Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Walls & Fences & Symbolism at the US Capitol in Early America

Cherry Blossoms at the United States Capitol Building. 

The 1863 Statue of Freedom on the Capitol dome which features a woman in a robe & headdress holding a sword in one hand & a laurel wreath of victory in the other, was designed by Thomas Crawford. The 19.5-foot statue weighs about 15,000 pounds.

In 1789, the US Congress - Senate & House of Representatives - assembled for the 1st time in New York. 

Amos Doolittle. View of the Federal Edifice in New York. The Columbian Magazine Philadelphia, August 1789. 

Congress moved to Philadelphia in 1790, and then to Washington, DC, in 1800. In May 3, 1802, Washington DC was incorporated as a city. In 1807, the Congress moved into the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, 4 years before the Capitol’s House wing was fully completed. 

In 1814, invading British forces burned the Capitol. It would be another 5 years before the chambers were fully restored. The Old Hall of the House, where Congress met from 1819 to 1857, was redesigned by Benjamin Henry Latrobe after the 1st hall was destroyed in the fire set by British troops in 1814. In 1857, the House met for the first time in its present-day chambers. 

This posting will look at the development & the symbolism of the building & the grounds around the United States Capitol, and how those considerations determined that there would be few fences or walls at the Capitol. 

The Library of Congress tells us that symbols are history encoded in visual shorthand. Eighteenth century Euro-Americans invented or adopted emblems - images accompanied by a motto &  personifications & allegorical figures - to express their social & political needs. They used them as propaganda tools to draw together the country's diverse peoples (who spoke many languages) in order to promote national political union, hoping to secure liberty & equal justice for all.
Classical Temple Dedicated to Liberty, Justice, and Peace. James Trenchard. Temple of Liberty. The Columbian Magazine, (Philadelphia) 1788, Library of Congress.  In 1788, Philadelphia's Columbian Magazine published this engraving. The artist 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 appearing in the Columbian Magazine, whose circulation was the largest of any 18C magazine published in America.

This 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. 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."

Built on what came to be called Capitol Hill, its grounds changed greatly over the first half of the 19th century.
Dr. William Thornton's (1759–1828), a physician & an amateur architect, 
winning plan for the Capitol of the United States of America. Thornton's drawings and concept won the contest to design the capitol.

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.
c 1800 A View of the Capitol of Washington Watercolor by William Birch. No walls or fences.

The agreement on the general plan for the nation's capitol 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. Once again, no walls or fences.

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.

The land on which the Capitol stands was 1st occupied by the Manahoacs & the Monacans, who were subtribes of the Algonquin Indians. Early settlers reported that these tribes occasionally held councils not far from the foot of the hill. This land eventually became a part of Cerne Abbey Manor. At the time of its acquisition by the federal government "Jenkins Hill" was owned 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.

George Washington & his supporters 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.
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.

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

The city's supporters, like L'Enfant & Washington, expected that the capital would grow to the east, leaving the Capitol & the White House essentially on its outskirts. For some years the land around the Capitol was regarded as a common, crossed by roads in several directions & intended to be left as an open area.
A drawing of the West Front of the United States Capitol as it appeared in 1831 by John Rubens Smith (1775-1849) 

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 Capitol Overlooks Pastoral Landscape by Russell Smith. Capitol from Mr. Elliot's Garden. In the Collection of the Architect of the Capitol.
1839 Charles Fenderich's Elevation of the Eastern Front of the Capitol of the United States.
August Kollner (1813-1906). West Front of the United States Capitol. New York: Goupil, Vibert, & Co., 1839. Library of Congress.
1840 W.H. Bartlett's Ascent to the Capitol in Nathaniel P. Willis, American Scenery, vol. 1. London Virtue.

Boston architect Charles Bullfinch supervised the development of the building & grounds in 1818; and completed the building, with only slight modifications of Benjamin Latrobe's master plan, in 1830. Under Bullfinch in 1825, a plan was devised for imposing order on the Capitol grounds, & it was carried out for almost 15 years. The plan divided the area into flat, rectangular grassy areas bordered by trees, flower beds, & gravel walks. The growth of the trees, however, soon deprived the other plantings of nourishment, & the design became increasingly difficult to maintain in light of sporadic & small appropriations. 
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).
1840 W.H. Bartlett's View of the Capitol at Washington in Nathaniel P. Willis, American Scenery, vol. 1. London Virtue.
William Henry Harrison's presidential inauguration at the Capitol in 1841. His candidacy in 1840 was the 1st time American women became openly involved in a presidential campaign. (Library of Congress) 
Daguerreotype by John C. Plumbe, Jr., taken about 1846, is the earliest known photographic image of the Capitol. Library of Congress.
1848 August Kollner (1813-1906) Washington--Capitol (East View) 

In 1874, Congress passed an act making Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) the first landscape architect of the United States Capitol. Olmsted accepted the job, wishing to "train the tastes of the nation." The mid-19th-century enlargement of the US Capitol, in which the House & Senate wings & the new dome were added, required that the Capitol grounds be expanded.
John Singer Sargent (American artist, 1856-1925) Frederick Law Olmsted 1895

For the seat of the legislative branch of the United States of America, Olmsted wanted to make the Capitol building the crowning centerpiece. Olmsted was determined that the grounds should complement the building. 

His 15-year-long project on the grounds of the United States Capitol did envision an open setting immediately surrounding the Capitol & a more naturalistic scenery with shrubbery & trees further from the Capitol, nearer to its entrances.  Because of the many streets & entrances merging at the capitol, the creation of a workable circulation system dominated the design process. The east side of the Capitol needed more open spaces for large masses of people gathered for inaugurations & other large events normally held at the East Front. Two large naturalistic ovals with scattered trees were designed for the east side to accommodate the grounds needed during such events.
Olmsted's 1874 Plan for the US Capitol.  Olmsted wrote in 1874: "…. The elements of the plan must be as few, large and simple as they well can be consistently with convenience." He further describes, "two elliptical plots of ground will then be left, unbroken by roads, each 500' in length and 400' in breadth. They will have a gently undulating surface, will be partially shaded by a few groups of large trees between which the eye will range over glades of turf."

By 1879, the roads were paved & most of the work on the east side of the grounds was completed. The stone walls on the west side of the grounds were almost finished.  
The United States Capitol. The Capitol Grounds cover approximately 274 acres.