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U.S. Capitol

East end of the Mall
Telephone: 202.224.3121 for information
202.225.6827 for guide service
Admission: Free
Hours: Daily 9:00 AM - 4:30 PM
Closed: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day

The best recognized symbol of democratic government in the world, the United States Capitol has housed Congress since 1800. The Capitol is where Congress meets to write the laws of our nation and where presidents are inaugurated and deliver their annual State of the Union messages. For nearly two centuries, the Capitol has grown along with the nation, adding new wings to accomodate the increasing number of senators and representatives as new states entered the Union. Its halls are lined with statuary and paintings representing great events and people in the nation's history.

The Early Capitol

The original Capitol was designed by Dr. William Thorton, and the cornerstone was laid by President George Washington on September 18, 1793. Benjamin Harry Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch, among other architects, directed its early construction. In 1800, when the government moved from temporary quarters in Philadelphia to Washington DC, the Capitol that awaited them was an unfinished brick and sandstone building. The Congress moved into the small, cramped north wing. At first the House met in a large room on the second floor intended for the Library of Congress, the Senate in a chamber on the ground floor. Today on the second floor is the chamber that the Senate used between 1810 and 1859.

In 1807, the south wing of the Capitol was completed for the House of Representatives. A wooden walkway across the vacant yard intended for the domed center building linked the House and Senate wings. This was how the Capitol appeared in August 1814, during America's second war with Great Britain, when British troops burned the Capitol and other public buildings in Washington. The exterior walls survived, but much of the interior was gutted. In 1819, the reconstructed wings of the Capitol were reopened. The center building, completed in 1826, joined the two wings. A low wood and copper dome covered the Rotunda.

Capitol Extensions and Dome

By 1850, so many new states had been admitted to the Union that the House and Senate had outgrown their chambers. Congress decided to enlarge the Capitol by adding grand wings to the ends of the old building. In 1851, Daniel Webster, who had served in both houses of Congress, delivered one of his famous orations at the laying of the cornerstone for the new wings. The house occupied its current chamber in 1857, and the Senate moved into its chamber in 1859.

The Old Hall of the House was later dedicated as National Statuary Hall. Congress invited each state to contribute two statues of its most famous citizens. Today, these statues are displayed in Statuary Hall and in corridors.

During the Civil War, work continued on the new cast-iron dome, designed by Thomas U. Walter. On December 2, 1863, the statue of Freedom, by American artist Thomas Crawford, was placed at the top of the dome, 287 feet above the East Plaza.

In the 1870s, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the terraces that run across the north, south, and west elevations of the Capitol. These terraces provided extra rooms as well as a grand pedestal for the building perched on the brow of Capitol Hill.

20th-Century Changes

By the opening of the twentieth century, the need for more space again became acute. The first House and Senate office buildings were finished in 1908 and 1909 respectively. Tunnels and electric subway cars connect these buildings with the Capitol.

Severe deterioration of the original sandstone walls prompted major renovations of the Capitol's exterior. Between 1958 and 1962 the East Front was extended some thirty-two feet and the original facade replicated in marble. Portions of the old outside walls can still be viewed inside the East Front corridors. In the 1980s, the West Front was carefully repaired and restored; it is the only portion of the original exterior not covered by marble additions.

The Rotunda

Unlike the Senate and House chambers, the Rotunda serves no legislative function. It is, however, the very heart of the Capitol. It is a ceremonial center where state funerals have been held for presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Lyndon Johnson, distinguished members of Congress, military heroes, and eminent citizens. Visiting heads of state have been received in the Rotunda, and memorable individuals and events celebrated.

Hanging in the Rotunda are four giant canvases painted by John Trumbull, an aide-de-camp to General Washington, who recorded scenes of the American Revolution. Four other artists added paintings depicting events associated with the discovery and settlement of the United States. On the canopy, hovering 180 feet above the Rotunda floor, the Italian-American artist Constantino Brumidi painted "The Apotheosis of Washington." It depicts George Washington surrounded by symbols of American democracy and technological progress. Brumidi painted and decorated many of the rooms and corridors of the Capitol, and was painting the frieze that rings the Rotunda when he died. Other artists completed his work, which illustrates major events in the nation's history. The events portrayed at the end of the frieze took place years after Brumidi's death, an appropriate suggestion of the continuity of history.

