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Text: Edgar Allan Poe, "The Capitol at Washington," Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, November 1839, pp. 231-235







[page 231:]



BURTON'S.

GENTLEMAN' S MAGAZINE,

AND

AMERICAN MONTHLY REVIEW

———————————
NOVEMBER, 1839.
 ———————————

THE CAPITOL AT WASHINGTON

Illustrated by a Splendid Engraving on Steel.

    THIS building was commenced in 1793 by Mr. Hallet as architect, who was succeeded by Mr. G. Hadfield and Mr. Hoban, who finished the north wing. The charge of the work was then given to Mr. Henry B. Latrobe, (architect) who directed the building of the south wing, and prepared the halls for the reception of Congress. Such portions of the building having been completed as were indispensably necessary for public use, farther proceedings were suspended during the embargo, non-intercourse, and war; at which time the interior of both wings was destroyed, in an incursion of the enemy. After the close of the war, Congress assembled, for several sessions, in a building patriotically raised by the citizens of Washington, for their accommodation. In 1815, Government determined to restore the Capitol. The work was commenced under B. H. Latrobe, who superintended it until December, 1817, when upon his resigning his charge, the farther proceedings were entrusted to C. Bulfinch, who proceeded to execute the designs already adopted for the Representatives' Hall and Senate Chamber, and to lay the foundation of the centre, comprising the Rotunda, Library, etc. These have been completed, with the accompanying terraces, gate-ways, lodges, etc. in the course of ten years. The building now exhibits an harmonious whole, imposing for its mass and commanding situation, and well adapted for the important uses for which it is intended. It may be described as follows: —

    The Capitol of the United States is situated on an area enclosed by an iron railing, and including twenty-two and one half acres — the building stands on the western portion of this plat, and commands, by the sudden declivity of the ground, a beautiful and extensive view of the city, of the surrounding heights of Georgetown, etc. and of the windings of the Potomac as far as Alexandria.

    The exterior exhibits a rusticated basement, of the height of the first story; the two others stories are comprised in a Corinthian elevation of pilasters and columns — the columns thirty feet in height, form a noble advancing portico, on the east, one hundred and sixty feet in extent — the centre of which is crowned with a pediment of eighty feet span a receding loggia of one hundred feet extent, distinguishes the centre of the west front.

    The building is surrounded by a balustrade of stone and covered with a lofty dome in the centre, and a flat dome on each wing. [page 232:]


Dimensions of the Capitol of the United States, and its Grounds.

The ground within the Iron Railing, twenty-two and one half acres. Length of Foot Walk, outside of Railing three-quarters of a mile and one hundred and eighty-five feet.

THE BUILDING IS AS FOLLOWS:

Length of Front, - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
352 feet 4 inches 

Depth of Wings, - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
121 do. 6 do.

East Projection and Steps, - - - - - -  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
65 do

West       do.            do. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
83 do.

       Covering one and a half acres, and one thousand eight hundred and twenty feet. 


Height of Wings to top of Balustrade,  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
70 feet. 

Height to top of Centre Dome,  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
145 do 

Representatives' Room, greatest length  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
95 do. 

Representatives' Room, greatest height,  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
60 do. 

Senate Chamber, greatest length  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
74 do. 

Senate Chamber, greatest height  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
42 do 

Great Central Rotunda, ninety-six feet in diameter, - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
96 feet high. 

The North Wing was commenced in 1793, and finished in 1800, cost - - - - - - 
$460,262 57. 

South Wing commenced in 1803, and finished 1808, cost - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
308,808 41 

Centre Building commenced in 1818, and finished in 1827, cost - - - - - - - - - -
957,647 35 



———————

Cost of building the Capitol   -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     -     - 
$1,746,718 33 

* Including all alterations to 1814. 



   The Representatives' room is in the second story of the south wing — is semicircular, in the form of the ancient Grecian theatre — the chord of the longest dimension is ninety-six feet — the height, to the highest point of the domical ceiling is sixty feet. This room is surrounded by twenty-four columns of variegated native marble, or breccia, from the banks of banks of the Potomac, with capitals of white Italian marble, carved after a specimen of the Corinthian order, still remaining among the ruins of Athens; which stand on a base of freestone, and support a magnificent dome painted in a very rich and splendid style, to represent that of the Pantheon of Rome, and executed by an interesting young Italian artist, named Bonani, who died about twelve years ago. In the center of this dome is erected, to admit the light from above, a handsome cupola; from which is suspended a messy bronze gilt chandelier, of immense weight, which reaches within ten feet of the floor of the chamber. The speaker's chair is elevated and canopied, and on a level with, the loggia or promenade for the members, consisting of columns and pilasters of marble and stone. Above this, and under a sweeping arch near the dome, is placed the model of a colossal figure of Liberty, by Caucici, (in plaster,) on the entablature beneath is sculptured an American Eagle, (in stone) just ready to fly; copied from nature by an Italian sculptor of high reputation who has left but this single specimen of his talents in this country.

