Happy 4th of July from Precise Home Builders!
What do you think of when you think of the 4th of July? Cook outs, parties with friends, fireworks accompanied by the thunderous sound of John Williams and the Boston Pops, playing “Stars and Stripes Forever”? Of course. But if you are an ardent history buff your thoughts on 4th of July probably wander back to the late 1700s when American Giants like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington walked the Virginia countryside and struggled to build one of the first modern democratic countries. Almost everyone knows the big moments in American History… The Tea Party, The Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War… But not everyone knows the role construction and remodeling has played in American history.
How Washington D.C. Was Born
In 1790 the U.S. Congress passed the Residence Act to establish the first U.S. Capitol. The Residence Act seems like a dull moment in the colorful history of the United States but in actuality it marks a key turning point in American history. Remember this is just three years after the U.S. Constitution had been signed, and what would come to be known as American style government was still very much in its infancy. The issues at stake in 1790 were much larger than just where to build the U.S. Capitol, and the Residence Act would be an early display of one of the things that makes American democracy great: compromise and political horse-trading.
The real issue at stake in 1790 was the assumption of war debt by the United States government. Alexander Hamilton, you could call him the father of the American treasury and banking system, wanted the United States government to assume the war debt of each state. By 1790 each state owed a substantial amount in debt due to the Revolutionary War. But there was so much war debt owed by so many branches of the government that the ability to re-pay that debt was in serious question. In fact, most saw this debt as virtually worthless. Hamilton knew that the American economy could never grow, never prosper, and would never have a currency the world would take seriously if it did not honor that war debt. So Alexander Hamilton proposed a bold plan … the United States government would pay off the war debt of those individual states at full value, increasing the credibility of America’s new central government and banking system. To pay for this plan, Hamilton proposed that the U.S. Government issue bonds (government backed debt) to investors that could be recouped for a healthy profit when they reached maturity.
More than 200 years later this still of U.S. Debt (now called the Treasury Bill) forms the backbone of both the U.S. economy and the world economy.
Hamilton’s financial plan faced opposition, however; mostly from the Southern States opposed Hamilton and his plan. Some thought it was reckless to take on debt and issue debt, others, like Virginia representative James Madison, thought Hamilton’s Financial Plan was unfair. Why should taxpayers in a state like Virginia, which was flush with agriculture money and had repaid most of its war debt, be assessed a second time to bail out poorer states? Madison was so outraged by Hamilton’s proposal that he blocked the bill entirely. Hamilton slipped into despair that his financial plan would fall apart; his life’s work dashed.
Compromise had to be found. That compromise came in the form of Thomas Jefferson, than Secretary of State of the United States. He brought these two great men, two of the greatest founding fathers together for dinner in New York. No record survives of what exactly was said by these men, but at the end of it a compromise was reached. Madison would withdraw his block on the Assumption Act. He wouldn’t vote for it, however, he wouldn’t actively attempt to kill the bill. In exchange, to assuage the anger of the Southern States, the United States Capitol would be located permanently on a patch of land on the Virginia / Maryland border. This compromise became the Residence Act of 1790, and Washington D.C. was born.
A Capitol is Born But Needs to Be Built
In 1791, George Washington formally selected the site for what would become Washington D.C. from a plot of land annexed from Maryland. Washington appointed commissioners to plan and design the new capitol from the ground up. Those commissioners Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design and layout the new city. L’Enfant was a French born architect who laid out most of Washington D.C. but didn’t build much of anything. By 1792, L’Enfant’s personality and desire to build the capitol city as a whole (instead of focus on the Federal Buildings) brought him in direct conflict with Thomas Jefferson and the commissioners ultimately responsible for overseeing construction of the capitol.
L’Enfant was dismissed by George Washington. L’Enfant’s plans would be revised and implemented by a surveyor named Andrew Ellicott. L’Enfant would spend most of his life fighting for recognition and payment for the work he’d done in designing and planning Washington D.C. He’d died in poverty in 1825.
With L’Enfant gone, the United States government still needed an design for its capitol. Thomas Jefferson decided the best way to resolve the issue was to hold a design contest. Doctor William Thornton won $500 for the design that would ultimately become the United States capitol.
Early Construction and the War of 1812
The cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol was laid in 1793 by George Washington. The original work was slow, laborious and grossly under-funded. The U.S. Capitol went through a succession of three architects during this time (two were fired for inappropriate design changes; James Hoban, the architect of the White House, saw most of the construction through). By 1796 construction of the U.S. Capitol building was behind schedule and the commission responsible for construction choose to focus on construction of just the north wing of the capitol could open on time.
The Congress occupied the U.S. Capitol in 1800. By 1803, construction began again with renewed funding and a new architect, Benjamin Latrobe. Latrobe began work on the South Wing of the Capitol and modified the original design to include additional office space and committee rooms.
This would be the start of a process of near constant construction and remodeling for the U.S. Capitol. Once Latrobe had finished the South Wing of the Capitol he had to return the North Wing. By 1808, the north wing of the Capitol had fallen into disrepair and was in desperate need of a remodel. Latrobe managed to finish construction on the South Wing and remodels to the North Wing by 1813, just as America’s second war with Great Britain.
The British Army invaded Washington D.C. in 1814 and burned the White House and the Capitol Building. The U.S. Capitol would have likely burned to the ground during that dark day in 1814 had it not been for a freak rainstorm. Latrobe would have to return to Washington D.C. in 1815 to restore the U.S. Capitol.
American Expands And So Does The U.S. Capitol
Construction on the U.S. Capitol technically stopped in 1826 when a Boston architect named Charles Bulfinch completed the central section of the U.S. Capitol that was topped by an over-sized copper covered wooden dome. But the U.S. Capitol was still being improved and remodeled with all the modern conveniences, like running water and gas lighting. But by 1850 the United States had expanded to about 37 states. The U.S. Capitol had not expanded since 1826 to accommodate the new Senators and Congressmen from the new states.
The U.S Capitol needed a room addition in the grandest way possible. Eventually the choice of architect to design and plan a new addition fell upon the shoulders of President Millard Filmore. Yes, the same President Filmore who is regarded as one of the most forgettable Presidents in United States history. Filmore choose Thomas Walter to redesign and oversee construction on additions to the Capitol Building.
Thomas Walter faced challenges that no other room addition contractor in the history of construction. Congress requested that Walter also expand or remodel other Federal Buildings like Treasury and Post Office. These additions were largely un-paid and simply added on to Walter’s task list. Walter was also tasked with replacing the bronze dome on top of the Capitol with a cast iron dome. The biggest challenge Walter faced during construction, however, was the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Construction on the capitol largely stopped, and during the Civil War the U.S. Capitol building served as a barracks for Union troops, a hospital, and a bakery. By 1862 construction resumed.
The additions to the Capitol Building and the new Capitol Dome were complete in 1865.
20th Century Remodeling
The Capitol Building has been modernized and upgraded dozens of times since 1865. In the 1950s for instance, skylights and windows were replaced and a proper air conditioning system was added to the Capitol building. Since the 1970s several parts of the U.S. Capitol have undergone renovations, remodels, and retrofits to ensure that the building remains structurally sound.
So the next time you take a trip to Washington D.C. and wander through the Rotunda, or walk down the Washington Mall, take a minute to remember the role that the construction worker, the remodeler, and the architect has played in building the United States of America. Their names do not ring through history the same way the titans like Hamilton and Jefferson do, but without the blood and sweat of construction our nation’s capital would not look the same way.
Happy Birthday, America!