When lawmakers saw the original drawing of the addition to the Capitol, it created such excitement that it passed without any committee hearings and little debate.
Members of Congress saw the designs hanging on a wall inside the Architect of the Capitol’s office and assumed the structure would be completed quickly and cost-effectively. But as the months and seasons wore on and the cost of the project doubled and tripled, frustrated lawmakers began to realize they had authorized more than they had bargained for.
The second Capitol Dome had an original sticker price of $100,000 in 1856 but ended up costing much more and taking far longer than anticipated.
“They voted for it thinking it could be constructed in just a few months using $100,000, and it took 10 years and $1 million to build,” Capitol Architectural Historian Bill Allen said during an interview on the C-SPAN series “The Capitol.”
The scenario is familiar to people paying attention to the 21st-century architectural feat known as the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), which is being constructed on and under the East Front of the Capitol.
Although the visitors center has been the subject of countless hours of debate and hearings there are quite a few parallels between it and the Dome. Tom Fontana, a spokesman for the project, agreed that some comparisons could be made.
“[The Dome] was extremely challenging — the fact that it was extremely high-profile, that the design changed during the process, as the original Dome changed,” Fontana said. He said the CVC, being built under the watch of the legislative branch’s Architect of the Capitol agency and its chief, Alan Hantman, possesses many of the same characteristics.
The Capitol Dome, like the visitors center, began as a modestly funded project that through innovative technology would vastly improve the Capitol.
Allen told C-SPAN, “The Dome as an engineering feat I think has got to rank well up in the roster of magnificent achievements in American architecture.
The Dome “was fairly innovative technology, and in the Capitol Visitor Center we have some innovative and cutting-edge [technology] that is being used. As Mr. Hantman has said, in some cases the [CVC] is like a beta test site in that there are systems that we’re installing for which [safety] codes have not been written.”
Fontana explained that when the Capitol Dome was constructed there was only one other steel dome in the world, in St. Petersburg, Russia. At the time, builders traditionally used brick, wood and marble as their main construction materials.
Like the CVC, which has endured many changes in design and scope since the idea was introduced in the early 1990s, the Dome also changed as the project progressed.
In 1859, it had to be lowered by 17 feet, changing its shape and scope, to accommodate the Statue of Freedom, which was 2 feet taller and significantly heavier than the design first presented by sculptor Thomas Crawford, according to Fontana.
One major difference between the two projects is that although the Dome’s cost increased and changes were made while work progressed on the project its basic design stayed the same.
However, the CVC’s design from the 1990s bears little resemblance to what is being built today, Fontana said. Early versions did not include auditoriums, a tunnel to the Library of Congress, complex utility and security systems or expansion space for the House and Senate.
The CVC is scheduled to open next year.
Fontana described the CVC as four projects under the same heading and expressed frustration that they are continuously grouped together out of context.
Nevertheless, congressional appropriators on both sides of Capitol Hill have reacted with anger at the rising price when both parties are promoting budgetary restraint.
While 21st-century lawmakers berate the Architect of the Capitol for alleged mismanagement of funds and call for more oversight, 19th-century lawmakers preoccupied with the Civil War went a step further: They simply decided to stop funding the Dome.
“It was being built when the war started, and it was decided by Congress that we don’t need to spend a lot of money on this Dome when we have a war to fight, so they decided to appropriate no more money,” House Historian Robert Remini told C-SPAN.
Contractors, who realized that the materials required to construct the Dome would be stolen or destroyed if they were not used, decided to keep on building.
“The Confederate army could see the Dome being erected in the distance, so symbolically it had a very significant impact,” Fontana said.
While the symbolism and legacy of the CVC has yet to be determined, Fontana said the visitors center will vastly improve the experience of visitors to Capitol Hill.
“Three million people are going to use this facility a year,” Fontana said. “It is the doorway to the nation.
“The Capitol has grown in eight major increments in its history, but never has it changed to accommodate the increasing number of visitors to Washington, D.C.”
The story of the Dome and further discussion of its significance as the crown of the nation’s most recognizable government building can be seen as part of “The Capitol,” a nine-hour C-SPAN documentary.
While it can be seen in it’s entirety on the Web, the three-part series will reair July 6-8.