The West Front of the Capitol is back. No scaffolding, after three years of restoration work. No wooden braces between the columns, for the first time in two decades. A fresh coat of white paint. Once again, the classical crown on a gentle hill exactly, sort of, as it was originally designed.
"For me, this removes a real sense of embarrassment," says Edward Cohen, chief consulting engineer for the restoration, speaking for many. For 20 years or so we have had a lot of thankless explaining to do when visitors would ask how the Capitol -- of the richest, most powerful ... et cetera -- came to be propped up like a lean-to, with crumbling stones and peeling paint.
And what a strange, Vidalian tale it was to tell (or at least to summarize), a story of votes being traded or squeezed for who-knows-what little this-or-that, of principled pronunciamentos, of exaggerations and counterexaggerations, of political impasse between the two legislative bodies dating back to the Eisenhower years, of contests of will and of esthetic opinion going back, actually, to the very beginning, to Thomas Jefferson (who sketched a plan for the building), to Maj. Pierre L'Enfant (who did likewise) and to a succession of architects and their political supporters, each believing that his was the true vision for the Congress House on its hill.
The West Front, as it stands today, is a testament to the strength of the preservation lobby, or, to be perhaps more precise, to the swell of popular, preservationist sentiment reflected in the the House of Representatives in the early 1980s.
For it was the House and its leadership, in search of space and of power gifts to give (or to withhold), that had stood steadfast for expansion of the West Front over the years, while the Senate, equally steadfast, held out for restoration. But by 1983, when the ultimate vote was forced by the harmless fall of a few more of the old West Front stones, the House leadership collapsed in the face of too many newer, younger representatives responsive to the preservation ethic (and, as a lobbyist for the American Institute of Architects pointed out at the time, too lacking in seniority to expect washrooms with views, or similar plums, in the expansion). Restoration won, handily.
Today's West Front also is indisputably a tribute to Dr. William Thornton and Charles Bulfinch, the architects who designed it, albeit in separate pieces and in separate decades -- a divergence of authorship and timing wholly characteristic of the nation's most important symbolic building.
The sedately classical north and south wings (the originals, as distinct from the far larger and more visible 1850s additions) were Thornton's work, with a helping hand from Benjamin Latrobe, probably the most gifted of the early American architects. Latrobe, appointed by Jefferson in 1803 to get on with the work (only the north wing had been completed in time for Congress to occupy it after the move from Philadelphia in 1800), confined his creativity mostly to the south wing interior, which he constructed with brick vaults (as compared with the ordinary wood supports in the north wing) and where he placed his great Hall of the House, which Jefferson proclaimed "worthy of the first temple dedicated to the sovereignty of the people, embellishing with Athenian taste the course of a nation looking far beyond the range of Athenian destinies."
As for the fac ade, which we see today, he adhered to Thornton's design -- it's a mirror image of the north wing. Latrobe had no intention, however, of following Thornton's design for the centerpiece linking the two wings. There are lots of might-have-beens in the history of this building. Had Thornton's plan (or at least one of them) been built we would be stuck with an oddity on the west front, a cylindrical extension topped by a high dome supported, as if on stilts, by a ring of slender Corinthian columns.
More daunting to contemplate is a boldly inventive design by Latrobe, showing a Greek temple entrance portico projecting from the base of a building distinguished by a stately two-story row of single columns and a gracefully proportionate (i.e., low) dome. (When dealing with proportions here one must always keep in mind how small the original building was -- each of the two wings by Thomas U. Walter added in the 1850s is about as big as the entire original.) But this wasn't built either, because, among other events, the burning of the Capitol by the British during the War of 1812 intervened to stall Latrobe's progress.
Bulfinch, the tactful Bostonian, entered the picture after Latrobe made a stormy exit in 1817, and it is Bulfinch's center section that was built and has been restored. This is a nice piece and we're lucky to have it, although it is important to remember that the best argument in favor of its retention was historical, not architectural. These walls of Aquia Creek sandstone, a lamentable building material, are unassailably the only original parts of the building to remain under the light of the sun.
Proponents of extension were able to argue with some reason that Bulfinch's centerpiece was insufficient to the new visual role it acquired when Walter's stupendous cast-iron dome replaced Bulfinch's lower, wooden one in 1863. But Frederick Law Olmsted was able to rectify this imbalance at least in part in the 1870s when he designed the table-flat terrace and those splendid western stairs as a base for the building, a vast improvement over Bulfinch's grass-covered earthen berms.
Pro-extension arguments were always tainted, in any case, by the strong impression that petty politicking rather than architectural rectitude was the main motivation, an impression the straightforward, unimaginative design proposed for the extension did nothing to mitigate. Although opponents rarely admitted as much, their cause was greatly aided by a vague, but widespread, feeling that in the late 20th century we had lost the classical touch, that we could hardly do better (and almost certainly would do worse) than Bulfinch did, working at a time when classical architecture and ideals were seen to be synonymous with those of the nation.
This situation has changed some -- today quite a few talented architects again are aggressively asserting devotion to classical architecture. In his recent exhibition at the Octagon Museum, for instance, it was a matter of course for Leon Krier, the radical European classicist, to redesign the West Front (along with just about everything else in the city's monumental core). Were Krier or any of his confreres to be offered the job of redoing Bulfinch they doubtless would accept, and probably would accede to, a demand that the Bulfinch and Thornton fac ades be maintained inside -- an ironic postmodern touch.
But it's idle speculation now that the West Front is proudly back. Everybody involved seems to have performed terrifically -- the Office of the Architect of the Capitol's; consulting civil engineers Ammann & Whitney, Cohen's firm; the Chas. H. Tompkins Co., the principal contractor; and a legion of subcontractors. William Ensign, assistant architect of the Capitol, was able to report a total cost of $23 million, an astonishing $26 million under the congressional appropriation. "We had anticipated serious problems on the interior, but we didn't find those," he said. "We had a lot of luck on the whole project."
The old sandstone walls were stabilized with stainless-steel rods, some of them boring as far as 38 feet through Latrobe's brick vaults; the rubble foundations were made solid by adding steel rods and grout; nearly a third of the original stones were replaced (accounting for the mildly disturbing splotchiness); Bulfinch's entablature was completely redone and strengthened with a hidden concrete beam; his columns, long thought unstable, turned out to need nothing more than minimal reinforcing ... and so on. It was a straightforward restoration job.
The public won't be allowed close-up views (and once again the magnificent vista to the west from Olmsted's terrace) until Congress celebrates the achievement later this month, most likely at 2 p.m. on Nov. 18, Ensign reports. How long will these renewed old walls last after that? According to Cohen, "The West Front will be there as long as all the other fronts are there."