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How the Crypt Got its Name

The Capitol Crypt, which now houses statuary and exhibitions, was once used as an informal storage space where bicycles were parked, seen here circa 1900.
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The term “crypt” has long referred to a space beneath the main floor of a church or a chamber in a mausoleum. For many of us it suggests somber, stony silence and perhaps dusty coffins. The Capitol Crypt, however, is a different thing altogether. This brightly lit circular room below the Rotunda is one of the most heavily used circulation spaces in the building, its sandstone floor trodden by hundreds every day. Visitors weave around the 40 Doric columns and stand on the white stone compass star in the center, where the city’s four quadrants meet. Around the perimeter stand statues of prominent individuals from the nation’s original 13 colonies, and display cases present exhibits and historic objects. Indeed, funereal would be among the last words one might use in describing its ambience.

Such a description might also have sounded odd to the Capitol’s first architects and visitors. On a 1797 plan by Dr. William Thornton, the Crypt is labeled “Grand Vestibule”; on an 1806 plan, Benjamin Henry Latrobe calls it “General Vestibule to all the Offices.” In 1824, a report of the Commissioners of Public Buildings refers to it as the “lower rotundo.” By 1829, however, the current term appears to have come into popular usage: In discussing “the round apartment under the Rotundo,” an article in the Nashville Republican & State Gazette notes that the room “is similar to the substructions of the European Cathedrals, and may take the name of Crypt from them.” After that time, the name Crypt appears consistently in guide books, reports and correspondence.

Of course, as everyone who tours the Capitol learns, this room was associated with a proposed interment even before it was built. After the death of President Washington in 1799, Congress resolved to honor him in the Capitol. A chamber for the remains of the first president and his wife was added to the plans for the center section of the building and constructed two stories below the Rotunda. Directly above the tomb (i.e., in the center of the Crypt) was to be placed a marble statue of Washington, and overhead a 10-foot circular opening was left in the center of the Rotunda floor so that visitors could view it from above. However, Washington’s grave remained at Mount Vernon in accordance with his wishes, and no statue of him was ever placed in the Crypt. Because the 10-foot opening was allowing persistent drafts and dampness into the Rotunda, it was sealed in 1828. This was a source of great satisfaction to artist John Trumbull, for it relieved his concerns about further damage to his four monumental history paintings—two of which honor George Washington.

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