For more than three decades, Presidents and architects strove to accommodate changing Congressional needs while completing the Capitol design Washington chose. The Capitol’s Neoclassical architecture combined elements from ancient Greek and Roman traditions that the Founding Fathers associated with the new nation’s democratic and republican political ideals. Separate wings for the House of Representatives and Senate were directly inspired by the Constitution’s division of legislative responsibilities. The architecture and decoration of the Capitol extension (1851-65) was inspired by the Renaissance, judged at that time to be the high point of Western Civilization.
I. BENJAMIN HENRY LATROBE, JEFFERSON and the Construction of the Capitol, 1801-17: The Capitol’s most successful architectural collaboration was between President Thomas Jefferson (1801-9) and engineer-architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820). Together they planned a fireproof Neoclassical building of brick and stone vaulted construction. They hoped the Capitol’s architecture would inspire ancient civic virtues among Americans.
II. CHARLES BULFINCH and the Completion of the Old Capitol, 1819-28: Congress approved as Latrobe’s successor President James Monroe’s nomination of Bostonian Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844) because of his dual experience as architect of many public buildings in New England and as an elected public official. His conservative approach to architecture was less costly than Latrobe’s innovative ideas.
III. THOMAS U. WALTER and the Capitol Extension and Dome, 1851-65: New larger legislative chambers were needed by 1850 because the United States had increased so dramatically in territory and population, tripling the numbers of Members of Congress. The problem was how to extend the Capitol without destroying the original building’s architecture, a direct link with the Founding Fathers. Prints depicting the Capitol’s general appearance had been published in large numbers since the 1820s.
IV. MONTGOMERY C. MEIGS, the Construction and Artistic Decoration of the Capitol Extensions: The Capitol Extension’s large size brought spatial and structural complexity that required a team of architects and engineers to design and build. The project was initially under the direction of the Interior Department, but in 1853 responsibility was transferred to the Department of War. Despite their contentious relationship, the combined contributions of architect Walter and engineer Meigs resulted in a great artistic and engineering achievement.
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