Open Competition

Thomas Jefferson decided that the Capitol's design should be chosen by a public competition, and advertisements began appearing in American newspapers in March 1792. The entries were disappointing to the judges -- Washington, Jefferson, and the Commissioners of the District of Colombia. Most of the entries survive to this day; they are a revealing reflection of the talent available among America's amateurs, builder-architects, and professionals.

The published guidelines stipulated matters of fact -- size and number of rooms and materials -- not issues of taste, such as style of architecture, historical association, or symbolic meaning. Thus the competitors themselves proposed ideas of how to convey America's new political structure and social order. Their suggestions, ranging from simple to complex, economical to expensive, reflected commonly held beliefs about America's governing population -- primarily farmers and merchants -- or promoted benefits promised by the Constitution.

Most competitors drew upon Renaissance architectural models, either filtered through the lens of eighteenth-century English and American Georgian traditions or based directly on buildings illustrated in Renaissance treatises. The Capitol competition coincided with nascent Neoclassicism in America, in which forms and details from Greek and Roman architecture were revived. Three of the competition entries were inspired by ancient classical buildings.

The Roman Pantheon -- the circular domed rotunda dedicated to all pagan gods -- was suggested by Jefferson, who later shepherded it through several transformations.

Portrait of Washington From Life

Jean-Antoine Houdon. Bust of George Washington. Marble. c[copyright symbol] 1994 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington. Gift of Robert L. McNeil, Jr., in Honor of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art (26)

Portrait of Jefferson from Life

After Jean-Antoine Houdon. Bust of Thomas Jefferson. Plaster. Photograph by Franz Jantzen, Copyright 1995. Library of Congress (27)

Jefferson's Pragmatic Design for the Federal City

Thomas Jefferson. [Proposed Plan of Federal City], March 1791. Ink on paper. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (28)

Domed Rotunda for Capitol First Proposed by L'Enfant

Pierre Charles L'Enfant. "Plan of the City of Washington," March 1792. Engraving on paper. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (29)

Capitol Competition Guidelines

Thomas Johnson and Thomas Jefferson. [Announcement of Capitol Design Competition]. Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), March 24, 1792. Newspaper. Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (30)

Ancient Roman Pantheon Inspires Jefferson's Capitol Design

Antoine Desgodetz. "Elevation de la face du Pantheon, a Rome," in Les edifices antiques de Rome. Paris: Claude-Antoine Jombert, 1779. Engraving in book. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (33)

German Engineer's Entry in Capitol Competition

Charles Wintersmith. [Section, Elevation, and Plan of Capitol Design No. 1,] 1792. Ink and water color washes on paper. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore (34)

Octagonal Irish House of Commons Source of Small's Conference Room

Octagonal Irish House of Commons Source of Small's Conference Room Rowland Omer. "A Section of the House of Commons, Dublin," 1767. Engraving on paper. Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland, Dublin (36.1)

Modest Capitol Design with Courtyard Based on Renaissance Palace

James Diamond. "Section of the back Front on the Court Side," and "Back Front or Flank, to Plan No. 1 for a Capitol," 1792. Ink washes on paper. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore (39)

Giant Eagle Identifies Capitol as Congress's Building

James Diamond. "An Elevation for a Capitol," 1792. Ink and ink washes on paper. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore (40)

Palladio's Basilica in Venice Model for Capitol

Giacomo Leoni, after Andrea Palladio. [Basilica, Venice]. The Architecture of Palladio in Four Books, 3rd. ed. vol. 1. London: 1742, Plate XX. Engraving from book. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (42)

Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Andrea Palladio. I Quattro Libri de l'Architecttura, Venice: Bartolomeo Corampello, 1601, "Libro Secundo," p. 19. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (44.1)

Rare Book in Harvard Library Inspires Capitol Design

Colen Campbell. "The First Design of the West Front of Wansted". Vitruvius Britannicus, vol. 1. London: 1715, Plate 22. Engraving in book. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (47)

Pre-Competition Design Shown to Jefferson

Stephen Hallet. [Elevation of First Design of Capitol] "Plan B 2.", c. 1791. Ink and Water color on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (51)

Classical Temple Proposed for Capitol

Stephen Hallet. [Plan of Capitol Competition Entry], 1792. Ink on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (55)

Washington Advises on Capitol Design

Stephen Hallet. [Elevation of Fourth Design for Capitol], 1793. Ink and Water color on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (58)

Dome Serves as Belvedere Tower

Stephen Hallet. [Section of Fourth Design for the Capitol], 1793. Ink and Water color on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (59)

Winning Design of Capitol Competition

Robert King. "A Map of the City of Washington in the District of Columbia," 1818. Engraved map. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (62)

Winning Design's Mall Facade Reconstructed

Don Alexander Hawkins. Reconstruction of Thornton's West Front. Copyprint from silver-gelatin print. Courtesy of Don Alexander Hawkins (63)

Principal Floor Plan of Winning Design

Don Alexander Hawkins. Reconstruction of Thornton's Principal Floor Plan. Copyprint from silver-gelatin print. Courtesy of Don Alexander Hawkins (64)

Elevation of Fifth Design for Capitol

Sculptural Panels Celebrate America's Discovery. Stephen Hallet. [Elevation of Fifth Design for Capitol], 1793 Water color on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (65)

Elliptical Rooms for Legislative Chambers

Stephen Hallet. [Principal Floor, Plan of Fifth Design for Capitol], 1793. Ink and Water color on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (67)

Plan From Which Capitol's Foundations Were Laid

Stephen Hallet [Conference Plan], 1793. Ink on paper. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (68)

Cornerstone Ceremony Recreated

After Thomas Crawford, [?] Nolley, maker. [Laying the Cornerstone of the United States Capitol], c. 1853-1857. Plaster relief sculpture. Architect of the Capitol (70)

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