A Work In Progress

New Book: "History of the United States Capitol, A Chronicle of Design, Construction and Politics" AP

On a February day in 1827, an irritated congressman from Kentucky rose on the House floor to ask why the Capitol remained unfinished after 34 years of labor and expense.

Rep. Charles Wickliffe said he knew old men living in his district who had spent their youth working on the Capitol and were now flabbergasted to learn it was still a work in progress.

Wickliffe's complaint is recounted in the first full-scale history of the U.S. Capitol in a century.

The "History of the United States Capitol, A Chronicle of Design, Construction and Politics," by architectural historian William C. Allen, makes clear that the Capitol is forever adjusting to the needs of changing times.

With work beginning on a new underground visitors center, the Capitol is still unfinished. It likely will remain so as long as it is home to Congress and thousands of supporting staff members.

Allen tells an epic story, ranging from the Capitol that George Washington imagined when he laid the cornerstone in 1793 to a barricaded Capitol adjusting early in the 21st century to a new age of terrorism.

The profusely illustrated sweep through time embraces the Capitol's long line of architects and engineers and the two centuries of legislators who have worked there.

The cast of characters includes invading armies, Civil War soldiers and a legion of clerks, policemen, journalists, lobbyists, patriots, orators, scoundrels, heroes, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and the faceless wielders of mops and brooms who cleaned up after all the rest.

Allen has cause when he calls the Capitol "one of America's most intriguing buildings."

Here, he describes the chamber on that 1827 day when the House debated improvements in the Navy, the licensing of mackerel fishing and Wickliffe's objection to approving more money to continue the Capitol's construction:

"Visitors watched from the galleries located behind the chamber's magnificent Corinthian colonnade. Tall shafts of stone and Italian marble capitals gave an impression of grandeur and monumentality that was exceedingly rare in American architecture of the period.

"On the carpeted floor below, 212 representatives sat in armchairs covered with horsehair upholstery, their hats stowed on small shelves held between the chair legs. ... Small clusters of congressmen congregated behind the rail to smoke cigars and discuss politics or the evening's entertainment. ..."

Rising on that floor a half-dozen years later, Rep. Rufus Choate of Massachusetts raised no complaint about the endless construction project, but he linked the building to the country it was beginning to symbolize.

"We have built no national temples but the Capitol," he thundered. "We consult no common oracle but the Constitution."

By the opening of the Civil War the charred ruin left by the British after they burned the Capitol in 1814 had long since been rebuilt. But dramatic change was coming. The building was no longer large enough to accommodate embers added to the congressional roster as new states joined the Union.

New wings to accommodate them made the old dome, designed by Charles Bulfinch, look like an upended teacup on a long and narrow table.

A new cast-iron dome, a larger one that would itself become a national symbol, was designed by architect Thomas U. Walter.

The dome was still unfinished when Union soldiers were quartered in the new House and Senate wings. They used the new chambers and committee rooms as barracks, the rotunda as a hospital and part of the basement as a bakery.

After the filth left behind was scrubbed away, platoons of lawmakers met under stained glass skylights framed with gilt moldings and stars.

Still the Capitol was not finished.

The skylights disappeared in 1949 when the chambers were rebuilt. The East Front was extended in marble over the next decade, replacing the original sandstone.

Over two centuries, Allen writes, "Countless senators and representative wielded political influence over the Capitol's destiny, bringing to it all the wisdom and foolishness at their disposal.

"Art, history and politics permeates the building's every fiber," he writes. "Few buildings have begun under such unfavorable circumstances, and fewer still enjoy greater architectural success than does the United States Capitol.


By Lawrence L. Knutson
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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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