The bronze doors are cast in relief ranging from very low to high and consist of a transom, two valves, and a surrounding frame. The transom, titled “Apotheosis of America,” depicts an allegorical figure of America surrounded by figural representations of education, architecture, painting, literature, music, sculpture, commerce, mining and industry. Below, are panels with scenes of many of these subjects as well as jurisprudence, sciences, agriculture, iron and electricity, and engineering. Bordering the transom and panels are 18 portrait figures and 28 medallions of people noted for their work in the fields represented in the adjacent scenes. The ornamental frame consists of oak and laurel leaves, symbolizing strength and victory, and the names of the subjects of the panels appear in relief in a variety of decorative motifs.
In March 1901, legislation was passed to appropriate funds for the Architect of the Capitol to prepare and submit to Congress plans and estimates for reconstructing the central portion of the Capitol, a project that would include refacing the West Front in marble. In 1903, Elliott Woods, superintendent of the U.S. Capitol and Grounds, started to explore the possibility of placing grand bronze doors, similar to those at the main East Front entrances, on the new façade. He began exchanging ideas with Louis Amateis, who founded the School of Architecture and Fine Arts at Columbian University (today The George Washington University) and was chairman of its Fine Arts Department, about possible designs and subjects.
Woods and Amateis had a general idea of the subjects to be depicted in the doors, but the final choice of scenes and selection of details were worked out through a series of drawings and models, including a full-size color rendering of the doors placed in the doorway of the West Front entrance. Woods continued to have an active role through the course of the commission. He assembled a committee of prominent architects and sculptors, including architect Thomas Hastings of the firm Carrère and Hastings and sculptor Daniel Chester French, to review Amateis’s work. The full-size plaster model of the doors was approved in 1908. The casting was put out to bid the following year and the contract was awarded to Jno. Williams, Inc., with The Roman Bronze Works as subcontractor. The bronze doors were completed in 1910.
By the time the doors were cast, however, the reconstruction of the West Front had not been authorized. Amateis unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Woods to place the doors in the existing West Front entrance anyway, arguing that when the reconstruction eventually took place the doors could easily be taken down and later reinstalled. (In fact, the reconstruction was never authorized.) The doors were instead displayed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art from 1910 to 1914. They were lent for display to the Smithsonian Institution in February 1914 and exhibited at the new National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) until 1967. The doors were then returned to Congress and placed in storage until 1972, when they were installed in their current location across from the Bulfinch stairway near the Memorial Door entrance in the House Wing. The first professional conservation of the doors was performed in February 2013. Dust, degraded coatings, and hand oils from people touching the doors were removed; the original patina color was restored; and a protective wax coating was applied.