Soon after Mr. White came to work, he entered a cluttered room used for storage. He learned that it was the original chamber of the Supreme Court — which had met in the Capitol until 1935 — and had it restored and opened to the public. From then on, he had to balance the conflicting demands of preservation, expansion and modernization.
More than most, Mr. White saw the Capitol and its surrounding buildings as a working office complex, with modern-day needs for parking, air conditioning and electrical wires. He also recognized the role of the Capitol as a landmark and symbol of American ideals.
“People become very emotional about it,” he told The Washington Post in 1977. “And that’s understandable. After all, this building is symbolic. It’s the temple of freedom known all over the world, the heart of democracy.”
As architect of the Capitol, Mr. White had a staff of 2,300 and an annual budget that topped $170 million during his tenure. In addition to the Capitol, its office buildings and grounds, he was responsible for maintaining the Supreme Court, Library of Congress, U.S. Botanic Garden and a federal judicial building near Union Station.
Mr. White oversaw construction of the Hart Senate Office Building, the Library of Congress’s James Madison Building and the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building.
He made subtle innovations that affected how the Capitol is seen and used. He recommended that presidential inaugurations be moved from the east side of the building to the more majestic western facade, overlooking the Washington Monument and the Mall. Since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, all inaugural ceremonies have occurred on the Capitol’s west front.
A onetime professor who invariably wore a bow tie, Mr. White sometimes got his hands dirty. In 1993, he clambered to the top of the Capitol dome to help with the restoration of the Freedom statue. The deteriorating 19-foot bronze was lifted from its perch by helicopter, painstakingly refurbished, then hoisted back in place.
Mr. White also supervised the improvement of the electrical and transportation systems in congressional office buildings, renovated the old Supreme Court and Senate chambers and restored the rotunda, inside and out.
In 1994, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said, “He has been our finest architect since William Thornton” — who designed the Capitol building in the 1790s.