The Capitol

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11847

Have you visited an office building? The men and women who run our federal government work in an amazing office building called simply, "The Capitol." Study its fascinating history and architecture!


United States

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5), Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

  • Why is a much larger capitol building needed today, compared to when it was initially constructed in the early 1790s?
  • Isn't it already huge?
  • And, why is the capitol in the capital spelled differently?

In 1790, the Residence Act was passed, making Washington, D.C., the official capital of the relatively new nation.

It was immediately proposed that a home be built in the capital for the president and his family and, shortly after, it was proposed that a building be constructed to house the legislative branch of government.

  • Do you know what the legislative branch of government is composed of?

The legislative branch is made of the parts of the American government that create laws. This group of people is called, "Congress," and Congress consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The needs of the Capitol building were very different in 1791, compared with today. Then, the relatively new nation consisted of only 14 states, meaning there were about 50 members of Congress. Today, there are 50 states and 535 members of Congress.

This is just one of the many problems that have existed with the construction of the Capitol building over the years. In this lesson, you will learn the history of the United States' Capitol and take a virtual field trip to the home of the legislative branch.

In 1791, construction on the nation's capital began. The French architect, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, was put in charge of overseeing the construction of the new city. Today, Washington, D.C., is one of the busiest cities in the world, but when construction first began, it was nothing but empty land.

L'Enfant had a big responsibility: designing unique buildings and placing them in the best locations across the bare land. He decided the Capitol should be placed in the location where the elevation is the highest, and it remains in this location today.

While L'Enfant can be credited with the location of the Capitol, he can be credited with little else. He was responsible for developing the designs for the building and overseeing its construction, but he never actually produced any designs. According to L'Enfant, the designs were in his head and he did not need to draw them. For this reason, Congress fired him from the job.

Rather than hiring a new architect, Thomas Jefferson (who was Secretary of State at the time) decided to open the responsibility to the public. A competition was held to see who could design the best capitol building. Altogether, 17 ideas were submitted, but none were found to be good enough.

A few months later, Congress received a request from a Scottish doctor living in the British West Indies, William Thornton. Even though the competition had ended, Thornton asked for an opportunity to design the Capitol building. His request was granted, and it is a good thing it was.

Thornton produced plans for a building divided into three sections; two wings for each body of the legislative branch and a center section for other government offices. The plan was approved by President Washington, and construction began in 1793.

Construction on the Capitol building was plagued with problems, and it took many years to complete.

  • Architects responsible for overseeing the construction were frequently fired for suggesting changes to the design.
  •  In addition, Congress had difficulty securing the funds needed to build the large building, and it was difficult to find construction workers. 
  • Since nothing existed in Washington, D.C., at the time, people had to leave their families and travel long distances to be part of the construction team. 
  • In 1800, the first phase of construction was somewhat complete when Congress, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the courts of the District of Columbia moved into the Capitol. 
  • While the first phase of construction was said to be complete, many rooms remained unfinished due to costs.

Additions were added to the Capitol as funding allowed over several years until the Capitol saw a major setback in 1814.

You will remember in the previous Related Lesson in this Let's Explore Washington, D.C.! series, found in the right-hand sidebar, that the British burned the White House to the ground during the War of 1812.

The British also attempted to burn the Capitol to the ground. While much of the building was destroyed, rain saved the entire building from being burned down.

The rebuilding of the Capitol began straight away, and for years, construction faced problems as funding and people needed to build the important structure were still limited. The growing size of Congress, caused by the addition of many new states, also created a need for continued construction despite budgetary problems.

By the late 1800s, the Capitol as we know it today came to fruition. A center section with two outside wings was completed. A large metal dome was placed atop the center structure, giving the Capitol an appearance of grandeur. On top of the dome, a statue measuring 19 feet, six inches was placed. The statue, named, "The Statue of Freedom," is a female Roman soldier, and remains a symbol of freedom.

Today, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the courts of the District of Columbia have all been given their own homes outside the Capitol building, meaning the Capitol belongs solely to the legislative branch of government. The Senate uses one-half of the Capitol, while the House of Representatives uses the other half.

There are exactly 540 rooms, and the entire building measures 175,170 square feet. That may sound like a lot, but it actually is not enough space for all the members of Congress. There are 535 members of Congress. Many have offices in the Capitol building, but some have offices in buildings near the Capitol.

To learn more about the history and construction of the Capitol building, watch these videos:

The History of the United States Capitol (U.S. Capitol):


A Visual Timeline 220 Years of Growth on Capitol Hill (U.S. Capitol; there is no audio):


You can also explore a virtual timeline of the Capitol using Architect's Virtual Capitol: Learn ( To access the timeline, be sure to click "Learn" at the bottom of the page.

When you are finished watching the videos and examining the timeline, write down at least three reasons why it was such a challenge to build the Capitol building. Then, move on to the Got It? section to take a virtual field trip to the home of the legislative branch.

Consider exploring the Elephango lessons in the right-hand sidebar under Additional Resources to learn more about the presidents mentioned in this lesson.

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