here depicting important historical events from ‘Landing of Columbus’ to ‘General George Washington Resigning his Commission’.
Here you learn how George Washington was revered as a leader not just of the American people, but also of the military. He could have made himself king if he’d so wished and the people likely would have accepted his role. But, in the name of democracy, he resigned his commission to serve the people as a civilian.
If you look directly up into the dome though you will see a fresco that was painted near the dome’s completion: ‘The Apotheosis of Washington’. This depicts George Washington in a completely different way; as more of a deity.
In the centre of the circular room, on the floor, there is a mark directly under the centre of the dome. They say it is the very centre of Washington, DC. It is if you look back on the city’s original plans, and the streets and avenues are named out from this central point as well. But the actual title of ‘geographical centre of DC’ belongs somewhere around the area of 4th Street NW, L Street NW, and New York avenue NW.
This spot also marks the area where many important people have been laid in state after death. From presidents, to important historical figures like Rosa Parks, and many unknown soldiers.
The first place you come to on the tour is the crypt and it is situated directly under the rotunda. So, again, it is circular in shape.
In the dead centre is a stone in the floor once again. It is called the ‘compass stone,’ again marking the centre of DC’s quadrants.
When the building was created, this point was imagined to be the burial spot for George and Martha Washington. This never happened as they chose to be buried at their old home, Mount Vernon.
Though no one is buried here, it is called a crypt as it was designed like ancient church tombs with columns in a doric style.
National Statuary Hall
The National Statuary Hall is a remarkable room. The design is so different to what you have seen so far. It is in the style of an ancient Greek amphitheater.
After the War of 1812, and the construction that took place after the British set fire to the building, this was designed to be the chamber of the House of Representatives.
It was the house chamber until the current bigger chamber was ready in 1857.
We were shown the big flaw in the design of the room: the acoustics. The echo that takes place on account of the design means you can hear a quiet conversation on the other side of the room which would drown out a person talking near you.
This is of course an impossible situation to deal with, as you can imagine, when you have a load of representatives debating in such a space. You are, however, standing in a room Abraham Lincoln would have spoke in when addressing Congress which is quite remarkable.
Speaking of Lincoln, off the hall you’ll find what is now designated ‘The Lincoln Room’. During his time in the House of Representatives, this room served as the Post Office and would have been where he did much of his hard work and networking.
The room is now full of statues. Each of the 50 states has 2 statues to represent 2 famous people who came from their state.
Old Supreme Court Chamber
The North Wing of the Capitol has had many twists and turns. This room on the ground floor started out as the bottom half of the original Senate Chamber.
Then, when the room had been cut in two from above, from 1810 to 1860 it was the chamber of the Supreme Court of The United States.
The Old Supreme Court Clock still sits on the wall, and there is a myth that Chief Justice Roger Taney (1836 – 1864) had set this clock to run 5 minutes fast to keep the court on time. This cannot be proved however.
Walking The Corridors
As you go from one historic room to the next it is always good to keep an eye out for more interesting things to see.
For instance when you are near the rotunda you walk straight past the office of Nancy Pelosi, the current speaker of the house.
As you near the Old supreme Court you will also notice that the columns of grandeur start to look different. They feature corn cobs on them. When the old senate room was being split into two, the upper floor needed columns beneath, thus the Corncob Capitals.
The architect, Benjamin Latrobe, had a bit of fun and left his own unique mark. Instead of the traditional ancient classic style features you see in the rest of the building, here he used corn cobs and kernels.
I could go on and on talking about all that I learnt on this tour. It was interesting from the beginning to the end. But you should go visit yourself to see and digest it all. It is a great way to learn more about American history from it founding through the present day.
If you are visiting Washington, DC then surely this should go on your list of things to do. The tour is absolutely free; you only need to reserve your ticket and time slot in advance.