    The artist, Segnior Valaperti, was but a short time in America, the most of which he spent in Washington. He was retiring in his habits, and of a melancholy temperament, associating with few persons, and with those but seldom. Soon after the completion of this chef d'oeuvre he disappeared, in a mysterious manner, and has never been heard of since. About a month after his disappearance a body was found in the Potomac, which was thought from certain resemblances, to be his, (though this was never satisfactorily ascertained,) and hence it has been conjectured that in a fit of melancholy, he threw himself into the river, and thus put an end to his unhappy life. Such has often been the melancholy fate of genius.

    In front of the chair, and immediately over the entrance., stands a beautiful statue in marble representing History, recording the events of the nation. She is placed on a winged car, which is in the act of rolling over the globe, in which is figured, in basso relievo, the signs of the Zodiac, and the wheel of the car is the face of the clock of the hall, finely designed and beautifully executed. The whole was done by Signior Franzoni, another meritorious Italian artist, who also died in this city. Between the columns is suspended fringed drapery of crimsoned marines, festooned near the gallery, to limit the sound and assist the hearing. A magnificent portrait of Lafayette, at full length, painted by a French artist, and a most admirable likeness of that patriot, decorates a panel on one side the loggia, and indicated to the legislative body to whom it has been presented, that the corresponding panel on the opposite side could not be more appropriately filled than by the portrait of him who achieved the liberties and secured the independence of his country. Between the columns at their base, are placed sofas for the accommodation of those who are privileged to enter the hall, and within the bar, in a semi-circle fronting the speaker's chair, are seated the members of the house, each of whom is furnished with a mahogany desk, armed chair and writing materials.

    The Senate Chamber in the north wing is of the same semi-circular form — seventy-five feet in [page 233:] its greatest length and forty-five high — a screen of Ionic columns, with capitals, after those of the temple of Minerva Polias, support a gallery to the east, and form a loggia below — and a new gallery of iron pillars and railings of a light and elegant structure, projects from the circular walls — the dome ceiling is enriched with square caissons of Stucco.

    The walls are covered with straw colored drapery, between small pilasters of marble in the wall. Columns of breccia or Potomac marble, support the eastern gallery.

    The upper gallery on the east side was removed in 1828, and a light, airy, and beautiful one as mentioned above, erected along the semicircle fronting the President's chair, supported on small iron columns, handsomely bronzed, with a railing in front, of the same material and color. The removal of the dark and heavy mass of stone which formed the upper gallery has thrown into the chamber a proper degree of light, which it wanted before; and the new and tasteful gallery renders it more convenient to the members, by accommodating those who would otherwise be on the floor. The access, to it, however, is somewhat objectionable, as are most of the stair-cases in the building. They are rather confined and dark, for so spacious and magnificent an edifice as the Capitol. A stair-case is susceptible of great architectural beauty; and in the construction of such a building the opportunity to display that beauty should not have been neglected.

    The Rotundo occupied the centre, and is ninety-six feet in diameter, and ninety-six high. This is the principal entrance from the east portico and west stair, and leads to the legislative halls and library. This room is divided in its circuit into panels, by lofty Grecian pilasters or antae, which support a bold entablature, ornamented with wreaths of olive — a hemispherical dome rises above, filled with large plain caissons, like those of the Pantheon at Rome. The pannels of the circular walls are appropriated to paintings and teas relieves of historical subjects.

    In the small Rotundo of the south wing, there are columns of the Tobacco, and, in the vestibule in front of the Hall of Representatives, of the Cotton order; because these staples have been selected as ornaments for their capitals, and are really not much inferior, in richness and beauty, to the Acanthus leaf of the Corinthian. It was the design of Mr. Latrobe, the former architect, to make this edifice national, and to render it so, as far as possible, by the introduction of architectural ornaments derived from the principal native productions of our country. He did intend, moreover, to support one of the galleries of the Senate Chamber with emblematic figures of the thirteen old states, decorated with their peculiar insignia, and the models were actually made by one of those fine Italian artists whom he had engaged to be sent to this country; but a neglect or refusal on the part of Congress to make the necessary appropriations, defeated his design.


THE LIBRARY.


