The term “Capitol Hill” refers strictly to the slightly inclined location in central Washington, D.C. where the United States Capitol building is located, or to the building itself that houses the legislative branch of the government of the American republic. It is also commonly used, sometimes positively and sometimes not, to refer to the legislators themselves and the people who work for and with them. Whatever the meaning of the term, the place is one of the most-visited sites in the nation’s capital and a very historic location in a unique city filled with history. Like many of the tourist attractions in Washington, the facilities and museums on or near Capitol Hill are easy to get to and are for the most part free.
Building a new capital city
Washington, DC is a unique American city, because it has had only one business and focus for most of its history and because its location, boundaries and government were specified in the United States Constitution. It was specifically established to serve as the capital of the new nation, and was located on a site chosen by George Washington, at an area where the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers join that was at the time largely uninhabited and felt by most people to be unattractive and even unhealthy. The site represented a compromise between the northern states and the adherents of Alexander Hamilton, who wanted the new national government to assume the Revolutionary War debts of the states and the Continental Congress, and supporters of Thomas Jefferson and inhabitants of the southern states, who wanted the capital to be in a location friendly to southern agricultural interests.
The government had been situated in New York at the time the Constitution was ratified, and moved to Philadelphia in 1790 in the anticipation that the new capital city would be ready within a decade. President Washington appointed three commissioners to prepare the area for the arrival of the government, which had 131 employees at that time, as compared to some 3 million today.
The development of the still unnamed city began in 1792. The city was laid out in a series of interlocking grids by the self-taught surveyor and mathematical genius Benjamin Banneker, a “free man of color” in a slave-holding area. A sweeping landscape of broad boulevards and ceremonial spaces was designed by the French-born Pierre Charles L’Enfant that in places evoked the city of Paris. It envisioned a “Congress House” centrally located on what was then called Jenkins Hill, connected by a wide boulevard to the “President’s House” a mile away. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson insisted that the legislative building be called the Capitol, an allusion to the Capitoline Hill on which the government of the Roman Republic had been centered, and Jenkins Hill was thereafter referred to as Capitol Hill.
The Congress House
A national competition was held to choose a design for the Capitol building, with a prize of $500 and a lot in the capital city. American professional architecture hardly existed at the time, and ten unsatisfactory designs were received; a French architect was the leading contender, although his proposed design suggested an ornate French chateau and promised to be very expensive. A late entry by one of the relatively few residents of the future capital, British-born physician and amateur architect William Thornton, impressed President Washington with its “grandeur, simplicity and beauty”. The Thornton design was based loosely on the Louvre and the Pantheon in Paris, but the domed building also suggested the Roman Republic as Jefferson preferred. Dr. Thornton was appointed the first Architect of the Capitol (he was also an inventor, and was the first Superintendent of the Patent Office).
The French architect who had just lost out, Stephen Hallet, was put in charge of construction and almost immediately began to demand changes in Thornton’s plan. Benjamin Henry Latrobe of Philadelphia, perhaps the young country’s most eminent architect, and Charles Bulfinch of Boston, acclaimed for his plans for the recently-completed Massachusetts State House, also became involved in the process and introduced elements of the Greek revival style for which they are known today. Although the national government moved to the new city, now named after George Washington, as scheduled, only the Senate side of the legislative building was finished, and the quarters of the House of Representatives were not finished until 1811.
Growth of Capitol Hill
Aside from the legislative buildings, the only other structures in the area were the Washington Navy Yard, which opened in 1799, and a group of boarding houses where members of Congress, most of whom did not want to move permanently to the new city, came to live when in session. Most of the craftsmen who were employed at the Navy Yard or in construction of the Capitol lived in the boarding houses or built homes to the east of the Capitol building and north of the Navy Yard. The barracks of the United States Marines were also placed in this area by President Thomas Jefferson, who assumed office in 1801; this permitted the troops to be within marching distance of the Capitol, the presidential residence by now called the White House and the Navy Yard. Over the next decade, shops, various establishments such as blacksmiths and churches had grown up near the Capitol.
Washington had been envisioned as a commercial center as well as a seat of government. A federal enclave, the District of Columbia, had been created by taking rectangular pieces of Maryland and Virginia on opposite sides of the Potomac River. The District took in the port of Alexandria, Virginia and residents were concerned that inclusion in the federal district would hurt their businesses. The city did not grow much during the first half of the 19th century, partly because the national government remained small and its powers and duties limited as compared to those of the states, and in part because of recurrent outbreaks of malaria and sometimes cholera in the swampy and poorly-drained capital area. Alexandria and its environs were returned to Virginia in 1846, after it was concluded that Washington would not need that much room to grow.
