One of the most famous landmarks of the United States is the United States Capitol with the cupola or dome that graces its roofline. The Capitol dome, with its pure white sandstone is radiant-a symbol of democracy and strength. A breathtaking site when illuminated at night it is a fitting finale for the building it crowns. Located on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, it houses the Senate and House chambers of the legislative branch. It is among the most symbolic and architecturally impressive buildings of our Nation.
The original cupola design began with a Capitol design contest operated by Thomas Jefferson who was Secretary of State under President George Washington. The award $500.00 and a city lot to whomever produced the winning plan. 17 plans were submitted, none of which were approved. Then in the fall a letter arrived from a Dr. William Thornton, requesting an opportunity to submit a plan which the Commissioners granted. The building was characterized by a Central dome (cupola).
The dome was to be placed over the rotunda and was a two dome structure. The interior dome rose 96 feet above the rotunda floor and was built of stone; the exterior was a wooden dome with a copper roof and rose 140 feet. The Rotunda floor was illuminated from the oculus at the top of the dome. Thomas Jefferson called it, “the first temple dedicated to the sovereignty of the people.”
As the United States grew and more states joined the Union the Capitol needed to be expanded. Extensions were built to the North and South. With these additions, the original dome was not aesthetically pleasing. To achieve balance the size of the cupola needed to be in proportion to the length of unbroken roof line. The old cupola was a fire hazard as it was made of timber frame. For these reasons, a new fireproof dome was considered necessary. This was a most ambitious undertaking in the history of American architecture.
The wooden dome was removed in the fall of 1856. The new dome was three times the height of the original dome and built out of cast iron with columns, pilasters, scores of windows and crowned with a statue. A large painting of the Apotheosis of Washington was painted on a shell and the canopy is suspended between the inner and outer dome and is visible through the oculus at the top of the inner dome. Apotheosis is a Greek word that means ‘to raise to a god like stature.’
Domes with their circular shape have been called the perfect architectural shape, the circle being a symbol of the universe. In religious architecture domes proclaim the glory of God. The oculus or eye of the dome is considered the gateway of the Sun. From this gateway at the Top of the Dome rises the World Axis, the link between heaven and earth.
The Rotunda is a circular room located on the second floor of the Capitol above which the dome was to be placed. It is this room that has served as the ceremonial Center of the United States Capitol and known as the symbolic and physical heart of the U.S. Capitol.
As the United States grew it is clear that state governments saw the dome of the United States Capitol building as the American architectural icon of choice. Many states chose to emulate the structure to varying degrees in the construction of their own state capitols by incorporating a central dome or cupola in their designs.
The dome has gained a dominant presence in America’s skylines, a symbol of democracy and of aspiration to enable all citizens to live lives of dignity and freedom.