- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

During most of the Civil War, Washington's two most recognizable landmarks were half-built construction projects that made startling sights in Mathew Brady photographs. In 1861, both the Washington Monument and the dome of the U.S. Capitol were incomplete.

President Lincoln's determination to signal the vitality of the Union, however, transformed the scaffolded mess at the Capitol into a soaring dome near the war's end.

When Lincoln was inaugurated the first time, on March 4, 1861, the Washington Monument was a 156-foot stone stump.

The first congressional resolution for erecting a monument to honor George Washington passed in 1783. When Congress selected the swampy banks of the Potomac just north of Alexandria as the new seat of government, city planner Pierre L'Enfant and President Washington chose a suitable site for whatever eventually would be built.

Through the years, a number of designs to honor the first president, including a toga-clad Washington apparently ready for his bath, came and went. There even were efforts to move the bodies of George and Martha Washington to a crypt below the Capitol dome. Nothing seemed to capture a majority of lawmakers' imaginations.

A civic movement advocating a towering obelisk to honor Washington got under way, and the group behind it evolved to become the Washington National Monument Society. Partly in frustration over previous memorial attempts, John Marshall, chief justice of the United States, agreed to become the society's first president. Former President James Madison succeeded him.

By 1836, 53 years after the initial site selection, the society had collected $28,000 in contributions. The estimate for the project at the time was $1 million. Nonetheless, American architects were invited to submit design proposals. Well-known architect Robert Mills won the contest. He already had designed and supervised construction of a smaller obelisk honoring Washington in Baltimore, and he proposed to enlarge this design for the grander venue of the nation's capital.

Construction began in 1848. The cornerstone was laid amid civic ceremonies on the Fourth of July. The National Intelligencer reported, "Few left the city, while great multitudes rushed into it. … The spectacle was beautiful to behold."

As the Civil War began, work on the monument, which had reached just 156 feet, slowed to a stop. The truncated monument stood for 16 years as a reminder of good intentions, bad politics and mixed management.

President Ulysses S. Grant got the monument started again. At the end of 1883, at the 410-foot mark, the push for the top commenced. The monument was completed in 1884, 101 years after the first steps had been taken on the project, at a height of 555 feet 5⅛ inches.

The story of the U.S. Capitol dome is less arduous but no less interesting. The plan for the Capitol dates to 1792. It called for a building to house the Congress, Library of Congress and the Supreme Court.

When the deadline for the submission of architectural drawings arrived, neither President Washington nor Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had a preferred design. Then a late entry, submitted in 1793 by Dr. William Thornton, won over both men. Washington praised Thornton's design for its "grandeur, simplicity, and beauty of the exterior."

On Sept. 8, 1793, Washington laid the Capitol's cornerstone during a Masonic ceremony. Despite the firing of the first two construction supervisors (who clashed with Thornton over the design), Congress moved into the first finished portion in 1800. By 1811, both the House and Senate wings were complete.

As war with Britain became more likely, work stopped on the Capitol. On Aug. 24, 1814, Adm. George Cockburn marched into Washington and burned the two most symbolic buildings of the nation: the White House and the Capitol. Only a driving rain that night saved the outer walls of the buildings.

Quickly repainted to hide the scars from the fire, the Capitol again went under construction. The building, with a low dome, was again declared "complete" in 1829.

By the 1840s, it became apparent that the Capitol would be inadequate for long-term service to the nation. Mississippi Sen. Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederacy, became the best-known advocate for the renovation of the Capitol. In 1850, Congress authorized the reconstruction that eventually would add the larger dome that crowns it today.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, troops were billeted under the unfinished dome. A bakery was set up in the basement to provide the troops' daily 10-ounce bread ration, and Lincoln insisted that work on the dome progress despite the war.

"If the people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign that we intend the Union shall go on," the president told John Easton of Ohio.

The dome was completed in 1863, after the Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg, and a statue of Freedom was placed at its apex. The building was rededicated Dec. 2, and the forts surrounding the city fired a simultaneous artillery salute.

John E. Carey is a historian and writer in Arlington.

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