The Capitol Dome

Fall 2014

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THE CAPITOL DOME 42 WASHINGTON'S REBIRTH T he destruction of the public buildings of Washington, D.C. during the British occupation of August 1814 was one of the most salient events of the War of 1812. The national capital had been in existence for only a short time; with its public buildings still uncompleted, Washington D.C. had little status in a country just recently established. Indeed, its significance was deemed so slight that Secretary of War John Armstrong could not foresee any danger from the British forces ranging freely in the Chesapeake Bay region in the summer of 1814. Yet it was attacked and occupied. e ultimate result of this degradation of the national capi - tal by the enemy was unexpected. It was perhaps not surpris- ing, in light of its diminished value, that its destruction did not destroy the will of the country to continue to resist. However, after the initial shock, the response was to enhance the value and growth of Washington in the national spirit and to rein- force its importance to a previously unheard of degree. is was evident in the rapidity with which the rebuilding of the public buildings such as the United States Capitol and the President's House went forward. In addition, for the first time, there was the formation of a less transient local com - munity and a commitment to investment by private interests. Both aspects were in large part due to the work of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (fig. 1). As soon as the British left Washington, Congress set to work assessing the damage. A loan was offered by the local banks to assure that the capital would remain in Washington. By March 1815, Latrobe was invited to return to Washington as "Surveyor Architect to the Capitol." In his rebuilding of the Capitol, Latrobe made several changes; many had been ideas he had put forward earlier that had been overruled by Presi - dent omas Jefferson or opposed by District Commissioner William ornton. e most important change in the Hall of the Representatives was its conversion from an elliptical to a ARCHI T EC T OF T HE C API TOL Fig. 1. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, oil portrait by George B. Matthews after C.W. Peale. Benjamin Henry Latrobe and the Rebuilding of the City after the War of 1812 By Mark N. Ozer

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