    Passing from the Rotundo, westerly, along the gallery of the principal stairs, the Library room door presents itself. This room is ninety-two feet long, thirty-four wide, and thirty-six high. It is divided into twelve arched alcoves, ornamented with fluted pilasters, copied from the pillars in the celebrated Octagon Tower at Athens. At the entrance, in the centre of the room, which is approached from the great central Rotundo, are two columns of stone, with capitals, corresponding with those of the pilasters, and immediately opposite and fronting the window which leads into the western colonnade, stand two similar columns of stone. These pillars, with alcoves, support two galleries, extending nearly the whole length of the room on both sides, and divided into the same number of shelved recesses as the lower apartment. From these recesses springs the arch which forms the ceiling, elegantly ornamented with rich stucco borders, pannels, and wreaths of flowers. On the roof, which is about ten feet above the ceiling, are three sky lights, the walls of which are beautifully decorated with stucco ornaments. The principal apartments, as well as the committee rooms, on the north, attached to it, are handsomely furnished with sofas, mahogany tables, desks, Brussels carpetting, etc.

    The apartment for the accommodation of the Supreme Court, on the basement story of the north wing, immediately below the Senate room, is of a semicircular shape, with the windows to the east to admit the light, which enters awkwardly and feebly, at the backs of the judges, in the bench. The arches, in the ceiling diverge like the radii of a circle, from a point over the justice seat, to the circumference. On the wall is an emblem of justice holding her scales, in bold relief, and also a figure of Fame, crowned with the rising sun, and pointing to the Constitution of the United States. The members of the bar are conveniently accommodated with seats and desks in the body of the apartment; and the visiters are furnished with rows of benches on the right and left wings of the centre of the Court.

    The Chief Justice sits in the centre of the six associate Justices — all clothed in black gowns or robes.

    The want of a law library in the Court for immediate and convenient reference, for the use of the members of the Court, was certainly a defect. The room, though small in comparison to the principal apartments of the Capitol, is large enough for the business of the Court. There are, however, occasions when an interesting question or a popular orator, attracts a concourse of citizens, who in that case, may find some difficulty in procuring seats. [page 234:]


EAST FRONT — TYMPANUM.


    The Genius of America occupies the centre of the group. Her figure, like that of all the others, is colossal, and fully, (perhaps too fully,) covered with drapery. She stands on a broad unadorned plinth, and her right hand holds a shield, inscribed in the centre with the letters U. S. A. surround ed with a glory. The shield, which is of an oval form, rests on a slender altar, on the front of which is an oaken wreath in has relief, with the words "July 4, 1776," within it. Behind her rests a spear. Her head, crowned with a star, is turned over her left shoulder toward the figure of Hope, to whose animated address she seems to be listening with attention, but with calm self-possession. Hope is an enchanting, airy figure, full of fire. She gazes upon the Genius with smiles, lifts her right arm and hand into the air, as in an attitude of delighted anticipation, while she seems to be dwelling on the rising glories and all the halcyon prospects of the republic. Her left elbow rests on the stock of an anchor, and the left hand is bent upwards, grasping in her eagerness, a part of her drapery. But the Genius, to whom she speaks, instead of catching her enthusiasm, points with emphatic dignity to the object on her right. This is Justice: a cold chastened figure, with eyes raised toward heaven, holding in her right hand an unrolling scroll, on which the words " Constitution of the United States" appear in raised letters of gold. Her left arm is elevated, and bears the scales. She has neither bandage nor sword; for in our free and happy country Justice is clear sighted, and stands with open face, respecting and comparing the rights of all; and it is in this, rather than in her punitive energies, that she is the object of the veneration of freemen. The moral of the whole is just and striking. However Hope may flatter, America will regard only that prosperity which is founded on public right and the preservation of the Constitution. Such is the design: and the execution is worthy of it. The figures have grace and elevation: much of the "mens divinior" which is about the works of the ancients. The artist at first contemplated giving more of nudity; but he was warned that the public sentiment in this country would not admit of it, and in his caution, he has gone into the opposite extreme. The head of Justice is covered with a fold of her mantle, which projects in a graceful form, and which, could the sun reach these figures when at the necessary elevation, would cast a fine shadow on the upper part of the countenance. But it happens, unfortunately, that this can never take place: as, before he climbs to that angle, the pediment is either partially shaded by the cornice, or, together with the whole eastern front of the building, deserted by his rays altogether. The Eagle, which is at the feet of the Genius, and between her and the figure of Hope, is one of the most masterly features in the design. Not only is the general outline of the bird strikingly true to nature, but the finish of every part of it beautiful in the extreme. Its head is raised, and turned upward-toward the countenance of America, while its wings are partially expanded, in act to rise, as if ready and eager to fly at her command.

