Contact: Helen Dalrymple (202) 707-1940
February 8, 1995
Library of Congress Celebrates the U.S. Capitol Building With Exhibition Opening February 24
The United States Capitol was the most important of the public buildings planned by the nation's founding fathers. It was to serve as the centerpiece of the 10-mile square plot of land on the Potomac River acquired as the home of the new federal government, and of the new nation itself. The Capitol is celebrating its 200th birthday during the decade of the 1990s, and this exhibition, "Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation," traces the deliberate and fascinating effort to create a building reflecting the ideals under which the new government was founded.
"Temple of Liberty" features newly commissioned models and nearly 200 original documents, some recently discovered and many newly conserved. Almost a century has passed since the last such exhibition, and during that time the Capitol has become increasingly a symbol for democracy around the world.
The exhibition, in the Madison Gallery of the Library of Congress James Madison Building, 101 Independence Avenue S.E., will remain on view through June 24. Hours for the exhibition are 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, and 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m on Saturday. The Library is closed on Sundays and holidays.
The Capitol originally housed not only both branches of the Congress but also the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. Many have forgotten that its principal chamber, a great "Conference Room" intended for joint sessions and symbolizing the executive branch, was never built. America's most talented early architects, Stephen Hallet, William Thornton, and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, participated in its design. The building was unfinished when it was burned by the British during the War of 1812. Its first dome, designed by Charles Bulfinch, was not installed until the 1820s.
In the 1850s, architect Thomas U. Walter and engineer Montgomery C. Meigs added two large wings to accommodate the growing numbers of the House and Senate, followed by a much larger dome more in scale with the expanded Capitol. In the 1870s, Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the nation's greatest landscape architects, laid out the grounds surrounding the Capitol.
During the last four decades the east and west fronts of the building were restored and enlarged. Today restoration of the 200- year-old building is a continuous process to keep up with the demands placed on it by virtue of its roles as the home of the U.S. Congress and one of the top visitor attractions in the city of Washington.
"Temple of Liberty" includes original prints, drawings and documents that will give visitors a new understanding of the role of the Capitol in the history and evolution of the U.S. government. Featured in the exhibition are drawings in the hand of most of the original architects, watercolors capturing the Capitol in its first manifestations, as well as manuscript materials evidencing Washington's and Jefferson's influence on the evolving Capitol design. The exhibition's materials are drawn from the rich collections of the Library of Congress, the Architect of the Capitol, and several other national institutions; much of it material has been restored for this exhibition.
Architectural models, three fabricated just for this exhibition, will offer visitors a three-dimensional view of some of the early proposals for the Capitol's appearance. They will be able to see the different conceptions of the Capitol held by George Washington and William Thornton, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and James Monroe and Charles Bulfinch.
The exhibition consists of six sections, each illustrating a different aspect of the development of the Capitol building. The first section discusses the search for the creation of an American iconography that used ancient and modern symbols in the Capitol to depict freedom, nobility, power and other democratic ideals. The second section focusses on the competition that preceded the design for the new building as well as the complications that attended its subsequent modifications.
Masterful 19th century watercolors recording the appearance of the Capitol are the highlight of Section III, which concentrates on the development of its exterior and grounds. Section IV details the development and ornamentation of the Capitol's magnificent interior spaces and shows how distinctively American animals and plants such as the bald eagle and tobacco and corn were incorporated into the building as architectural and sculptural elements. The modification and expansion of the Capitol beginning in the 1850s are covered in Section V of the exhibition; and Section VI, through the display of decorative and souvenir objects, political cartoons and advertisements, traces how the Capitol became the principal symbol of the nation in America's popular consciousness.
The guest curator for the exhibition is Pamela Scott, who has a distinguished record as an architectural historian in the field of American architecture. She served as editor of the Papers of Robert Mills and was co-author of the award-winning Buildings of the District of Columbia, part of the multi-volume Buildings of the United States Series published by the Society of Architectural Historians and the Oxford University Press. The exhibition catalog, written by Ms. Scott, will be published by Oxford University Press.
The exhibition is the first in a series of exhibitions that are part of the project to establish a Center for American Architecture, Design and Engineering in the Library of Congress, whose purpose is to focus public attention on and increase support for the more than 5 million items in its collections that relate to these professions.
"Temple of Liberty" was produced by the Interpretive Programs Office, the Library's arm for exhibiting and interpreting its special collections.
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