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The City of Washington

The Illustrated London News, vol. 38, no. 1090, p. 496.

May 25, 1861


Washington, the capital of the United States of North America, is situated on the Potomac, at the influx of the Anacotia, in the federal district of Columbia. It is laid out with great regularity, on an extensive plan, and its public edifices are amongst the most splendid in the Union. Next to the far-famed Capitol, and the as well-known White House, the principal objects of interest in Washington are the four large structures for the chief departments of the central Government, situated near the President's official residence, the general post-office, treasury building, patent offices, navy yard, arsenal, city hall, hospital, penitentiary, theatre, Congress burying-ground, and upwards of twenty churches.

We give on pages 486-487 a birdseye View of the city of Washington, with the unfinished buildings of the Capitol in the foreground. The situation chosen for this great national edifice is in every respect a most judicious one. From its upper portions a fine view is obtained not only of the city of Washington, but of the whole surrounding country, the Potomac River, the groves of Mount Vernon, and the blue hills of Virginia. The building is constructed entirely of white marble, and is an immense mass of columns, pilasters, pediments, of the Corinthian order, all to be entirely crushed in effect by the huge dome now erecting over the centre portion. The central portico and the left wings are portions of the old Capitol, above which was originally built a dome of dimensions in proportion with the façade below. As great additions are now being made at each end of the original block, its length being doubled, the architects have thought that the same liberty might be taken in adding to the height of the upper part of the central portion—hence the injudicious attempt to get effect by the construction of this monstrous dome, out of all proportion with that which supports it. The site for this building was chosen by Washington himself. On the 18th of September, 1793, he laid the corner-stone, and seven years afterwards the seat of Government was removed to it from Philadelphia; in 1814 the first building was burned by the British, together with the library of Congress, the President's house, and other public works. In 1818 it was entirely repaired, and on the 4th of July, 1851, President Fillmore laid the corner-stone of the new buildings, which makes the edifice now more than twice its original size. Its whole length is 751 feet, and the area covered by buildings is about four acres. In the wings are situated the Senate Chamber and the Hall of Representatives of the Congress. In the centre, under the dome, is the grand Rotunda. Here, besides many statues and busts, are eight pictures of American history, painted by native artists. Those by Trumbull are the best, the subjects being events that took place during the War of Independence, in which the artist served. These pictures must be highly valued by the Americans, as they contain excellent portraits of nearly all the eminent men who played a part in the most important period of her history. In the interior of the various halls, chambers, and corridors, throughout the edifice the most elaborate style of decoration has been adopted: some of the apartments are lined entirely with beautiful and costly marbles; the ceilings are invariably wrought in the richest colours and devices; while gold and bronze are used with unsparing hand wherever an opportunity offers. The unfinished state of the building at present prevents any just opinion being formed of what the effect as a whole will be, but, from the liberal manner in which all the most expensive means of producing richness of effect in architectural decoration have been employed, it is but reasonable to suppose that the Capitol of Washington, when completed, will favourably compare with any other similar building in Europe, even with our own Houses of Parliament.

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