    To point out defects is an invidious task, and one of the least welcome duties of criticism. There is so much of excellence; the general idea, (which was suggested by Mr. Adams, after upwards of forty designs had been offered and rejected,) has been so fully and so happily expressed, that strictures on the drapery or on the execution of particular limbs in the figures have an ungracious bearing. We will mention but two faults which strike the eve. The arm of the Genius which rests upon the shield, is somewhat constrained; she seems to be holding the shield that it may be looked at, rather than reclining her arm upon it with unconscious ease. And the right arm of Hope, which is elevated, appears to be too wide at the wrist, a fault which impairs the lightness and delicacy that characterize the residue of the figure. But these slight defects are overlooked among the many beauties which surround them.

    All the figures of the group ale colossal, being about seven and a half feet in height. A perfect symmetry has been given to the form, and the attitudes are et once graceful and expressive. Viewed with the eye of an anatomist, the minuter parts of the human structure are developed with a distinctness and truth which, while it displays the labor which the artist has directed to the production of these details, exhibits also the extent and correctness of his scientific acquirements. In the draperies of the figures there is great felicity of execution; the fullness, the folds and flow of the mantle, exhibit surpassing excellence.

    The eastern entrance to the Rotundb, from the floor of the Portico, is ornamented with two light and beautiful figures, in stone, in the act of crowning with laurel the bust of Washington, placed immediately above the door.

    The rotundo is topped by a cupola and balustrade, accessible by means of a stair-case passing between the roof and ceiling. From this elevation the prospect which bursts upon the eye is splendid. Three cities are spread before you: the Potomac on one side, and the Eastern Branch on the running and rolling their waters to the ocean; a range of hills extending in a magnificent sweep around you, and displaying all the richness and verdure of woodland scenery, with here and there beautiful slopes in cultivation — the whole colored by the golden beams of the setting sun, burnishing the reposing clouds, and gilding the tops of the trees, or giving light and shade to the living landscape — form a scene which few portions of the earth can rival, and which none can surpass. The dome of the centre, though nearly a semicircle, does not please the eye of a stranger; it wants greater or less elevation to contrast agreeably with the domes of the wings. [page 235:]

    Besides the principal rooms above mentioned, two others deserve notice, from the peculiarity of their architecture — the round apartments under the Rotundo, enclosing forty columns supporting ground arches, which form the floor of the Rotundo. This room is similar to the substructions of the European Cathedrals, and may take the name of Crypt from them: the other room is used by the Supreme Court of the United States — of the same style of architecture, with a bold and curiously arched ceiling, the columns of these rooms are of a massy Dorick imitated from the temples of Paestum. Twenty-five other rooms, of various sizes are appropriated to the officers of the two houses of Congress and of the Supreme Court, and forty-five to the use of committees; they are all vaulted and floored with brick and stone. The three principal stair-cases are spacious and varied in their form; these, with the vestibules and numerous corridors or passages, it would be difficult to describe intelligibly: we will only say, that they are in conformity to the dignity of the, building and style of the parts already named. The building having been situated originally on the declivity of a hill, occasioned the west front to show in its elevation one story of rooms below the general level of the east front and the ends; to remedy this defect, and to obtain safe deposites for the large quantities of fuel annually consumed, a range of casemate arches has been projected in a semicircular form to the west, and a paved terrace formed over them: this addition is of great utility and beauty, and at a short distance exhibits the building on one uniform level — this terrace is faced with a grass bank, or glacis, and at some distance below, another glacis with steps leads to the level of the west entrance of the Porter's Lodges — these, together with the piers to the gates at the several entrances of the square, are in the same messy style as the basement of tile building; the whole area or square is surrounded with a lofty iron railing, planted and decorated with forest trees, shrubs — gravel walks and turf.













Notes:

In his edition of Poe's Tales & Sketches (1978), Thomas Ollive Mabbott attributes this article to Poe, saying, in a footnote, "The Capitol at Washington is minutely described in a plate article, unsigned, in Burton's, November 1839, which I now (December 12, 1958) assign to Poe on the strength of the letter to Burton, June 1, 1840, and this passage in "Some Words with a Mummy" (p. 1200n34). The passage to which Mabbott refers is in the tale noted, in the paragraph beginning, " 'Look,' he cried with enthusiam, 'at the Bowling-Green Fountain in New York! or if this be too vast a contemplation, regard for a moment the Capitol at Washington, D. C.!" and ending "He explained that the portico alone was adorned with no less than four and twenty columns, five feet in diameter, and ten feet apart" (p. 1192).







 
[S:0 - BGM, 1839] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Works - Essays - The Capitol at Washington (A)