United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.
The United States Capitol, having housed the Senate and House of Representatives meeting chambers for nearly two centuries, is one of Washington, D.C.’s grandest and best-known buildings. A symbol of democracy, a majestic work of neoclassical architecture, and a working museum, the Capitol Building welcomes three to five million visitors each year.
Thanks to a three-story underground visitor center that opened in December 2008, a visit to Congress is more accessible and more pleasant (no waiting outside in the elements) for visitors interested in touring the building and seeing where the nation’s laws are made. It may be surprising to learn that the Capitol building was designed by a man who had no formal training in architecture. William Thornton hailed from a prosperous Quaker family on the Caribbean island of Tortola and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Thorton was a true Renaissance man. In addition to medicine, his pursuits included botany, mechanical science, and linguistics. The young doctor had been introduced to Benjamin Franklin (when Franklin was ambassador to France) due to their shared interest in astronomy.
Thornton’s drawings were selected out of several entries in a design contest for “Congress House” sponsored by George Washington’s administration. Washington himself laid the building’s cornerstone in an elaborate ceremony on September 18, 1793. The building’s appearance owes much to famous classical Greek and Roman structures, but Thornton’s design—a grand central dome with a wing for both the House of Representatives and the Senate—would help define and shape America’s new form of government.
The Capitol Visitor Center is a wonderful place to learn about the Capitol’s many “incarnations.” The building was destroyed by fire during the War of 1812 and again in 1851, rebuilt, expanded (the central dome and Thomas Crawford’s Statue of Freedom were added in 1866), and enlarged.
In many ways the Capitol grew and changed along with the nation. Important artifacts, including Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Congress seeking funding for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as a ceremonial copy of the Abraham Lincoln-signed amendment abolishing slavery (the 13th Amendment), are displayed in the center’s exhibition hall.
Visiting the Capitol
Tours of the Capitol building are free; however, everyone needs a pass and must visit as part of a guided tour. Though some same-day passes are available (check the information desks in the Capitol Visitor Center or the tour kiosks on the East and West Fronts of the Capitol) the best way to ensure that you get to tour the Capitol is to plan in advance.
Most members of Congress can arrange staff-guided tours for constituents. You can contact your representative or senators online to book such a tour (schedules permitting, a short meeting and a handshake with your elected official might be included in such a visit).
In addition to the Capitol Rotunda below the dome, your tour may include the Old Supreme Court Chamber—where the Court met from 1819 to 1860—and the National Statuary Hall, completed in 1807 and used as a meeting place for the United States House of Representatives until they moved to the House wing in 1857,
Tours can also be booked online directly through the Capitol Visitor Center. Such tours last approximately one hour and are available Monday through Saturday, 8:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. All visitors should be prepared for security checks. After learning about the Legislative Branch of the United States Government in the Capitol Building (House of Representatives and Senate) you may want to proceed to the Executive Branch at the White House or the Judicial Branch at the Supreme Court.
by Katie Calvert