The spirit of George Washington pervades the Rotunda, capped on the outside by Charles Bullfinch’s original wood and copper dome. The interior dome – like that of the Pantheon in Rome, a perfect hemisphere with oculus – shelters the Rotunda. Peter Waddell recreated this 1842 interior based on written accounts and two surviving drawings.
Horation Greenough’s statue of Washington is shown in the room for which it was intended. When it became clear that Washington’s remains would not be interred in the Capitol as planned, Congress commissioned a statue instead. As a member wrote, “The way to cement the Union was to imitate the virtues of Washington . . . to transfer this spirit to these Halls.”
Carved in Italy, the statue was installed on December 1, 1841. The heroic figure affected women in different ways. One sits in quiet contemplation, others view it from the doorway, and still others avert their eyes, offended by the sight of their partially clothed hero. Greenough explained that he sought timeless garb and pose, and declined “to pay homage in marble and bronze to the ephemeral legislation of the tailor and haberdasher.”
Morning sunlight streams through B. Henry Latrobe’s architectural tour de force, illuminating its arches, ribs, semicircles, and semiellipses. The room’s elegance, however, contrasts with its darker history. Latrobe’s assistant was killed during an earlier phase of the room’s construction when the main vault collapsed.
When the Supreme Court met here, this chamber was described as dark, dank, and gloomy. The untimely deaths of several justices were blamed on the dampness of this space, and the Court moved upstairs in 1859 in to what had been the Senate Chamber.
Beyond the Senate Chamber lies the Marble Room, a grand space affording a private lounge for senators. It is one of the most beautiful in the new Senate wing. Brown Tennessee marble walls provide a dramatic contrast to white Italian marble columns, and tall pier mirrors reflect an endless row of chandeliers.
Against this backdrop, the youngest Senate employees had special duties on warm summer evenings when the tall windows were usually open. Bats, possibly attracted by the chandeliers glittering in the sunset, flew about the room and into the nearby Senate Chamber. Pages happily scrambled to chase the bats back out the windows.
An imposing icon of our nation’s political principles, the Capitol played a gentler, sheltering role during the Civil War. Many of these young soldiers had never traveled before, and the grand interiors of the Capitol were as impressive to them as the most exotic foreign locale. They explored the elegant spaces in what was, however briefly, their home.
By 1821, workmen had nearly completed the exterior of the Capitol’s center section. In March of that year, 126 men were carving sandstone for the Corinthian capitals, cutting stone for the walls and columns on the west portico, and hauling and hoisting stone.