December 25: The Great Dome

2016/12/25 § Leave a comment

1846 Capitol

On this day in 1851 Thomas U. Walter investigated the cause of the Christmas Eve fire that gutted the original Library of Congress.

Yes, it was Christmas Day but duty called and Walter, as the recently sworn-in Architect of the Capitol, heeded that call. The previous evening’s fire was devastating, destroying much of Thomas Jefferson’s original collection as well as the library room itself.  Positioned in the center of the west side of the Capitol, it overlooked the mall to the west, where the stumpy unfinished Washington Monument stood.  The library was a complete loss and it is  a wonder that more of the building did not go up in the blaze–in particular, the awkward timber dome completed under the direction of Charles Bulfinch.

Walter was directed to rebuild the room using fireproofing strategies.  By early January he completed the plan for a virtually all-iron library, lit by skylights, lined by tiers shelving, ornamented with ornate Italianate features like big beefy (but hollow) iron consoles.  Complete, and completely satisfactory, within a few years, the widely admired design–noted for its beauty and incombustibility–helped pave the way for Congressional approval of another all-iron addition that Walter would make to the building: the soaring metallic dome that is one of the world’s most recognizable architectural symbols, looking as spiffing as ever due to the humungo restoration project carried out through 2016.

Image: the Capitol as photographed in 1846 (from this source)

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