Tuesday, May 3, 2011

1803 Washington DC - History of 19C Capitol Hill

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On this day in 1802, Washington DC was incorporated as a city. And it is a great opportunity to look at the development of the gardens around the White House and the United States Capitol.

Classical Temple Dedicated to Liberty, Justice, and Peace. James Trenchard. Temple of Liberty. The Columbian Magazine, (Philadelphia) 1788, Library of Congress.

Below this engraving was written,

"Behold a Fabric now to Freedom rear'd,
Approved by friends, and ev'n Foes rever'd,
Where Justice, too, and Peace, by us ador'd,
Shall heal each Wrong, and keep ensheath'd the Sword,
Approach then, Concord, fair Columbia's Son,
And faithful Clio, write that "We Are One."

In 1788, Philadelphia's Columbian Magazine published an engraving by James Trenchard called the Temple of Liberty. Trenchard, born in 1746, at Penns Neck in Salem County, New Jersey, was an engraver & seal cutter in Philadelphia, and the artist for many of the plates for the Columbian Magazine, whose circulation was the largest of any 18th century magazine published in America.

The engraving of a classical temple building depicts statues on the roof, including Libertas (liberty), Justicia or Themis (justice), & Ceres (peace). Libertas is at the peak with the others on the corners. In the background a rising sun radiating beams of light with one shining upon Libertas holding her staff & freedom cap. Emerging from the pure, bright sunlight in the distance is the new nation--lady Columbia with an eagle headdress. Standing below is Concordia holding a horn of plenty; Columbia's winged son holding a scroll with CONSTITUTION written on it; and Clio, the muse of history, beginning to write the history of the new nation. Scrolling across the front of the classical temple are the words: SACRED TO LIBERTY, JUSTICE AND PEACE.

While studying 18th century buildings which were sited on the highest prospect, I kept running into depictions of the United States Capitol building, America's Temple of Liberty.

Dr. William Thornton [Sketch of Section of Monument and Conference Room], c. 1797 Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress. Thornton's drawings and concept won the contest to design the capitol.

Built on what came to be called Capitol Hill, its grounds changed greatly over the first half of the 19th century. I thought you might enjoy seeing the various depictions of the changing landscape.

Dr. William Thornton [East Elevation for North Wing], 1795-1797 Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress.

Fierce competition over the site of the capital city had raged for years, reaching its height during the First Federal Congress, in New York between 1789 - 1790.

Dr. William Thornton [Plan of Ground Story of the Capitol,] c. 1795-1797 Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress.

The always clever Alexander Hamilton helped broker a compromise in which the federal government would assume the war debt incurred during the Revolution, in exchange for support from northern states for locating the capital further south than New York or Philadelphia.

Dr. William Thornton's winning plan for the Capitol of the United States of America.

The compromise between the advocates for the North and those favoring a Southern location ended the feuding by agreeing on a nearly neutral location on the Potomac River, equidistant between North & South, and easily defended. (It had been George Washington's choice all along, and it was Hamilton's goal to please the General.)

c 1800 A View of the Capitol of Washington Watercolor by William Birch.

The agreement called for a 100-square mile federal district to be located somewhere along the Potomac River at a site to be chosen by fellow river-property owner, George Washington. Washington picked the junction of the Potomac & Anacostia Rivers. He then chose Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a military artist who had served under him at Valley Forge, to design the new federal city.

An 1801 View of George Town and the Federal City, or the City of Washington before its development into the federal city. Color aquatint by T. Cartwright of London after George Beck of Philadelphia. Published by Atkins & Nightingale of London and Philadelphia.

The Capitol of the United States crowns what was then Jenkins Hill in Washington, D.C., and houses the legislative branch of government, the House of Representatives & the Senate.

1806 Benjamin Latrobe View of the Capitol of the United States.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant chose Jenkins Hill as the site for the United States Capitol building, which rose 88 feet above the Potomac River, and sat 1 mile from the White House. L'Enfant declared, it "stands as a pedestal waiting for a monument."

A view of the still undeveloped East Branch of Potomac River at Washington. Watercolor by August Kollner (1813-1906) in 1839.

"Jenkins Hill" was owned at that time by the well-to-do Marylander Daniel Carroll of Duddington, and it stood on a tract of land originally known by the more classically-inspired name of "New Troy."

1814 George Munger (1781-1825). United States Capitol after the British burned the capitol.

Thomas Jefferson came up with the name Capitol Hill, consciously invoking the famous temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill in ancient Rome. The building would be America's Temple of Liberty.

