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Keeping History in Perspective

Engraving showing the first dome of the U.S. Capitol, designed by Charles Bulfinch. By William H. Bartlett, circa 1840.
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Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers, FAIA, LEED AP, remembers one of the major players in the history of the U.S. Capitol, Charles Bulfinch.

This year as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the placement of the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol’s current cast iron dome, I think it’s also important to remember the Capitol’s humble roots in the early years of the nation’s budding democracy.

Painted portrait of Charles Bulfinch
Charles Bulfinch, third Architect of the Capitol

The man behind the Capitol’s original wood and copper dome was Charles Bulfinch, the third Architect of the Capitol. Growing up in Boston during the American Revolution gave Bulfinch a front-row seat to history and certainly influenced his future work. Bulfinch is widely regarded as the first American-born and professionally trained architect.

By the time Bulfinch was offered the job of Architect of the Capitol in 1817, he had designed numerous Boston buildings to much fanfare, including the Massachusetts State House in 1798. Even when faced with an increasing competitive Boston architectural landscape, Bulfinch hesitated to move his family from the place he’d lived most of his life to the rustic city of Washington, D.C. At the time, the District of Columbia was not the bustling metropolis we think of today — it was during a time when cows and sheep could often be found grazing on what would eventually become the Capitol Grounds.

When President James Monroe was searching for the next Architect of the Capitol, he found a man of character in Charles Bulfinch — someone who possessed strong collaboration skills and a calm demeanor. In Boston, Bulfinch had been widely respected as a statesman and served as chairman of Boston’s local board of selectmen for 18 continuous years. During his Capitol tenure, Bulfinch easily endeared himself to Congress with his personable and agreeable disposition.

Certainly, Bulfinch faced challenges during the 12 years he served as Architect of the Capitol. He was responsible for designing the Capitol’s first dome (pictured above), made of wood and copper. His critics heaped ridicule on the final product, saying it looked like “an upside-down teacup.” Faced with these harsh descriptions of his work, Bulfinch simply said: “Architects expect criticism and must learn to bear it patiently.”

Bulfinch understood that he wasn’t building the Capitol for just that time and place — he was building it for the generations to come, just as George Washington intended when he placed the original cornerstone in 1793. Bulfinch always kept his work and place in history in perspective.

That’s what we strive to do at the AOC — to keep a perspective of history in all that we accomplish, and at the same time, be forward-thinking and conscious of what the Capitol’s future may bring. Generations from now, we want Americans to understand the compromises and struggles that contributed to this great nation, and that are embodied in the U.S. Capitol. We are proud to serve Congress and do our part to preserve the Capitol’s rich legacy.
 

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