The United States Congress

The chief focus of the Capitol is on the chambers of the Senate and House of Representatives. Here members introduce legislation, speak out on the issues, and cast votes on bills, resolutions, nominations, and treaties. A series of buzzers and lights throughout the Capitol and office buildings summon members to vote. The House chamber is in the south wing of the Capitol; the Senate chamber is in the north wing.

Galleries in both houses have been set aside for the press and broadcast media, and in recent years floor proceedings have been televised. Except on rare occasions, proceedings of the Senate and House and their committees are open to the press and public. News of congressional activities is broadcast instantly around the world from the Capitol, and visitors will often see cameras and reporters outside the building, using the dome as their backdrop.

The Senate

The Senate has 100 members, two from each state. A senator must be thirty years of age, a resident of the state, and a citizen of the United States for nine years. Senators are elected for six year terms, one-third of the Senate being elected every two years.

Originally senators were chosen by state legislators; but in 1913 the Seventeenth Amendment provided for direct election of senators by the people. If a senator dies or leaves office in midterm, the governor of the state appoints a replacement. The vice president is the presiding officer of the Senate, but on a daily basis the chair is usually held by the president pro tempore of the Senate (the senior member of the majority party) or his designee. The vice president votes only to break a tie.

The House of Representatives

The House of Representatives, under a law passed in 1911, is limited to 435 members. States are assigned the number of representatives based on their population and are redistricted every ten years after the census. Each state is entitled to at least one representative. If a representative dies or leaves office in midterm, a special election is held to choose a replacement. In addition, non-voting delegates represent American Somoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands; Puerto Rico is represented by a resident commissioner.

A representative must be twenty-five years of age, a resident of the state, and a citizen of the United States for at least seven years. Members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms. The presiding officer of the House is the Speaker. The Speaker is next in line after the vice president to succeed to the presidency.

Special Powers

Under the constitutional system of checks and balances, federal powers both shared and divided among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, as well as between the two houses of Congress. The Constitution gives both the Senate and House responsibility for declaring war, maintaining the armed forces, assessing taxes, borrowing money, minting currency, regulating commerce, and making all laws necessary for the operation of the government. The Senate alone offers advice and consent on treaties and nominations. The House of Representatives initiates all "money" bills (taxation and appropriation measures); the Senate may vote changes in such bills, and any differences are then resolved in conference between the House and Senate. The House votes on articles of impeachment (an indictment of the president or other federal officer), and the Senate judges whether or not to remove the individual from office.

Visitor Information

Visitors are encouraged to tour the Capitol, view its artwork and historic rooms, spend time in the galleries, and visit the offices of their senators and representatives. Congress is proud to maintain the Capitol as a building with few restrictions on visitors. The Capitol is open seven days a week, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Guided tours begin in the Rotunda from 9:00 am to 3:45 pm. Visitors may obtain gallery passes from their representative or senator. Foreign visitors may obtain House passes at the gallery check-in desk on the third floor and Senate passes at the Senate appointment desk on the first floor. Tours and assistance for disabled visitors are available from the Special Services Office, on the first floor central area known as "the crypt."

Materials providing additional information about the Capitol and the Congress are available at the gift stand on the first floor. Free descriptive brochures are available at the gallery entrances to the Senate chamber and in the Old Senate and Old Supreme Court chambers. Citizens of the United States who have specific questions about the Capitol or Congress are encouraged to write either their senators (Washington, DC 20510) or their representative (Washington, DC 20515).

Members' Offices

Offices of representatives are located in the three buildings on the south side of the Capitol along Independence Avenue: the Cannon, Longworth, and Rayburn Buildings. Senators have offices in the three buildings on the north side of the Capitol along Constitution Avenue: the Russell, Dirksen and Hart Buildings.
© Copyright Thaddeus O. Cooper 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000