National Geographic : 1957 Jan
Pennsylvania Avenue, Route of Presidents For seventy years the Capitol struggled toward completion. From the laying of the cornerstone by President Washington on Sep tember 18, 1793, to the raising of the Statue of Freedom above the dome on December 2, 1863, its construction was a prime concern of the Congress and the city.* Indeed, under the heavy burden of their responsibility, the Capitol's architects and superintendents were often leading and con troversial figures on the local scene. Four architects gave their minds and hands to its construction; countless workmen spent their adult lives on it. The briefest visit today reaffirms that the same sense of dedicated thinking that prompted L'Enfant to select this 88-foot knoll for the Capitol site also in spired the men who designed and laboriously raised the stately building, stone on stone. "It's pure Americana," we heard someone say as we followed along behind one of the professional guides. Here in the dim light Benjamin Henry La trobe's corncob designs crown the cornstalk columns in the ground-floor vestibule of the old Senate Chamber. This north wing was finished to accommodate the second session of the 6th Congress in 1800 and was the first section of the Capitol to be completed. Even the story of the acceptance of the original design for the Capitol is as American as today's quiz contests. The prize was rather generous for those days, but still con siderably short of $64,000. A national competition inviting "persons" to submit a plan for the Capitol had brought disappointing results. The deadline was July 15, 1792, yet, three months later, an obscure physician wrote from his home in the Virgin Islands for permission to send in his plan. It was granted, and Dr. William Thornton, Page 66 +"Look Sharp and You'll See It Move!" A Guide Points to the Capitol Dome Tests conducted by the Smithsonian Institution in 1865 revealed that solar heat causes the cast-iron dome to move three or four inches out of line. The action follows the sun like a sunflower. Children watch vainly to catch sight of the motion. A bronze Statue of Freedom by Thomas Crawford surmounts the 4,455-ton dome. Workmen paint the metal shell at least once every four years, usually just before a Presidential inauguration. Color must conform with the building's darkening marble. House Chamber is to left of the dome, Senate to the right. © National Geographic Society gentleman and amateur architect, won "a lot in the city...and $500, or a medal of that value." Becoming the original Architect of the Capitol, Thornton lived in Washington more than a quarter of a century. His accomplish ments ranged from writing in 1793 the first American publication on the teaching of the deaf-read 123 years later by Alexander Graham Bell to a meeting of the Columbia Historical Society-to contributing ideas that led to the invention of the steamboat. Thornton, who wielded additional power as a Commissioner, was a man of explosive tem perament and would brook no tinkering with his Capitol plan. Superintendents and as sistants led miserable lives, and their tenure was usually short. The good doctor would rub his eyes today at the three and a half acres of lawmaking chambers, halls, and offices that sprang from his inspiration. Where Candidates Become Presidents We hurried down the great east entrance steps, where most of our Presidents-elect have taken the oath of office, and paused to con template the classic grace of the near-by Supreme Court Building, the gray pile of the Library of Congress, and the gemlike Folger Shakespeare Library.t Our way led westward, following the arrow of Pennsylvania Avenue. For the most part we would keep to the sunny south side, where promenading was the fashion 100 years ago. Shops, restaurants, and office buildings line the north side. At the foot of Capitol Hill's western slope we stopped at the General Grant Memorial, a dramatic composition whose sculptor, Henry M. Shrady, captured men and horses in strain ing attitudes of the 1861-65 brand of warfare. It is one of the largest equestrian groups in the world; its dedication by Vice President Calvin Coolidge in 1922 signaled the start of a rousing Pennsylvania Avenue parade. Well within sight of the Avenue, but not on it, rises the glass dome of the United States Botanic Garden. Members of Con gress may draw on the conservatory for free floral decorations on official occasions. For * See "U. S. Capitol, Citadel of Democracy," by Lonnelle Aikman, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1952. t See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Folger: Biggest Little Library in the World," by Joseph T. Foster, September, 1951; and "The Nation's Library," by Albert W. Atwood, May, 1950.