December 4th, 2013

The Capitol Dome at 150: A Symbol of Democracy in Need of Repair


150 years ago on December 2, construction was completed on the Capitol Dome in Washington, marking the birth of one of the most iconic symbols of American democracy.


Although the Dome now seems to be an indispensable part of the Capitol complex, its construction in the 1860s was not a sure thing.

The Capitol complex was the vision of George Washington and the other founders, who thought the Capitol “ought to be upon a scale far superior to anything in this Country.”

Washington laid the southeast cornerstone of the foundation of the original building on September 18, 1793, but by 1850 Congress already needed to expand the Capitol to make room for the new states that had been admitted to the union.

The Capitol as Completed by Bulfinch; John Plumbe, Jr.; Daguerrotype, 1846; Library of Congress

The Capitol as Completed by Bulfinch; John Plumbe, Jr.; Daguerrotype, 1846; Library of Congress

Thomas U. Walter, the architect charged with designing the enlarged legislative chambers, decided that the building needed a new dome to suit the larger structure.

Since the dome would be built on top of the existing structure, it needed to be light. Instead of using stone, Walter decided to build the dome out of cast-iron that was then painted to match the stone of the rest of the Capitol. Although the Dome weighs 8,909,200 pounds, this was only about half of what a stone dome would weigh.

Construction on the dome and the expansion started in the 1850s, but was disrupted when the Civil War broke out.  Funds were diverted to the war effort. However, in a recent 60 Minutes segment Matt Wasniewski, a historian for the House of Representatives, said that construction continued when the contractor resumed work without pay.

“They’d delivered 1.3 million pounds of cast iron and didn’t want to see it rust away. Lincoln didn’t mind,” reported CBS’s Scott Pelley.

The contractor said that if “the people see the Capitol going on, it will be a sign that we intend the Union shall go on,” Wasniewski said.

The final piece of the Capitol Dome was the massive statue known as “Freedom” that sits on top of the Dome. The statue, cast by the slave Philip Reid, was put into place in 1863, by which time Reid had gained his own freedom.

Watch a visual timeline of the expansion of Capitol Hill

Restoring the Capitol

Although the Capitol Dome looks pristine, it’s starting to feel its 150 years.

“From a distance the dome looks magnificent, thanks to the hard-work of our employees,” said the Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers. “On closer look, under the paint, age and weather have taken its toll and the AOC needs to make repairs to preserve the Dome.”

According to the Architect of the Capitol website, the Dome has not undergone a complete restoration since 1959-1960, and is now plagued by more than 1,000 cracks and deficiencies.

This November, the Architect of the Capitol began a multi-year project to repair the Dome to its original, inspiring splendor and ensure it can safely serve future generations of visitors and employees as the roof of the Capitol.

— Compiled by Allison McCartney for NewsHour Extra

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