What Young Capitol Endured

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

What Young Capitol Endured


Byline: John M. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Most visitors to Washington take the Capitol dome for granted. It is a graceful structure, with a statue on top that - because of its elevation - defies close examination. All in all, the Capitol seems less interesting than the White House.

For Guy Gugliotta, however, the Capitol dome embodies the political stresses and personal conflicts that led to the Civil War. His account of its construction, richly detailed and engagingly written, puts a vast construction project in a political context.

There had been an earlier dome over an earlier Capitol, but its copper-green hue was unpopular, and the building below showed its age. By 1850, Mr. Gugliotta, a longtime reporter for The Washington Post, writes, walls were cracking, roofs sagged, timbers rotted. The Senate sweltered in the summer but was so cold in winter that the inhabitants wrapped themselves in quilts and blankets. The building was also much too small.

In October 1850, the Senate Committee on Public Buildings invited plans and estimates for an extension of the Capitol and the construction of a new dome. Winner of the $500 prize was Thomas U. Walter, a respected Philadelphia architect with more than 300 buildings on his resume. He would be responsible to one of the most influential legislators in Congress, Mississippi Sen. Jefferson Davis, who would fight the political battles and keep the money flowing.

Walter started by laying foundations for two new wings. On occasion he had as many as 800 men at work, but skilled labor was scarce. Washington in 1851 was underpopulated, underdeveloped .. and could not supply the requisite craftsmen, the author writes Skilled workers were either deliberately imported or simply flowed into the capital when they heard that Walter was hiring. In the end, the new building would be constructed almost entirely by white labor.

In 1853, the third member of the Capitol triumvirate arrived on the scene. To fill the post of engineer in charge, Davis chose Capt. Montgomery Meigs, a 36-year-old officer whose junior rank belied his ego and his reputation as an engineer. He arrived at the Capitol site filled with ideas. He designed a boom derrick to hoist pieces of cast iron into position in the dome. He proposed skylights for the two chambers to improve lighting. Fans would blow fresh air, heated in wintertime, into the chambers.

Meigs had a number of suggestions about decoration that intruded on Walter's role as architect. …

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