March 03: Two Birds, One Dome

2016/03/03 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1855 Pres. Franklin Pierce signed the legislation that approved the construction of a new dome for the US Capitol in Washington.

The Capitol dome is not only one of the greatest and most widely recognizable architectural symbols ever, it is also the most extravagant add-on-extra in the history of architectural contracts.  Thomas U. Walter was appointed Architect of the Capitol in June, 1851 to meet the great need for expanded space (for the numbers of legislators that kept growing with the addition of states to the Union) n the old building (by William Thornton, 1793) with the addition of two wings to the north and south.  Walter recognized that the extant dome, designed to suit a less-broad building, would fall out of proportion once the building was lengthened.  As seen in the photo above, that dome was already lacking in other respects.  Designed by Charles Bulfinch, it had always been seen as somewhat ungainly, an unfortunate change to the design for a saucer dome proposed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe in the early nineteenth century.  In 1834 Robert Mills called Bulfinch’s dome a “strange aberration from good taste;” in 1841 Walter termed it “ponderous and inelegant.”  Ten years later, he saw the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: first, replace the ugly dome with something—almost anything—that would be better, and second, ensure that his expansion to the Capitol was properly crowned, and finally—killing a bonus bird—engage in one of the most impressive and exhilarating design problems known to architects: the design of a great cupola.

The way he got it done reveals that Walter’s business smarts, political acumen, and not to mention his natural showmanship (reserved, though it was), was just as profound as his architectural skill.  Walter’s office prepared two large renderings: one showed the Capitol with his new wings and topped by the sad Bulfinch dome while the other portrayed  the wings and a new, tall dome raised on a high drum.  The power of Walter’s hand is shown in the fact that he could let the drawings, which were conspicuously displayed in his office (to which many congressmen paid visits), speak for themselves.  No doubt, after visitors spied the impressive renderings, Walter added a few choice words about symbolism, heroism, legacy.  The rest, as they say, is . . .  well, you know.  Moving with speed that was as impressive then as it would be today, legislation flew through the Congress and Senate, approving the construction of a new dome for the cost of $100,000.  The fact that neither Walter nor anyone else had completed a cost estimate was beside the point—and is just one more extraordinary point in the history of this extraordinary monument.

Image: daguerreotype view and probably the oldest photographic image of the Capitol, showing the East Front, by John Plumbe, ca. 1846 (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress,from this source)

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