The capital did grow substantially during the Civil War, and much of the growth was occasioned by the building of government buildings, military facilities and hospitals needed to prosecute the war and deal with the postwar problems of reconciliation between the states and integration of millions of freed slaves into society. New housing was constructed in the area of the hill, much of it with a distinctive mixture of Greek Revival and Victorian architecture that has been preserved to this day,
When electricity, indoor plumbing and piped water became available in the late 19th century, it was brought first to the area around the Capitol and parts of the area became the most desirable neighborhoods in Washington. Nearby neighborhoods closer to the Navy Yard and the Anacostia River were less desirable and were more heavily populated by African-Americans, who became a majority of the city’s population during the 20th century. These trends were continued and hastened by the effects of two World Wars and a depression during the century: during World War II, for example, “government girls” baked bread in ovens constructed on the grounds of the Capitol and White House.
Capitol Hill remained a relatively stable middle-class neighborhood through most of the century but began to decline as the city grew outward and other areas became more affluent and developed, such as the Arlington area that had been given back to Virginia and Georgetown, which had been in Maryland but had remained in the District of Columbia after the 1846 revision of its boundaries. Economic decline and increased crime became significant problems in the area around the Capitol but lessened in the latter part of the 20th century as government growth and the relocation of many businesses in proximity to the centers of government brought more prosperity. The Federal- and Greek Revival-style homes of the area have become very valuable, and there has been intense “gentrification” of the neighborhood, to the point where most government workers and many members of Congress can no longer afford to live there.
The Capitol Hill Historic District
The Capitol Hill Historic District was established in 1976 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is one of the largest such districts in the country and extends from F Street NE southward to M Street SE and from South Capital Street in the west to 14th Street on its eastern boundary. The district includes, in addition to the Capitol building, the buildings that house the offices of 100 senators and 435 representatives (plus a few non-voting delegates from territories), the Navy Yard and Marine Barracks built at the same time as the Capitol, the later Supreme Court and Library of Congress buildings and the Congressional Cemetery.
The historic district is mostly residential, however, and contains a great variety of sizes and style of homes, most of them connected rowhouses. Federal townhouses from the early days of the city, early 19th century manor houses, small frame buildings put up during and after the Civil War coexist with a variety of late 19th century houses, usually brick, that represent Italianate, Queen Anne and Romanesque styles common in American cities at the time.
The major commercial street in the area is Pennsylvania Avenue, originally planned to run in a straight line to the White House but forced to make a dog leg turn around the Treasury building when that was expanded; it is said that President Andrew Jackson did this on purpose during a dispute with the Congress, so that he would not have to look at it all the time from the White House. The avenue is now a center of commerce and entertainment, and 8th Street SE, called Barracks Row because of its proximity to the marine installation, is being revitalized as a commercial street. Eastern Market on 7th Street SE is a long-standing weekday farmers market and a flea market on the weekends.
Many homes in the area are historic because of their former occupants. The birthplace of John Phillip Sousa, the “Match King”, can still be seen on G Street near Christ Church. The home of the first major black leader, Frederick Douglass, has been preserved on A Street NE. The birthplace of the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, is no longer standing but his later residence can be seen. Near the Eastern Market is the Hill Center, newly-opened in the 1864 Naval Hospital, which houses a restaurant and historical and art exhibits.
Visiting the Capitol
Most visitors come to see the Capitol and adjacent buildings, and at one time visitors could simply walk into the building and if they wished, sit in the visitors’ galleries of the Senate, House of Representatives and Supreme Court. Access to the Capitol is now through the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, at 580,000 square feet about three-quarters the size of the Capitol building itself. The center was constructed underground on the east side of the Capitol to avoid disturbing the appearance of the Capitol or the view from it. The center was built because the number of visitors wishing to enter the building had reached 3 million a year, and lines down the east stairs and out to the adjacent street waiting for admission had become common. In addition, there was no protection for visitors against the weather and no provision for the security screening that became necessary after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The visitor center allows up to 4,000 visitors to gather at one time, is accessible by those with disabilities and provides an exhibition center (Emancipation Hall) and a food court. Visitors can see the building, and in particular the great dome, as never before through a skylight, and the original plaster cast of the statue of Freedom that stands atop the dome is on display as well as some of the statues from Statuary Hall, to which each state contributes likenesses of two of its most eminent citizens, that became crowded with statues as the number of states reached 50. A recent bust of anti-slavery activist Sojourner Truth is the first Capitol sculpture honoring an African-American woman.
