A review of The United States Capitol: Its Architecture and Decoration, by Henry Hope Reed; principal photography by Anne Day
For a half century, Henry Hope Reed has been an eloquent spokesman for the essential relationship of classical architecture to the American polity. In 1959 he published The Golden City, a lavish visual and verbal portrait of America's public and commercial buildings, both important and routine, that he hoped would rally people to their defense against the rising fad of imported architectural modernism. Reed has subsequently expanded on this theme in three books on the nation's great public buildings—the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress (both done in collaboration with others), and now, the Capitol. All three employ ornament to enhance their beauty, and beautiful buildings, argues Reed, enhance citizens' love of their nation.
Reed believes that the appreciation of classical buildings fuels a desire to preserve them and build in their style. He established a program of walking tours of New York City, and in 1968, co-founded a society, Classical America, to cultivate patrons in Washington, D.C., and other great American cities. In addition, Classical America collaborated with W.W. Norton to publish and reprint important books on classical architecture.
In 2002 Classical America merged with the Institute for Classical Architecture, founded a decade earlier in New York by young architects who spurned modernism and embraced The Golden City. While this association of classical and traditional architects and artists continues to grow, it remains largely unacknowledged by the architectural establishment. In almost all of the 114 accredited schools of architecture in America, teachers will humiliate any student who challenges the reigning modernism; and critics in the popular press and professional magazines censor non-modernist work. As a result, public building authorities do not know of any alternative to the notion that only modernism is suitable for our time.
In 2005, Reed's leadership in the fight against modernism was acknowledged when he received the first Henry Hope Reed Award recognizing outstanding contributions to the welfare of the traditional city and its architecture. Funded by Richard H. Driehaus of Chicago and administered by the University of Notre Dame, it follows the Driehaus Prize in Classical Architecture (established in 2003) as a makeweight against the Pritzker Prize, awarded only to modernists.
Reed's new book on the Capitol examines a building rarely mentioned in the prevailing histories of architecture. Those mentioning it fail to admire its rich ornamentation of sculpture and painting—features, in Reed's book, brought to life by the excellent color photographs of Anne Day. This is no mere coffee table book, however; its extensive, lucid text and supplementary material establish the building as an embodiment of America's noblest aspirations.
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The Capitol began as the central node in Pierre Charles L'Enfant's great 1791 plan for the new federal district. Its design began under the supervision of President Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and its construction lasted until Andrew Jackson's administration. Two of America's best architects of the Federal period, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an immigrant from England and protege of Jefferson, and Charles Bulfinch of Boston, were among those who helped elaborate its original plan. In addition, many artists were recruited to depict the drama of America's founding, thus ornamenting the new capitol in the manner of the grand classical tradition.
Largely complete in 1829, the Capitol was the most expensive building built in the United States before mid-century. It made judicious use of familiar European precedents, welding them into a new composition enriched with inventive forms and native ornamental motifs. This surely satisfied the Jeffersonian requirement that in the management of its affairs as in the fine arts, the new nation must win the respect of the old nations of Europe.
Within a generation, the rapidly growing republic required an enlarged building. Out of a competition in 1850 emerged a second construction effort, which led to the placement of Thomas Crawford's statue of Freedom atop the dome in 1863 and produced essentially the building that we know today. By retaining but enlarging the dome, and pushing the wings outward to hold new chambers for the House and Senate, the expansion honored the requirement that a public building manifest the continuity and ongoing renewal of a nation's authority to govern. New attitudes about the relationship between buildings and their settings, and the building's expanded size in an urban landscape, led to the addition of great stairs and temple fronts with sculpted pediments, giving the appearance of a more firmly planted Capitol. The result enriched the first building's probity with the abundance enjoyed by late 19th-century America.
A remarkable cast of characters steered the remodeling. One was Thomas Ustick Walter, a Philadelphia architect who was perhaps the American best suited to the task. Another was an engineer and graduate of West Point, Lieutenant Montgomery Cunningham Miegs. He was building an aqueduct to supply the capital with water when, in 1853, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis appointed him superintendent of the Capitol extension, after President Franklin Pierce moved that responsibility from the Department of the Interior to the War Department. Walter initially welcomed Miegs's presence because it allowed him to devote more attention to the architectural work. Miegs brought to the building a large amount of cast and wrought iron, which Walter used well for ceilings, window and doorframes, and elsewhere. But when Miegs took it upon himself to commission a vast campaign of sculpture and ornamentation throughout the building, Walter was not pleased. Such coolness is common among architects, who often feel that art competes with rather than completes their work. Bramante, Michelangelo, and Maderno, for instance, did not intend the Basilica of St. Peter to receive the colorful marbles and extensive painting, mosaic, and sculpture installed under Bernini's supervision. In like manner, Palladio would have whitewashed the wonderful frescoes Veronese added to the Villa Barbero at Maser.
In 1855, Constantine Brumidi applied to provide some mural decoration for the Capitol. A painter born and trained in Rome, Brumidi had previously worked in the Vatican Palace, closely studying Raphael. From 1855 until his death in 1879, Brumidi, with the help of assistants, covered walls and ceilings in the Capitol Rotunda, in corridors, and in room after room with paintings, usually frescoes, in decorative patterns that he, Walter, or both had worked up. Indeed, Walter eventually fell under the painter's spell, finally commissioning him, long after Miegs's 1859 departure (in 1861 Lincoln named him Quartermaster General of the Union Army) to paint one of America's great achievements in fresco, the Apotheosis of Washington, inside the dome over the rotunda.
Brumidi's paintings and Walter's architecture celebrated abundance and transformed traditional forms. The vegetation (acanthus) of the Corinthian capitals, for example, was enriched with American plants. The ubiquitous columns are carefully calibrated so that their exuberance is relative to the viewer's standpoint and the available light. (As Reed points out, this achievement is rendered largely invisible by artificial illumination.)
The artists' work in the first construction campaign, and the labors of Brumidi and the corps of sculptors, bronze casters, floor tile specialists, and stucco masters in the second, made the building's presentation of America's ideals intelligible to the general public. The temple fronts that adorn the legislative chambers suggest that the activity inside partakes of a sacred character. The great dome rising above the rotunda, decorated with paintings illustrating the narrative of America's settlement, founding, and expansion, links the civic order and its laws to the source of those laws in the natural order, embodied in a domed cosmos. Magnificent, well composed, beautifully articulated, and embedded within the classical tradition, the Capitol represents authority and stands as a capstone to the great city spread below.
Reed's intention is to have us look at the building, and in this he succeeds brilliantly. He opens our eyes to an architectural counterpart to the republic established by the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. This has been Reed's consistent, clear message for half a century: our great public buildings must be worthy of our polity.