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Built, Burned, Bakery: A Short History of the US Capitol Building


    The United States Capitol is one of the most famous buildings in Washington.

    The Capitol building is also one of the best-known symbols of the U.S. government. And it has been around for almost as long.

    The country’s first president, George Washington, set the cornerstone for the building in 1793. At the time, the country’s government was only about five years old. And the capital city was Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania.

    But national leaders were preparing to move the capital to the District of Columbia. They identified a hill on which to build a new home for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The area around it was mostly grass, trees and water – in other words, a swamp. But the country’s leaders imagined that one day it would be crowded with people and buildings. And they were right.

    A slow beginning, then a fire

    Yet efforts to set up the Capitol building were slow. Several architects were asked to work on the project and later dismissed. The design of the building kept changing. Finally, lawmakers began meeting in one side in 1800, and in the other side in 1807. They passed from one side to the other on a wooden walkway.

    Then, in 1814, British troops set fire to the Capitol building. Only rain from an unexpected storm put out the fire.

    After the war with the British ended, workers made repairs and began to improve the building. They enclosed the center of the Capitol and added a dome on top. It was made of wood and covered in copper.

    As the nation grows, so does the Capitol

    For some years, improvements to the Capitol were small: running water, then gas lighting. But major changes to the country were taking place. New states were joining. The United States was expanding. And more lawmakers needed to meet in the Capitol.

    By 1850, lawmakers agreed that the building was too small. Architects and builders set to work again. In time, they would double the length of the two sides of the Capitol. But the increase caused a new problem: now the dome looked too small.

    However, the nation was facing more serious troubles. The southern states were threatening to withdraw from the Union. They objected to the power of the federal government, especially its efforts to control – or end – slavery.

    By 1861, the country was fighting a civil war. Most work on the Capitol came to a stop. At times during the Civil War, the building served as a place for soldiers to sleep, a hospital, and even a place where baked goods were made.

    But even before the war ended, then-President Abraham Lincoln urged that improvements to the Capitol be finished. He reportedly said if people saw work continue on the Capitol, they would accept that the Union would go on.

    In 1863, a formerly enslaved man helped add a statue to the top of the new dome. Philip Reid was one of many enslaved workers who had built the Capitol. Over the years, they dug the stone, cut pieces of wood, and laid down the bricks, among other jobs. Reid was an expert in shaping metal. He was able to solve the problem of how to get a large statue out of its plaster cast so it could be forged. The figure, called the Statue of Freedom, still stands on top of the Capitol’s white, iron dome.


    The Civil War ended in 1865. As Lincoln hoped, the Union continued. And the Capitol building was slowly modernized. Elevators, electric lighting, and more rooms were added.

    In the 20th century, the Capitol was equipped with televisions, computers, and a voting machine. And a large visitor center was added so the public can learn more about its history.

    Today, the area around the Capitol is completely different than it was in 1793. Washington, D.C. is now a major city. And other government buildings stand near the Capitol. They include the U.S. Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and even the Voice of America.

    But the Capitol remains the seat of U.S. lawmaking, and a well-known symbol of the federal government.

    I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

    Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    symbol - n. an action, object, event, etc., that expresses or represents a particular idea or quality

    swamp - n. land that is always wet and often partly covered with water

    architect - n. a person who designs buildings

    dome - n. a large rounded roof or ceiling that is shaped like half of a ball

    brick - n. a small, hard block of baked clay that is used to build structures

    cast - n. a hard covering

    forge - v. to form something by heating and shaping metal

    elevator - n. a machine used for carrying people and things to different levels in a building