The Capitol’s Evolution

Historical Society Publishes ‘Where the People Speak’

Posted October 8, 2004 at 1:46pm

The White House, the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the Louvre, the Place de la Concorde and the seat of the Bishop of Paris all have something in common: location.

Not location in the literal sense, as the first three are landmarks of this nation’s capital and the latter are prominent buildings in Paris, but the positioning of the buildings is very similar, as Peter L’Enfant, also known as Pierre L’Enfant, brought the knowledge of his hometown with him as he designed the layout of the District of Columbia.

“I’m a native of the area and I was always rather curious why the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the White House were laid out in the pattern they were,” said Andrew Dodge, author of the United States Capitol Historical Society’s latest publication, “Where the People Speak: The United States Capitol and Its Place in American History.”

Dodge satisfied his curiosity pertaining to “L’Enfant’s grand design of the city” and so much more in the two and a half years he spent researching, writing and laying out the book. Made possible by a $25,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation, the book’s targeted audience is “basically anyone in high school or older who likes history and has an interest in learning more about the Capitol,” Dodge said. He added that he wants readers to have fun while they learn from the text.

“I tried to include a wide range of things that would pique their interest,” Dodge said, referring to the challenge of primarily writing for a high school readership. “A dusty old book straight on history wouldn’t do that.”

Dodge stressed the fact that this book is not an academic book, because “there are plenty of those.” Rather, he tried to put the information together in a “nice, simple format” that people should be able to understand. He also includes a bibliography citing all materials he used in case readers want to do further research.

The book, which is split into five chapters sandwiched between a preface and an epilogue, takes the reader all the way back to 1774 and follows the historical growth of Congress and the Capitol over the years. Once Congress decided a permanent location was needed for a stable government, George Washington selected the 10-square-mile radius of land encompassing Georgetown, Md., and a large part of land north of Alexandria, Va., which became Washington, D.C. But before the seat of government could be moved from Philadelphia, the Capitol and other government buildings needed to be erected.

“I just love American history,” said Dodge, who grew up near the nation’s capital. This interest led to him obtaining both his bachelor’s and master’s in the subject, from Georgetown University and the University of Maryland, respectively.

The burning of the Capitol by the British in 1814 caused a setback in the completion of the building. While the wings for both the House and the Senate, in addition to the Supreme Court chamber, were newly finished, the flames engulfed a good portion of the building. The most damage occurred in the Senate wing, as the library there helped fuel the fire, but apparently Mother Nature was looking out for the District that night. A thunderstorm helped suppress the flames and prevented the total destruction of the Capitol and the White House (then known as the President’s Mansion).

Dodge said he finds it fascinating that some of the work on the Capitol actually was finished as a result of the fires. According to the book, the estimated cost of the damage done by the British was $500,000. However, as the Rotunda originally was never completed, the rebuilding of the two wings also led to the center section and the Rotunda being finished by the end of the 1820s.

One of the most captivating sights atop the Capitol Dome is the bronze-cast statue “Freedom,” sculpted by American artist Thomas Crawford. The statue, weighing seven and a half tons and created in five parts, was fully assembled on Dec. 2, 1863, on top of the Dome. A 35-gun salute from forts around the city signaled both the statue’s installation and the near completion of the Capitol expansion project, which began about a decade earlier.

“They brought [‘Freedom’] down in 1993 to give it a rehab and fix any problems,” Dodge said, referring to the use of a helicopter to remove the statue from the Dome for restoration after 130 years. “They’ve applied some kind of wax to it to protect it from the weather. I think every two or three years they go back and put another coat of wax on it to retain the original bronze look — it keeps it from oxidizing.”

To reapply the wax, conservators erect scaffolding and utilize the staircase between the inner and outer parts of the Dome to reach the statue, Dodge said.

The book discusses all phases of construction and expansion of the Capitol since its initial creation, and Dodge ends the architectural talk by mentioning the Capitol Visitor Center, which is on track to be completed in the spring of 2006.

Beneath the subhead “A Promise Fulfilled,” the last few pages of the book talk about the interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s phrase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” On a personal note of interest, Dodge said it is good those in the government are “no longer just males” and that the acceptance of all ethnicities over the years has been an important move in history.

“I think our institution is far better off for that,” Dodge said.

The book, selling for $5.35 for CHS members and $5.95 for non-members, is available at the Capitol, by calling (800) 887-9318 or via the Capitol Historical Society’s Web site at www.uschscatalog.org.