A Brief History of the U.S. Capitol | The Washington Center

A Brief History of the U.S. Capitol

Recently restored and resting atop Capitol Hill, the United States Capitol serves as the meeting place for the United States Congress. For the past three months I have been lucky enough to work only a few steps away from this iconic and internationally recognized landmark. I’ve made this short list pointing out historic moments of the Capitol, and I’ve included a few facts along the way!



1792 - Competition Announced


Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson announced that a $500 award and a city lot would be awarded to whoever produced "the most approved plan" for the U.S. Capitol Building. By mid-July, 17 plans were submitted and ultimately each was rejected. In October, a letter arrived from Dr. William Thornton, a Scottish-trained physician, requesting an opportunity to present a plan.


1793 - Plan Approved, Foundation Laid


Washington formally approved Thornton’s plan on July 25. On September 18, 1793, Washington laid the cornerstone of the foundation in the building's southeast corner. In 1991, a search for the Capitol Cornerstone was conducted by George White, Architect of the Capitol, that included the use of a metal detector to locate the engraved plate. The cornerstone was unfortunately not found, but the location is estimated to be under the southeast corner of what is today known as National Statuary Hall.


1800 - Move in!


Although the Capitol was still unfinished, Congress, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the courts of the District of Columbia began occupying the U.S. Capitol in 1800. Today, the Capitol covers a ground area more than 175,000 square feet and has a floor area of about 16.5 acres. Although I’ve spent the past three months exploring the many halls, tunnels, and offices inside the Capitol, I know I have only begin to scratch the surface of the beautiful grounds!


1812-1814 - War and Destruction


Following an earlier vote by the House of Representatives, the Senate approved the Declaration of War against Great Britain on June 17, 1812. On August 24, 1814, British troops set fire to the Capitol, which was saved from total destruction by a rainstorm. During your time in D.C., be sure to complete your tour of the Capitol, which includes a walk through the room where the War of 1812 was declared.


1824 - First Dome Completed


The Capitol's first dome, a low dome constructed of wood covered by copper, was finished in 1824. By the 1850s, this dome was considered too small and an extreme fire hazard for the now extensively enlarged Capitol Building.


1854-1863 - New Dome


On December 16, 1854, the House of Representatives appropriated $100,000 to begin constructing a new Capitol dome. On March 3, 1855, President Franklin Pierce signed the legislation. The original wooden dome was removed in the fall of 1856. Due to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, work on Capitol extensions was stopped for a year. During this time, the Capitol was used as a military barracks, hospital and bakery.


However, work on the construction of the dome was never interrupted as the dome continued to rise over the rotunda. On December 2, 1863, the last section of the Statue of Freedom was put in place on top of the dome. A visitor favorite in the Capitol Visitor Center is the plaster model replica of the Statue of Freedom. All 19.5 feet of the Statue can be seen up close in Emancipation Hall!


1874 - First elevator installed in the Capitol


I am not sure if I would make it through my day without these….#blessed


1958 - East Front Construction


Construction of a new East Front 32 feet 6 inches east of the old front begins. The project was completed in 1962. Not to be confused with the West Front, which is the area on which the presidential inauguration is held.


1979, 1986 - TV Coverage


Facilities were added to allow television coverage of the House and Senate debates in 1979 and 1986, respectively.


2008 - U.S. Capitol Visitor Center (CVC)


The CVC is the newest addition to the Capitol Building. At nearly 580,000 square feet, the CVC is the largest project in the Capitol's history and is approximately three-quarters the size of the Capitol itself. The entire facility is located underground. Fun fact: Capitol tours are FREE!


2013-2016 - Capitol Dome Restoration Project


One of my favorite parts of walking to and from work is passing the Capitol on each trip and being able to admire the 250+ foot marvelous structure. Only a few months ago, the Capitol was surrounded with scaffolding as it went under major repairs. The project, named the Capitol Dome Restoration Project, repaired more than 1,000 cracks, made the Dome watertight, restored cast iron and ornamentation, and replaced exterior paint. The Capitol Dome restoration project was completed in the budget estimate and was completed in time for the presidential inauguration this January.



D.C. Fact: The Statue of Freedom is 19.5 feet tall and weighs 14,985 pounds. If you want to get a better view of the figure at the top of the Capitol, step inside the Capitol Visitor Center to find a full-sized plaster model.


Living the Dream,

Austin G. Ferrer





Read Austin's previous blog posts

Experience a Day in the Life of an Intern at The Washington Center

Learn More