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Expanding the Capitol’s Dome

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The United States Architect of the Capitol has embarked on a massive project to restore the Capitol’s dome that is slated to take years and cover the dome with scaffolding.  This project inspired me to write a series of posts using the Library’s collections to explore a few of the firms and people who worked on the first expansion project in the middle of the 19th century.  That expansion created the dome we know today.

Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln at the U.S. Capitol with the dome being built but only two layers are finished and there is a crane in the middle
Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln at the U.S. Capitol, 1861

The building of the Capitol has a long history and many of the names associated with its early history may be familiar – Dr. William Thornton, Benjamin Latrobe, and James Bulfinch.  But the Dome has its own history and the work on it is never finished.  In 1855 efforts to expand it began with the planning and construction taking many years. Work started before President Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861 and continued though the turmoil of the Civil War.  The statue of Freedom may have been placed on top of the dome December 2, 1863, but it wasn’t until 1866 that Constantino Brumidi finished his Apotheosis of Washington. There were a number of photographs taken of the Capitol during construction that can be found in the Prints & Photographs catalog.

The names of Thornton, Latrobe, and Bulfinch are often mentioned in conjunction with the Capitol, but there were other prominent individuals involved in the expansion including Engineer of the Capitol Montgomery C. Meigs and Architects of the Capitol Thomas Ustik Walter and Edward C. Clark.  However, I wondered about those whose names aren’t mentioned, particularly the scores of suppliers, contractors, artisans, and slaves.

I got a good start on finding who some of them are after I found an interesting Senate document in the U.S. Serial Set (No. 1038, 36th Congress, Session Vol. No.1, S.Misc.Doc. 29) published in 1860.  Generally speaking, this document provides some specifics regarding the expansion project and is mostly filled with correspondence from various government persons like Meigs as well as correspondence from firms like Poole & Hunt in response to government queries.  It is laid out in a somewhat chronological order, which is useful for those wanting to follow the development of this particular project, but it could be useful as a case study of how the U.S. government purchased goods and services for large public projects at the time.  Within it there were a few things that were particularly helpful.

Detail from: Letter from the Superintendent of the Capitol Extension. 36th Congress, 1st Session. Misc. Doc No29,
Detail from: Letter from the Superintendent of the Capitol Extension. 36th Congress, 1st Session. Misc. Doc No29,
View of Capitol dome from Library of Congress' Thomas Jefferson Building from 2014 when there was scaffolding surrounding most of the dome while it was being worked on
View of Capitol dome from Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building, 2014.

The first was a list of those who were asked to submit proposals for 36 columns, as well as a follow up list of those who did submit proposals which included total bid figures.   Second, there was a three page list of some of those people and companies that had been paid up to that point.  Materials provided included hardware and tools, glass, wood, coal, bricks, and lumber as well as cast iron and wrought iron.  It also listed more specific services and purchases including hauling and cleaning bricks, the purchase of office furniture, rent for an office, postage, telegraphing services, the purchase of brooms and buckets, etc.

This is the first of several posts over the next couple of years which may include posts on two companies – Janes, Fowler & Kirtland and Poole & Hunt.

If you are interested in following the progress or knowing more about the current project, the Architect of the Capitol has a web page devoted to the restoration on Pinterest as well as a Twitter feed and information on their Facebook page.

UPDATE: The District of Columbia also has a copy of the Congressional report History of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the United States Capitol (Architect of the Capitol, 2005).

Comments (3)

  1. Very interesting information. Especially the cost of labor and materials.

  2. I think that this improvement will carry the United States Capital and The Congressional Seat into Many More Millenniums to come.

  3. wonderful!

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