The Capitol Dome

Summer 2016

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The Very First Miss Liberty: Latrobe, Franzoni, and the First Statue of Liberty, 1807-1814 by Richard Chenoweth, AIA W hen the U.S. Capitol burned on 24 August 1814, its principal chambers were gutted and a colossal mas- terpiece of American neoclassical sculpture, the nation's first Statue of Liberty, 1 was completely destroyed. The Liberty is not well known because, in its brief lifetime, no artist ever stopped to record it. All that remains are descrip- tions in letters of its design development and its placement in the famous Hall of Representatives (also known as the House chamber in the South Wing of the Capitol [fig. 1]; today, the site of the National Statuary Hall). Architect of the Capitol B. Henry Latrobe designed the Liberty in large part by giving instructions to the sculptor Giuseppe Franzoni, who carved her in plaster. Latrobe's goal was to copy the plaster model into Vermont Marble, but the opportunity never arrived. Liberty presided over the Hall only until that summer night in 1814, in the midst of a fire so intense that even Vermont Marble would have been reduced to lime. Latrobe was in charge of the Capitol's design and con- struction from 1803-1811, a period charged with idealism and allegory as well as with scandal and misfortune. 2 The Liberty was organic to the architectural experience of the complete House chamber—it was not an afterthought and not mere sculptural decoration. Latrobe wrote: "The Statue is indeed essential to the effect of my Architecture." 3 Latrobe's and Franzoni's Statue of Liberty represents the successful culmination of a long effort by early American designers to create a monumental personification of Liberty within a major public space. ICONOGRAPHY AND EARLY ATTEMPTS The idea of an American symbol of freedom was not new in 1805 (the year Latrobe first mentioned in his letters the idea of a Liberty sculpture for the Hall). Since colonial times, allegorical figures of American freedom were common (fig. 2). Usually personified as a female Native American in head- dress, she was known as Liberty, Freedom, or Columbia. Liberty evolved toward a Greco-Roman personification in the later eighteenth century, as interest in neoclassicism and archaeology increasingly influenced the arts. Late in 1788, French architect Peter Charles L'Enfant was asked by the New York City government to renovate its City Hall for the first session of the First Federal Congress in April 1789. (Its predecessor, the Confederation Congress, had been meeting there since 1785.) The renovated building, thereafter known as Federal Hall, had two principal legisla- tive chambers and a second story balcony for public events. The balcony's broadside overlooked the important intersec- tion of Broad and Wall street, with its short side aligned axi- ally with Trinity Church at the west end of Wall Street. It was considered a state of the art facility and was the nation's first building specifically designated for federal business. Federal Hall was demolished in 1812, and in 1842 the marble Greek Revival building now on the site was built—the New York Customs House. L'Enfant's elegant additions and renovations of the inte- rior were well received and described in print, but were 3 THE CAPITOL DOME

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