Depiction of the United States Capitol before the fire of 1814.

George Washinton & his allies wanted buildings that would embody the nation's hoped-for future. "In our Idea the Capitol ought in point of prosperity to be on a grand Scale, and that a Republic especially ought not to be sparing of expenses on an Edifice for such purposes."

1815 1st known depiction of the Capitol in Relation to Its Grounds by Benjamin Henry Latrobe [Plan of the Mall and the Capitol Grounds], Geography and Map Division Library of Congress.

The 1792 competition for its design was won by Dr. William Thornton (1759–1828), a physcian & an amateur architect, with a proposal for a Palladian-inspired building featuring a central domed rotunda flanked by the Senate & House wings.

Watercolor Presented to Marquis de Lafayette to Commemorate His 1824 Visit to Capitol. Charles Burton's West Front of the Capitol of the United States. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

President George Washington, dressed in masonic attire, laid the cornerstone in 1793, in a masonic ceremony.

1828 Contrast Between the Temple of Liberty and Nearby Log Cabins by John Rubens Smith. [West Front of the Capitol]. Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress.

Construction proceeded slowly under a succession of architects, including Stephen Hallet (1793), George Hadfield (1795-98) and James Hoban (1798-1802), architect of the White House, who completed the Senate wing in 1800.

1830-40 Early Perspective Drawing of Completed Capitol Attributed to George Strickland [Perspective drawing of the Capitol from the Northeast,] In the Collection of the Architect of the Capitol.

Though the building was incomplete, the Capitol held its first session of United States Congress on November 17, 1800.

Das Capitol in Washington. Steel engraving by E. Gr├╝nenwald after an earlier drawing by H. Brown. Published in 1851.

Benjamin Latrobe took over in 1803; by 1811 he had renovated the Senate wing and completed the House wing.

1839 Capitol Overlooks Pastoral Landscape by Russell Smith. Capitol from Mr. Elliot's Garden. In the Collection of the Architect of the Capitol.

Benjamin Latrobe first considered the Capitol building in relation to its grounds and made a watercolor of the possible landscape design in 1815.

1839 Charles Fenderich's Elevation of the Eastern Front of the Capitol of the United States.


The Senate wing was completed in 1800, while the House wing was completed in 1811. However, the House of Representatives moved into the House wing in 1807.

August Kollner (1813-1906). West Front of the United States Capitol. New York: Goupil, Vibert, & Co., 1839. Library of Congress.

The Capitol was burned by British troops in 1814; and in the following year, Latrobe began its reconstruction and redesign.

1840 W.H. Bartlett's Ascent to the Capitol in Nathaniel P. Willis, American Scenery, vol. 1. London Virtue.

Boston architect Charles Bullfinch succeeded him in 1818; and completed the building, with only slight modifications of Latrobe's master plan, in 1830.

1840 W.H. Bartlett's View of the Capitol at Washington in Nathaniel P. Willis, American Scenery, vol. 1. London Virtue.

By 1837, the Washington Guide reported, The Capitol Square has been enlarged to the west, by taking in that part of the Mall extending from the circular road to First street, west; making about eight acres additional. This space has been properly graded and planted with trees and shrubs by Mr. James Maher, the public gardener:—the other part of the square was planted by the late John Foy, a man of excellent talents and taste. A good substantial stone wall, surmounted by an iron-railing, surrounds the whole square. When the walks are completed, and the water-fountains arranged, this square will afford the most beautiful and healthful walks: a subject well deserving public attention.

1839 South Gateway of the Capitol at Washington, D.C. showing stone walls & iron rails. Gray and sepia wash drawing by August Kollner (1813-1906).

The Capitol Grounds cover approximately 274 acres, with the grounds proper consisting mostly of lawns, walkways, streets, drives, and planting areas.

Daguerreotype by John C. Plumbe, Jr., taken about 1846, is the earliest known photographic image of the Capitol. Library of Congress.

Finally, on June 23, 1874, Congress passed an act making Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) the first landscape architect of the United States Capitol.

Arieal view of the United States Capitol.

The neoclassical Capitol building (or as Pierre L'Enfant called it in 1791--Congress House) has housed the legislative chambers of the U.S. Congress since 1800, and was home to the U.S. Supreme Court from 1800 until 1935. Presidential inaugurations are traditionally held here, the physical symbol of the United States of America, the Temple of Liberty.
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