In 1814 the U.S. Capitol building was burned by the British, destroying what Thomas Jefferson had called “the handsomest room in the world”: the Hall of Representatives, which had been completed just a few years earlier by architect Benjamin Latrobe. Sadly, no visual record exists of Latrobe’s masterpiece, with its faux-painted domed ceiling punctuated by 100 sunken skylight panels—but Princeton, N.J., architect and illustrator Richard Chenoweth is in the process of bringing it to life.
Backed by two fellowships from the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, Chenoweth has researched and analyzed Latrobe’s original construction documents, housed in the Library of Congress. Through a stunning computer-graphic simulation, he is rebuilding the pre-1814 Capitol—down to the furniture, light fixtures and carpet patterns—based on facts, historical sources and letters. When completed, viewers will be able to take a virtual tour, in still images and video, of the Hall of Representatives and other portions of the structure.
“I get to be a forensic detective in piecing this thing together,” says Chenoweth. “It’s an exercise in architectural history. Architecture is the most visual and tactile of the arts. I’m not going to write an essay about this legendary chamber of American history; instead, I want to show you the pictures. I want to take you into the room itself.”
Eventually, Chenoweth would like to recreate the Capitol as it appeared at other pivotal points in its history and, ultimately, produce a documentary film about his efforts. See images of Chenoweth’s work now at www.cgcapitol.org.
© 2013 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Frank Wojciechowski; ILLUSTRATION BY RICHARD CHENOWETH
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.