The Capitol Dome

Winter 2015-16

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 23 of 43

22 the copyists of the "absurdities of the Roman luxury of the age when taste and morals were in the decline." In veiled references to ornton's Capitol exterior and James Hoban's for the President's House, he noted "that even in our national build- ings … [they] remind us of the palaces of European kings, by the taste of their external decorations, rather than of Athe- nian freedom, by their beautiful, magnificent, and perma- nent simplicity," a not too veiled reference to the superiority of his own work at the Capitol. Latrobe concluded his essay by defining architecture as combining "the most exalted sci- ence, with the most perfect art" to achieve "the most perfect record of the public spirit, the wealth, the civilization, and taste of nations;" the Capitol, his hoped-for future legacy. 4 In 1810-1811 Latrobe redesigned the Capitol's exteri- ors to be more in accord with his evolving interior spaces. He planned a new west entrance (fig. 3) in the form of a Greek portico based on the Propylaea, the entrance to the Athenian Acropolis, but altered its intercolumniation and added features from other Athenian buildings. e main purpose of the Capitol's propylaea was to provide houses for the doorkeepers of the Senate and House while freeing up spaces for committee rooms, but also to improve the pedes- trian approach to the Capitol. e massiveness of his propy- laea's six Greek Doric columns—they were to be 32 feet high—had "aspiration[s] to the sublime" as they vied with the slightly taller Roman Corinthian columns (dic- tated by ornton's original choice) in the loggia above and behind them. e Acquia sandstone walls of the Capitol's wings were already whitewashed and soon to be painted, but Latrobe's watercolor depicted his propylaea in the stone's natural light brown color. He may have intended it to remain unpainted in order to visually separate the Capitol's two dis- tinctly different historical sources, Roman and Greek. 5 Instead of the open balustrades atop the extant House and Senate wings, Latrobe planned solid ones for his center building. He designed a monumental statue of Athena as American Liberty (fig. 4) for its central stepped podium, a reference to the cult statue of Athena in the Parthenon. e Greek Athena wore a helmet, her le hand resting on her shield and her right one raised and holding the Palladium, the small statuette that represented civic power. Whoever possessed the Palladium in the Greek world held power. Latrobe's Athena-Liberty wore a liberty cap, and her awk- ward stance in his wash image suggests he painted her in reverse, intending to have the image either lithographed or engraved. When reversed, American Liberty's le hand rested on a stone tablet signifying laws—the Constitution—her raised right arm with palm open as if to express the openness of America's government; Congress and the Supreme Court and who and what they represented was the American Palladium. In his farewell address written on 19 September 1796, Washington referred to the union of the states, "the unity of Government… [as] the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity." At least as important for Latrobe, Jefferson wrote Fig. 1. In 1806 Latrobe recorded the shapes of the rooms on the Capitol's main floor, notably the hippodrome-shaped House of Representatives and the Rotunda. Fig. 3. About 1810 Latrobe planned to redesign the dome to have a hexago- nal drum and a west propylaea entrance in emulation of the propylaea of the Athenian Parthenon. Fig. 2. By 1817 Latrobe had designed a new west wing for the Library of Congress and committee rooms and the new hemispherical House chamber. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION (ALL)

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of The Capitol Dome - Winter 2015-16