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

Hall of the People: The Capitol Dome & Rotunda ›

Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe labeled the Capitol’s rotunda “the Hall of the People” on an 1806 drawing, referring to its function as the building’s central public area.

L’Enfant had planned a dome for his “Congress House” located on Jenkins Hill–soon known as Capitol Hill–the highest point in the original federal city. Two domes have identified the Capitol on the city’s skyline, both covering the 96-foot-wide rotunda. The first dome was the largest dome yet erected in America, rising 145 feet above ground. The present cast-iron dome, one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century, rises 287 feet.

Bulfinch built the rotunda in 1820-22 to be a “Grand Vestibule for Great Public Occasions.” It has also served as a museum honoring American heroes and history with artwork recounting the discovery, European settlement, and founding of the new nation.

I. THE ROTUNDA: The rotunda’s first commissioned paintings chronicled four Revolutionary-era civic and military events. Connecticut artist John Trumbull, an aide-de-camp to General Washington, accurately recorded for posterity the people and military and political events of the war. Relief sculpture was added in the 1820s: portraits of famous North American explorers and panels focusing on historical contact between settlers and Native Americans. Four additional history paintings were installed between 1840 and 1855 with themes relating to the European discovery and settlement of the New World.

II. THE DOME: Thomas U. Walter started planning a new cast-iron dome for the Capitol as soon as his 1851 plan for the wings was approved. In 1853 he demonstrated with his new Library of Congress room in the Capitol that cast iron was an inexpensive and fireproof building material. Two years later architect Walter and engineer Meigs each lobbied Congress to oversee erecting the dome. Meigs was put in charge of building Walter’s design; both worked with skilled engineer-draftsmen to prepare drawings for each decorative and structural piece for the iron contractors. The entire undertaking was a masterful marriage of architecture and engineering.

III. ROTUNDA ART by CONSTANTINO BRUMIDI: Between 1855 and 1880 Italian-born and trained painter Constantino Brumidi repeated and expanded on the rotunda’s historical and allegorical themes. His 300-foot long “Frieze of American History,” painted to imitate sculpture, encircles the base of the new dome. Brumidi’s masterpiece, “The Apotheosis of George Washington,” is visible from the rotunda floor through the inner dome’s wide oculus. Brumidi mixed classical allegories with real events and people to place American achievements within the history of western civilization.

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