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Oculus Book Talk: Guy Gugliotta, Freedom's Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War

Location: Center for Architecture, 03.12.12
Speakers: Guy Gugliotta — journalist and author
Introduced by: Rick Bell, FAIA — Executive Director, AIANY
Respondent: Alan M. Hantman, FAIA — 10th Architect of the Capitol
Organizers: AIANY Oculus Committee; AIANY Historic Buildings Committee

At a time when citizens are increasingly frustrated by Congress’ inability to leverage a spirit of bipartisanship into action on their behalf, Freedom’s Cap: The United States Capitol and the Coming of the Civil War, a recent book by former Washington Post reporter Guy Gugliotta, is an important reflection on the history and the meaning of a building that symbolizes our democracy. It is also a testament to how a powerful architectural vision can be retained even when the core beliefs and values of its users are being torn apart.

In his recent lecture at the Center for Architecture, part of the Oculus Book Talks series, Gugliotta described the expansion of the U.S. Capitol during one of America’s most bloody and tumultuous periods in history – the Civil War. The Capitol, like other great buildings, had its share of drama and intrigue throughout its design and construction. The original Capitol building of 1800 was burned to the ground during the War of 1812 and was reconstructed soon after, but by 1850, Gugliotta said, it was rotting from water infiltration. The architect charged with the expansion, Thomas Ustick Walter, wrote in a letter to his wife, Amanda, that “The building is like one grand water closet – every hole and corner defiled.”

Gugliotta described the bitter feud between Walter and Army engineer Montgomery C. Meigs, who supervised the construction of the Capitol dome. Walter, as Gugliotta noted, believed Meigs was stealing his legacy as he fought for greater control of the design. He wrote of their quarrel in early 1858, “We have got completely at war.” In Gugliotta’s book, the relationship between these two brilliant men unfolds amidst the backdrop of a country that was also in conflict, fighting for its very soul. The unlikely champion of the Capitol’s expansion was Jefferson Davis, the junior senator from Mississippi who during the 11 years before he left the Senate to become the President of the Confederacy, was the building’s greatest advocate. Gugliotta noted that the rifts created by the Civil War became deeply personal among the three men—Davis, Walter, and Meigs—who oversaw work on the Capitol. While the architectural expansion of the Capitol and its iconic design was a symbol of a united America, the history of its construction is inseparable from the Civil War. The statue “Freedom” was placed atop the Capitol’s new dome in 1863, shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg.

In his response to the presentation, former Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman, FAIA, drew parallels between the complex politics surrounding the Capitol of the 1850s and those today. He noted that when he was appointed in 1997, he assumed that his greatest hurdle would be gridlock between the Republicans and Democrats, but that in fact it was conflicts between the Senate and House that posed the most serious challenges. Rick Bell, FAIA, pointed to similarities between our contemporary moment, characterized by economic uncertainty and polarizing rhetoric in national debates, and the Panic of 1857, which, as Gugliotta notes, was set off by the Dred Scott Decision on the rights of slaves. Bell observed that 1857 was also the year of the AIA’s founding, and that moments of crisis, whether economic or moral, sometimes drive the creation of new institutions, or, as in the expansion of the Capitol, strengthen the resolve of existing ones.

Maxinne Rhea Leighton, Assoc. AIA, is a member of the AIANY Oculus Committee. She is in charge of managing the Northeast Region Business Development and Marketing at Parsons Brinkerhoff.

Note about Oculus Book Talks: Each month, the AIANY Oculus Committee hosts a Book Talk at the Center for Architecture. Each talk highlights a recent publication on architecture, design, or the built environment — presented by the author. The Book Talks are a forum for dialogue and discussion, and copies of the publications are available for purchase and signing. The next talk will take place on 04.04.12, featuring Alexandra Lange, author of Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. Click here to RSVP.