DC
United States Capitol

Description And Comments

In the original plan for Washington, D.C. the focal point was a grand, wide strip of land anchored at one end by the Presidential residence and the other by the building meant to house the Congress. Remarkably, that is exactly how it was built, and the United States Capitol still anchors the east end of the National Mall. Rising 288 feet above Capitol Hill, the grand, domed, neoclassical Capitol Building has been beckoning visitors for over 200 years.

The cornerstone of the Capitol was set in place by George Washington himself on September 18, 1783 following a parade leading to the construction site. The spectacle involved demonstrated how important the Capitol was to be, both symbolically and practically – especially when compared with the ceremony-free laying of the White House’s cornerstone the previous year. The United States Congress officially met in the first section completed – the north wing – in November of 1800.

It only took 50 years for the needs of the Capitol to outgrow the structure, which led to major expansions in the building that symbolically matched the expansion of America. Today’s U.S. Capitol Building is 751 feet from end to end and 350 feet at its widest point. Within is where you will find the 435 members of the House of Representatives and 100 Senators.

The most recent addition to the Capitol complex is the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, located below ground on the east side of the building. The Visitor Center contains exhibits on the Capitol, gift shops, and a restaurant that serves from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm Monday through Saturday. The Visitor Center can be toured without a ticket or advance reservation, although it is the staging point for tours, so it becomes quite busy during the middle of the day.

The Dome Restoration Project and the History of the Dome

The massive dome of the U.S. Capitol has just undewent a multi-year restoration, however, this dome is not the first one to grace the Capitol Building. In fact, the original plans for the building featured a very shallow dome similar to the one on Rome’s Pantheon.

During the initial construction, it was determined that a majestic building needed an equally majestic dome and one of brick and wood, coated in copper was built that displayed a more rounded profile than the planned version. Even that dome was not spectacular enough, especially with the building expansion in the 1850s. On top of that, the partially wooden dome leaked and was an enormous fire hazard. Therefore, during the reconstruction in 1856 the dome was removed, to be replaced by the one you see today – a cast iron, 8.9 million pound behemoth topped by the bronze Statue of Freedom.

The cast iron dome was initially completed in 1865 and underwent a major repair and restoration in the late 1950s, but continued to show signs of wear both inside and out. The current refurbishment included restoring and weatherproofing the exterior and refinishing of the interior and the space between the inner and outer shells.

Touring Tips

Tours of the U.S. Capitol Building are available Monday through Saturday with tour times ranging from 8:50am to 3:20 pm. While same-day passes are available near the information desk in the Visitor Center, we recommend reserving passes in advance on the Capitol website, where tours can be booked approximately 90 days prior to your visit. It is also possible to get tours via your Congressional office, and some congressmen even offer smaller tours led by staffers.

The tour will take you through some of the many impressive areas of the Capitol. The centerpiece is the Rotunda, the circular room beneath the dome that rises 180 feet and culminates in a fresco entitled The Apotheosis of George Washington. You will also see National Statuary Hall, which was the original location of the House of Representatives, but now contains many statues. There are 100 total statues in the Capitol’s collection – two from each state.

Another tour stop is the Crypt, directly below the Rotunda, which is a bit of a misnomer: there is no one interred within it. The name comes from its location and purpose – supporting the Rotunda’s floor much like the crypts found in European cathedrals. Of course, there was one body meant to rest in the Capitol…George Washington. The original design intended for President Washington’s remains to rest in the floor beneath the Crypt, with a statue marking the site. In fact, for the first 28 years of its existence, a 10 foot hole was left in the Rotunda floor to view the non-existent tomb. Since George Washington expressly wished to be buried at his Mount Vernon home, he was never moved to the Capitol.

If you wish to tour the Senate and House galleries, they are open whenever Congress is in session, but they are not included on the regular tour. To obtain passes to the galleries, you must get them through your Congressman. For international visitors, you must inquire about the availability of passes the marked appointment desks on the upper level of the Visitor Center. Those with passes are admitted to the galleries Monday through Friday between 9:00 am and 4:00 pm. Be advised that liquids, food, and bags larger than 18 x 14 x 8.5 inches are not allowed in the Capitol Building. The galleries are even more restrictive: non-medical electronic devises, cameras, strollers, and bags of any size are not allowed, but there is storage available near the entrance to the galleries.


Rating

Location
East Capitol St NE & 1st St SE
Washington, D.C.
Capitol Hill
Capitol South

Hours
Tours available Mon-Sat 8:50am-3:20pm

Price
Free