The Capitol and the Center are open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day but Sunday except for Thanksgiving, Christmas. New Year’s Day and every four years on Inauguration Day. Tours are conducted from 8:50 a.m. to 3:20 p.m. and are free but require tickets and may be filled early in the day. Tours can also be booked in advance on the visitor center website, or can be arranged by the office of your Senator or member of the House of Representatives. Visitors must go through a screening device and items they bring are subjected to an X-ray. Liquids, including water, and food or beverages may not be brought into the Capitol. Aerosol or spray containers, pointed objects like knitting needles, razors or other sharp objects, bags bigger than 8.5 inches deep and 18 inches wide and any kind of weapon are also prohibited. The Capitol Police may make exceptions for such items if they are needed for special needs, child care or medical purposes, and should be told of these.
Part of the tour involves a visit to the Senate of House Galleries, if Congress is in session. Bags and briefcases, battery-operated electronic devices that are not medical in nature, bottles, cans, jars and tubes, recording devices and strollers must be checked before entering the Gallery. Members of Congress can arrange passes to observe Senate or House debates for longer periods. Smoking is not allowed in the Capitol, and food and drink is only permitted in the Restaurant.
Visiting the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court Building, built between 1931 and 1935 because the Court had outgrown its chambers in the Capitol, is across the street at the corner of 1st Street and Maryland Avenue. The building is open to visitors Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except for federal holidays. Visitors enter through the Plaza doors on either side of the main steps, and may walk through the building, which has various exhibits about the Court and its history, and sit in the gallery during deliberations. When the Court is not in session, lectures on the Court and the Constitution are given every half hour in the courtroom; they are given in the afternoon after adjournment when the Court is sitting.
Visiting the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress occupies three adjacent buildings on 1st Street SE, named for Presidents Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and James Madison. The Jefferson building, built in 1897, was the original one and houses exhibitions and concerts in the Coolidge Auditorium, which has a separate entrance for evening performances. It is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and tours are available from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The Adams building was built as an annex between 1928 and 1939, and is open between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.; it houses stacks and reading rooms, and is remarkable for its artwork, chiefly bronze doors which commemorate the history of the written world. The Madison building, which is also the nation’s memorial to the 4th president, houses the Mary Pickford Theater, in which classic films and television shows are screened, and is open from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekdays and 8:30 to 5 on Saturdays, with occasional evening programs.
Visiting the Navy Yard and Marine Barracks
The Navy Yard is located on the Anacostia River at 11th and O Streets, and offers limited access because it is still an active military installation. The Navy Museum traces the history of the service from the founding of the nation, and exhibits include model ships, a space capsule and a decommissioned destroyer. The Naval Art Gallery displays the work of military artists. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and 10 to 5 on Saturdays and admission is free, but visitors who are not active or retired military personnel must be escorted by staff and need to call in advance to arrange this.
The Marine Barracks at 8th and I Streets is the home of the Marine Band, Drum and Bugle Corps, Color Guard, Drill Platoon and the Body Bearers who return the bodies of fallen Marines. The Home of the Commandants, residence of the commanders of the Marine Corps since 1808, is the oldest Marine installation and the oldest continuously used public building in Washington, and was one of few to escape the British occupation of the city during the War of 1812. Tours, Friday night ceremonial parades and occasional concerts are presented.
How to get to Capitol Hill
Capitol Hill is visited by every commercial tour operator in Washington, and tours of the National Mall allow visitors to get on and off vehicles at any of these locations. The Washington Metro connects with almost all areas of the nation’s capital at the Capitol South station (Orange and Blue lines), which is a 5-to 7-minute walk from any of these sites. Union Station on the Metro Red Line is slightly further away, but connections can be made to Amtrak trains and local rail service to Maryland and Virginia. The Navy Yard and adjacent attractions like the newly-opened Washington Nationals baseball stadium can be reached by the Navy Yard-Ballpark station on the Green line. The Metro fare ranges from $1.95 to $2.15 depending upon the time of day.