About 30 meters above the Potomac River on Capitol Hill is one of the main attractions of the USA, the symbol of Washington and a symbol of free world democracy: the Capitol.
Three to five million people visit the symbol for the political America, which also adorns the back of the 50-dollar bill, year after year, in which the Senate (“Senate”) and House of Representatives (“House of Representatives”) have been for more than 200 years.) meet. This is where laws are drafted, debated and passed in the plenary halls, the inauguration of the President takes place there and it is a frequent target of demonstrations.
A changeable and sometimes difficult building history
Before the Capitol in Washington DC in its present form could become the landmark of the planned city of Washington, it was preceded by a rather turbulent and changeable construction period. Unlike the rest of Washington, the Capitol was not designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who at the time refused to draw a plan for the monumental structure.
George Washington laid the foundation stone for the neo-classical style building based on the Roman pantheon in 1793, and the first session of Congress was held there in 1800, although the building was not yet completely finished. In 1811 the House of Representatives, Senate, Supreme Court and the Library of Congress finally moved into the Capitol.
But the joy was short-lived. Because during the British-American War the building was burned down by British troops and only rebuilt in 1818 under Charles Bulfinch. Other influential architects were the British-American architect William Thornton, who drew the original plan for the Capitol, Henry Larobe, who completed the first version, and Thomas Ustick Walter, who was responsible for the current dome shape and the extensions to the side wings.
The construction of the side wings and the new large dome began in 1851 when the previous premises had become too small due to the accession of many other states to the USA. But it was not until 1857 that the House of Representatives could move into its new plenary hall in the south wing. The Senate followed in the north wing in 1859, and the terraces were designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870s.
Further expansions followed in the 20th century
Further expansions and modifications followed in the 20th century. For example, at the end of the 50s to the beginning of the 60s, the eastern front was moved ten meters outwards and clad with marble. Parts of the original outer wall can still be seen in the corridors on the east side. The “Reflecting Pool” in front of the building was also not built until the 20th century. The last major innovation was the United States Capitol Visitor Center, which opened on December 2, 2008, and is the building’s visitor center.
Originally there was a line of sight between the White House in the northwest, the first major structure in the city, and the Capitol. However, this was installed by former President Andrew Jackson, who had fallen out with Congress.
Today the Capitol, which owes its name to the most important of the seven hills of Rome, is the center of the Capitol complex, covering an area of 16,300 square meters and with a length of 229 meters, a width of 107 meters and a height of up to 88 meters. And while it is not the geographic center of the District of Columbia, it is the center from which Washington is divided into its quadrants in a checkerboard pattern.
The monumental building, which alone has 658 windows, 540 rooms on five floors and 850 corridors, received the status of a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and in 1986 was included in the List of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The Capitol Complex
The so-called Capitol Complex consists of about a dozen buildings and facilities around the Capitol. These include various House and Senate office buildings, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court buildings, and the Capitol’s power station. Some of the buildings are connected by three underground lines via the US Capitol Subway. The facility, which was previously open to the public and is connected by a network of pedestrian tunnels, is only allowed to be used by congress members, their visitors and congress employees after the 9/11 attacks.
The capitol for tourists
If you visit Washington on a city break, you can’t really avoid a visit to the Capitol. The entrance to the visitor center is under East Front Plaza and First Street / East Capitol Street on the east side, i.e. the rear of the building, and not at the main entrance on the west front with the Columbus Gates.
The underground visitor center consists of a large entrance hall, rooms for security checks, two cinemas, exhibition rooms, restaurants, souvenir shops and rooms for the congress, including a plenary hall with 450 seats, spread over three floors. The tours through the Capitol begin in the visitor center and are generally free of charge. However, every visitor must purchase an access pass that can be reserved in advance on the Internet or obtained directly in the visitor center. Advance reservation is recommended. You should also have your passport with you.
The tour begins with a 13-minute screening of the film “Out of Many, One”, which examines the form of government and the importance of Congress in the daily lives of Americans. Afterwards, the crypt, the rotunda, the Old Supreme Court Chamber, the National Statuary Hall, the Old Senate Chamber and the Brumidi Corridors can be visited as part of the guided tour.
In the exhibition rooms, visitors can also learn more about US history and the functions of the Senate and House of Representatives. For example, there is a plaster model of the Statue of Freedom on the Capitol dome and the hammer that was used by George Washington during the laying of the foundation stone. In addition, a tunnel (the “Library of Congress Tunnel”) runs from the visitor center to the Library of Congress in the historic Thomas Jefferson building, which has one of the most beautiful architecture in the city. The exhibitions can also be visited without a ticket.