Two of the most difficult tours to access in DC are the West Wing of the White House and the Capitol Dome. I was all set up for a West Wing tour when the sequester struck and discontinued White House tours, and I had assumed that there was no hope of my getting a tour of the Capitol Dome. The challenge of the Dome tour is the group size is limited to about seven people, and it is a requirement to have your Member of Congress or Chief of Staff along. That arrangement is far more possible in the smaller offices of the House than in the larger offices of the Senate, and I figured that was one of the trade-offs that I accepted. Out of the blue recently, one of my fellow Fellows forwarded me intel that one of the House offices had six spaces on a dome tour for that afternoon! She couldn’t attend, but my Beloved Husband has taught me to be spontaneous, and my year in DC has taught me to be opportunistic. I fired off an email to the contact and offered chocolate as an appropriate gesture of gratitude. I was queried exactly what form the chocolate might take, and after auditioning several recipe options, my chocolate chip meringue cookies were accepted as an acceptable barter for the tour.
It turned out that the House office had set up a tour for their Chief of Staff who decided not to go, so I was joined by six strapping young bucks who obviously also had good instincts for jumping on opportunities. I was slightly intimidated when our tour guide mentioned that the climb was 18 floors and over 300 steps, but it turned out that we paused regularly along the way and it was not as strenuous as it sounded.
The dome that we see on the Capitol was actually a relatively late addition to the structure. The original dome was constructed in about 1824 by Charles Bullfinch, who also did the golden dome over the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Bullfinch’s original Capitol dome was wood covered by copper, but there was concern about a fire risk, and the structure needed constant repair. Also, once the new House and Senate chambers were added on to the original structure, Bullfinch’s low bowl-shaped dome was no longer in proportion to the enlarged building. Thus in December 1854, a new fire-proof dome was designed and funds for construction were authorized by Congress at lightning speed, a mere 10 weeks later.
We started our climb through the many narrow twisty staircases, and our first stop was behind the dome “skirt” which is the very base where it starts to rise up from the building. At that point, we were standing next to the foundation of the old dome on the inside and the new outer wall built to give the proper perspective to the new dome. The space also hides ventilation equipment as well as utilities such as electricity for the inside lighting.
The new dome is made from cast iron, and I had pictured some kind of cast iron lattice work perhaps? No, basically the entire shell is made of cast iron puzzle pieces. If you’ve seen the spherical jigsaw puzzles that are assembled from numbered pieces, that was the concept used to create this dome. Each one of the indentations on the inside of the rotunda corresponds to one of those pieces. Here again, we passed between the inner walls of the rotunda and the outer walls of the dome.
Our first inner rotunda stop was about half way up where we could get an excellent view of the Constantino Brumidi fresco mural that encircles the space. Brumidi did the original design and about half of the painting, but at one point when he was painting, he slipped on the scaffolding. Fortunately, he had the upper body strength to hold on and was rescued about fifteen minutes later, but since he was in his 70’s at the time, he decided that he would be much happier on the ground. His student carried on his work, but although the student did his best to stretch the scenes that Brumidi had sketched out, there was a gap when the work was done. Our guide pointed out that the second artist, rather than signing his work, painted his face onto a tree. The gap was filled by yet a third artist some time later when Congress was more disposed toward appropriating the funds, so the last scene is of Wilbur and Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk. It was a pleasure to be looking across at the murals instead of up and getting a crick in my neck.
Another twisty winding climb brought us to the very top of the dome, known as the oculus. I was not the only one to stand a little ways back from the railing! In the Capitol dome, the oculus features the Brumidi fresco painting called, “The Apotheosis of Washington.” An apotheosis depicts a figure sitting in the heavens in an exalted manner, according to Wikipedia. Washington is flanked by Victory, in green to his left, and Liberty, in blue to his right. Liberty is wearing a Phrygian cap, based on a Roman tradition that when sons left home or when slaves were freed, they were given this cap to wear to denote their status. On the Library of Congress tour, we had learned about Phrygian caps being used on one of the figures denoting freedom from ignorance. When the statue of Freedom was designed for the top of the Capitol dome, she was originally given one of these caps to denote freedom from tyrrany, but since slavery was such a divisive issue, she was redesigned with a Native American headdress instead. Back to Washington, who is encircled by thirteen maidens, who represent the thirteen original colonies.
The central part of the fresco is easily visible from the floor, but the paintings around the perimeter can only be seen in their entirety from the balcony around the oculus. I’ll mention just three that had interesting details.
Science is represented by Minerva (I’ve always had a soft spot for Minerva), accompanied by Ben Franklin, Samuel Morse, and Robert Fulton. A box of batteries and a printing press are supposed to illustrate American invention.
Marine issues are illustrated by Neptune (who is sitting and watching while not helping), and Venus, who is busily laying the transatlantic telegraph cable. An iron clad warships appears in the background.
In the scene of War, Freedom, also known as Columbia, is accompanied by an eagle carrying arrows reminiscent of the eagle on the Great Seal of the United States. Columbia is said to be crushing tyranny, but there has been much discussion that the figures being crushed are the Confederate leaders from the Civil War. Robert E. Lee has the white beard, Stonewall Jackson is in the armor, and Jefferson Davis is cloaked and hooded carrying the two torches.
One other interesting detail we learned was that in the early 1900’s as part of a building conservation project, all the paint was stripped off the walls of the rotunda and the adjacent hall, with the assumption that the original walls were unpainted. Our guide pointed out that if the plan had been for the walls to be unpainted, then there would have been an effort made to match the sandstone colors. Since the stones are not matched, the intent of the architect was obviously to have the chamber painted. Unfortunately, at this point the unpainted walls have now taken on historical significance. Our guide suggested that these decisions are what drive curators crazy.
Last but definitely not least on our tour, we got to go outside to the balcony just under the statue of Freedom on top of the dome. It was a perfect day to be outside, and the views were magnificent. My spontaneity paid off wonderfully, and I was thrilled to get to go on this special tour.