Where Freedom Speaks: Two Hundred Years of the U.S. Capitol

Center and Heart of America: The Creation of the U.S. Capitol ›

The Founding Fathers designed the United States Capitol as the permanent home for the House of Representatives and the Senate, two legislative bodies that comprise the Congress of the United States established in Article I of the Constitution. Over the past two centuries, the Capitol has tripled in size. Its architecture and decoration work together to express the major achievements and hopes of the expanding and evolving nation. The current complex building represents the contributions of Presidents, Members of Congress, architects, artists, engineers, craftsmen and thousands of workers who created the American Temple of Liberty.

I . CAPITOLS BEFORE THE CAPITOL: Prior to 1789, the Continental and Confederation Congresses met in borrowed quarters ranging from statehouses to college halls and taverns. After the Constitution’s ratification in 1788, Pierre L’Enfant designed New York City’s Federal Hall with separate House and Senate chambers to accommodate the First Federal Congress.

II . CREATING THE CITY OF WASHINGTON IN THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA: After seven years of debating more than 50 possible locations, Congress passed the Residence Act in 1790. It charged President Washington with readying, by the end of 1800, a “Federal City” on the Potomac River near Georgetown, Maryland. Under Washington’s direction L’Enfant designed a 6,100 acre city within a ten-mile-square Federal District.

III . DESIGNING THE CAPITOL: In 1792 Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson oversaw public competitions to design the President’s House and the Capitol. Fourteen architects and builders submitted designs for the Capitol. The plan finally approved was a compromise between the first and second place winners, William Thornton and Stephen Hallet.

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