Whats the light on top of the Capitol Building?
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What's This?

Dear Cloture Detective. What is the deal with the light on
top of the Capitol Building? I know it’s on every time Congress is in
session, but how long has this been going on?
– Sincerely,
Curious George


Dear Curious George (my favorite kids book by the way),
The earliest example of the lantern being lit at the highest point of the Capitol dates back to the middle of the 19th Century. It was a “solar gas light” in a 6ft. wide lantern hung from a 100 foot pine mast that projected from the building’s lower original dome. This first light, implemented in 1847/1848, was designed by James Crutchet and it illuminated not only the Capitol, but the area around the building.

When the new/current dome was constructed between 1856 and 1866, the new gas lighted lantern was lit in 1865 under the direction of its installer Samuel Gardner. This lantern, or Tholos as it is referred to by then Architect of the Capitol Thomas Walter, was operated by 1867 by a specific electrician on staff. The Tholos is the painted cast-iron structure that stands beneath the Statue of Freedom. It is round, over 50 feet high, with 12 Corinthian columns and 12 windows, inspired by a type of Greek Temple. By 1910, the gas illumination was replaced by electricity.

light on top of the Capitol building

Lantern of the Capitol

The Tholos itself was added and illuminated when the Congress was in night session and also to mark historic occasions, such as the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the lying in state of President James Garfield in 1881. Other special occasions included the March 3rd and 4th 1917 second inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson and during World War I to have it illuminated every night, August of 1917, to inspire patriotic sentiments of visitors and troops passing through the city.

Got a historic question for our Cloture Detective? Shot one over!


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