Located at the east end of the National Mall, the Capitol Building was one of the first structures conceived by city planner Pierre L’Enfant, who noted that Jenkins Hill, which rose 88 feet above the level of the Potomac, was “a pedestal waiting for a monument”. Picking the location was easy, but building the monument wasn’t.
George Washington laid the cornerstone in September 1793, but it wasn’t until December 1863 that the building attained the form we recognize now. That was the month Thomas Crawford’s 19-foot-tall statue of Freedom was placed on top of the new cast-iron dome, a classic female figure standing 288 feet above the east front plaza. Philip Reid, the man who supervised the bronze casting of Freedom and its placement on the dome, was a slave, one of hundreds involved in the Capitol’s construction.
Guided tours include the Rotunda, the enormous circular hall under the building’s dome, where eight huge oil paintings depict signature events in American history, including Columbus’s landing in the West Indies and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In the dome itself is Constantino Brumidi’s 1865 fresco, The Apotheosis of Washington, depicting the first president rising into the heavens, flanked by female figures representing Liberty and Victory. Below the Rotunda, the cryptically named Crypt (which has never served as a tomb) is sometimes used for exhibits, sculptural displays and other events.
A new Capitol Visitor Center is located below the East Capitol grounds, beyond the historic landscaping designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, of New York’s Central Park fame. The Capitol’s south and north wings contain the House and Senate chambers, where visitor galleries are only open to U.S. citizens who obtain a gallery pass in advance from the office of their senator or Member of Congress.
To complement your visit, drop in for lunch at the Old Ebbitt Grill, a classic Victorian-style saloon frequented by business people and Secret Service agents. For dinner, get a reservation at Bistro Bis, Chef Jeffrey Buben’s place adjacent to the Hotel George on the slope of Capitol Hill, with its French menu and comfortable bar. The table next to you might be full of Capitol Hill bigwigs.