The United States Capitol, much like this city’s other architectural glory, the National Cathedral, is as much a work in progress as a finished product. Completed nearly a century and a half ago, it has been repaired and improved almost nonstop. The famous statue of “Freedom,” the magnificent dome upon which it stands, the stunning paintings and frescoes by Constantino Brumidi, the hidden systems by which the vast building is heated and cooled — all these and countless other features have been worked on and, wherever possible, modernized, a process that seeks to maintain the Capitol’s 19th-century grandeur while making it a hospitable environment in which to conduct the nation’s business — when, that is, Congress is in the mood.
Still, the construction of the Capitol as the world has known it since “Freedom” was put in place in the late autumn of 1863 is a story unto itself — the story of the building’s expansion in the 1850s and ’60s from the comparatively small early 19th-century original — and Guy Gugliotta tells it superbly in “Freedom’s Cap.” He takes his title from the original design submitted in 1856 by Thomas Crawford, “an American sculptor based in Rome,” in which the “elegantly draped” figure of a woman wore a “ ‘liberty cap,’ the symbol from classical antiquity of a manumitted slave.” This was disagreeable to the secretary of war, Jefferson Davis, who had taken a powerful interest in the Capitol’s improvement but did not want anything associated with anti-slavery sentiments to be memorialized in the building. As Gugliotta explains, eventually the “liberty cap” was replaced by the somewhat bizarre “crest of feathers and a bird’s head” with which it has been adorned to this day, but he chooses, properly, to see the Capitol itself as the “cap,” worn by a nation whose people are now far more free than they were when the statue was installed.