From 1900 to 1902, the Government Printing Office produced a two-volume architectural history of the U.S. Capitol by the architect and author Glenn Brown. As a condition of its authorization by the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, Brown personally selected the type and paper and designed the cover, which was based on a Capitol fireplace frieze destroyed in a basement gas explosion in 1898. Only 200 hardbound copies were produced, making it a much-sought publication for architectural historians, collectors of Washingtoniana, and anyone interested in the art and architecture of the Capitol.
Fast forward to the bicentennial of the Capitol, which stretched from 1993, the year in which the cornerstone was laid by President George Washington, to 2000, 200 years after Congress moved to Washington, DC. Thanks to the U.S. Capitol Preservation Commission, a new one-volume edition of Glenn Brown’s monumental work was designed and printed by GPO. It’s a really splendid achievement for a number of reasons.
First, it brings back into circulation a classic historical work. Second, under the meticulous editorship of William B. Bushong, it’s more than just a reprint. In addition to annotating Brown’s text “to correct errors, identify sources, describe controversial issues, or point readers to further modern published versions of cited documents on selected topics,” this new edition adds many black and white and color photographs of drawings, prints, and paintings while retaining the historically important original photos (reproduced in full when cropped for the original). He also provides an excellent profile of Glenn Brown, highlighting both his career achievements and disappointments.
For me, the enhanced illustrations are a highlight of this book, showing how the Capitol came to be, how it was in Brown’s day, and the changes that have occurred since then. Also, Brown is a lucid guide to the sometimes bewildering steps involved in first building and then remodeling the Capitol and provides little-known sidelights even on its most well-known features. It certainly gave me pause to learn that when Thomas Crawford forwarded photos of the model of Freedom, which surmounts the Capitol Dome, to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the latter objected to Freedom’s liberty cap, a contemporary emblem of liberty, on the grounds that it was “an emblem of emancipated slaves, while Americans were freeborn.” As a result, Freedom sports a helmet crested with feathers. Even the byways of history can reveal surprises.