On June 20, 1790, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson invited Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and leading anti-Federalist Representative James Madison to his New York City residence for dinner to discuss an issue that had bedeviled the government for weeks: what to do with the financial debt the states took on fighting the Revolutionary War. Careful discussions about Hamilton’s plan for the federal government to assume that debt had led nowhere. But over the course of the meal, the three Founders finalized a compromise to save Hamilton’s assumption bill in Congress in exchange for the creation of an independent federal district along the banks of the Potomac River, the permanent site of the United States capital: the District of Columbia.
As construction began on the new federal city, Congress relocated in December 1790 from New York to Philadelphia for the third session of the First Federal Congress. For the next 10 years, while enslaved African Americans and other artisans constructed the Capitol building, the House and Senate met in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall. Congress finally moved to its new home on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, in 1800.
Upon arriving in the humid and half-constructed capital city on June 13, 1800, President John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “I like the Seat of Government very well.…The Establishment of the public offices in this place has given it the Air of the seat of Government and all Things seem to go on well.”
An Expanding Capitol
Initially, the Capitol building held both chambers of Congress, the fledgling Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court. As the nation expanded and the needs of the federal government grew so too did the Capitol building and a new House wing opened in 1857. By the turn of the 20th century, the Capitol campus added more buildings to contain the legislative machinery. First, an independent building for the Library of Congress opened in 1897—the largest library in the world at that point. The first House Office Building followed in 1908, offering more space for Members, committees, and a growing number of professional staff.
Another flurry of construction in the early 1930s led to the opening of a second House Office Building in 1933. Just two years later, the Supreme Court moved out of the Capitol and into its own building across the street. Renovations across the Capitol in the early 1950s inspired longtime Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas to push for a third, larger, more modern office building to underscore the House’s central role in the federal government and to reflect changing notions of progress and style. Construction started in 1955 and, under Rayburn’s leadership, bypassed the usual bureaucratic roadblocks. The building was completed by 1965, nearly four years after Rayburn’s death. A 1962 House Joint Resolution named the three House office buildings for prominent Speakers Joseph Gurney Cannon of Illinois, Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, and Rayburn himself.
Today, the federal legislative branch spreads over five House office buildings, three Senate office buildings, three Library of Congress buildings, and the Capitol itself. This Edition for Educators highlights the Capitol campus and the District of Columbia.
What’s in the Capitol?
This curatorial exhibit explores the chambers and gathering spaces used by the House of Representatives, and details how these rooms transformed to accommodate the growing and changing membership of the People’s House.
Historic rooms and spaces fill every corner of the U.S. Capitol. From the press galleries to the Democratic and Republican Cloakrooms, and even Speaker Sam Rayburn’s famous “Board of Education,” learn about the many fascinating areas of the Capitol campus. These recollections offer a glimpse at an institution which has undergone many physical changes while still retaining its basic foundation.
An 1825 Library of Congress Fire
On December 22, 1825, the Library of Congress, then located in a room on the west side of the Capitol, caught on fire. Officers saw the glow in a window increase in intensity and summoned the Librarian of Congress, George Watterson, to the Capitol. Watterson and the police discovered a fire on the upper level of the library.
As the role of the House of Representatives grew, the Capitol campus expanded along with it. The three House Office Buildings constructed over the course of the 20th century each reflect a unique variety of challenges that existed at the time of their construction. Members originally operated out of their desks on the House Floor or in boarding houses and hotels near the Capitol. Beginning in 1908 when the first House Office Building opened, new professional spaces became available in which Members and staff conducted official House business.
The First House Office Building Room Selection
On January 9, 1908, in an elaborate ceremony, the Members of the House of Representatives selected offices in the new House Office Building for the first time. Using a lottery system, a blindfolded Page drew marbles from a bag, which corresponded to a Member's name. The Member then selected his new office from a chart.
The House Gets a Used Ford
On any given day, constituents visit their Representatives in the three House Office Buildings near the Capitol. But off the beaten path, at the foot of Capitol Hill, another House Office Building stands in relative obscurity. This is the story of the Ford House Office Building, an old structure that got a new lease on life.
Congressman Le Compte’s Office
In the fall of 1943, Mary Ellen Atkins started working for Congressman Karl Le Compte of Iowa as a secretary. In her oral history, she recalls the Congressman’s office in what is now the Longworth Building, and compares the building she knew to a recent visit.
The Permanent Seat of Government Act
On July 16, 1790, President George Washington signed into law the Permanent Seat of Government Act, which established the location of the federal city. On July 9, the House had approved the relocation of the federal government by a vote of 32 to 29. The bill established that the new federal district, “not exceeding ten miles square . . . be located as hereafter directed on the river Potomac, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and Connogochegue.”
Leave No Forwarding Address
It was a low moment. When the 13th Congress (1813–1815) trickled into Washington, DC, in September 1814 for a third session, they found a terrorized community, most public buildings destroyed, and a humiliated army on retreat. Once the grandest building in North America, the unfinished Capitol resembled a charcoal briquette. And though the invading British forces had departed more than three weeks previously, the damage they inflicted—both physical and emotional—very nearly convinced the shocked legislators to abandon Washington for good.
Washington Experience – Black Americans in Congress
This section of the first essay from Black Americans in Congress explores the unique experiences African-American Representatives encountered in the Reconstruction-era capital city.
Please Put the Bartholdi Fountain in My Front Yard
From 1877 to 1932, the Bartholdi Fountain searched for a permanent home. Though concealed in the old Botanic Garden grounds near the Capitol, the majestic water feature attracted a lot of attention. Everyone in Washington, DC, had an opinion about where it should go. And every resident, it seemed, wanted it in his or her front yard.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory