The majestic dome and Rotunda marking the heart of the U.S. Capitol Building not only symbolize the power of the legislative branch of the greatest democracy in the world, but also determine the coordinates of every street in Washington: every single address in the city is designated NE, NW, SE, or SW according to its relationship to the Rotunda. And since the Rotunda is not in the exact center of the city, the capital's four quadrants are disparate in size and shape.
This centricity to the geography of the nation's capital heightens the already overwhelming sense of awe and inspiration felt by almost every citizen who stands in front of the building where Congress has met for two centuries.
The Capitol Building has gone through several permutations. Started in 1793, its design was the result of a contest that was awarded not to an architect, but to physician William Thornton, who used as inspiration the Pantheon, and the east front of the Louvre. Thornton then worked with three different architects, the first two who were dismissed from the project for having introduced substantial design changes. By 1800, the north wing was complete and Congress met for its first session in the building on November 17, 1800.
In 1850, the Capitol was expanded to lengthen its two sides in order to accommodate a growing number of legislators, and much of its limestone façade was replaced with marble. Once the sides were complete, it was evident, however, that the dome was no longer proportionate, so plans were made to enlarge it. Much of this work continued throughout the Civil War, as President Lincoln was convinced of the importance of the Capitol Building to the union. Additional extensions were made to the wings in the early 20th Century, but when attempts were made to again enlarge it in the 1970s, public protest resulted in efforts to maintain and restore it, rather than to continue to change its actual footprint.
Today, the Capitol has 540 rooms, is divided into five levels, and spans approximately 16.5 acres. The House of Representatives occupies the south wing, and the Senate the north wing. The ground floor is devoted to congressional offices, and the second floor of both wings holds the meeting chambers for each body. The Rotunda, an enormous 96-ft. wide circular space, is adorned with paintings and sculpture celebrating America's history. On the third floor, visitors can watch Congress in session.
- The Capitol is open to the public for guided tours only. Tours are conducted from 9am to 4:30pm Monday through Saturday (the Capitol is not available for tours on Sundays). The Capitol is open on all federal holidays except Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
- Visitors must obtain free tickets for tours on a first-come, first-served basis, at the Capitol Guide Service kiosk located along the curving sidewalk southwest of the Capitol (near the intersection of First Street, S.W., and Independence Avenue). Ticket distribution begins at 9am daily. Ticketholders will be directed to the South Visitor Receiving Facility, which is located south of the Capitol; from there they will proceed to the Capitol to begin their tour. Maximum tour size is 40 people.
- Metro Stop:
- Blue or Orange Line to the Capitol South Stop
- Location: 1st Street Northeast, Washington DC
- Phone: 202-225-6827
- Website: www.aoc.gov