Lincoln 2012 - The US Capitol Building

 © Dreamworks & Twentieth Century Fox
© Dreamworks & Twentieth Century Fox

Having been a tourist in the US capital recently I was interested to see it featured in the new Spielberg release Lincoln, starring Daniel Day Lewis. An excellent film, but with a somewhat confusing depiction of the US Capitol Building whose real-life presence is diminished by an underscaled dome. Intended by the production team or not, it is clear that the architecture in the film missed out on the attention to detail applied to other areas of the production as architectural historian Richard Chenoweth explains:


In making Lincoln, Steven Spielberg took extraordinary efforts to capture the looks and sounds of the Civil War years. He tracked down the pocket watch that President Abraham Lincoln used and got permission to wind it and record its ticks. He recorded other sounds of Lincoln's time, like the ring of his church bell and the closing of Lincoln’s carriage door. Costume designers traveled across the world to get the right materials and found Mary Todd Lincoln's jewelry at the Library of Congress.  But Spielberg's missed opportunity was in his depiction of the story's central building, the U.S. Capitol, where Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery. 

Images via Richard Chenoweth
Images via Richard Chenoweth

The Capitol's east front is on-screen for about three seconds, but many details escaped the scrutiny of art directors and productions designers. 

Spielberg’s depiction of the U.S. Capitol is a mashup.  The dome we see is from California’s State Capitol and the portico is from Virginia’s State Capitol.  Very importantly, the scale of the building and the east front plaza are far too small.  Also glimpsed in the few seconds of screen time are a panoply of less obvious mistakes - a cobbling together of orders that don't go together, a sun and shadow angle that's impossible, and a crowd populated only by men on the Capitol's crazily sloping east grounds.

By contrast, the contemporary Frank Leslie illustration of Lincoln's first inauguration, and Alexander Gardner's photograph of the second inauguration show an accurate scene.

© Dreamworks & Twentieth Century Fox
© Dreamworks & Twentieth Century Fox

Some might say, does it matter?  An architect would say, sure, why not?  The architect's creed is that it takes the same amount of time to build something correctly.  But the crux is that the building speaks for itself and has a lot to say.

The raw data of the Capitol's history is, in itself, an eloquent and poignant statement about the course of human events.  Palimpsests of change exist throughout the building.  Audio bits and jewelry are an interesting part of cultural history and it's great to get them right, but architecture and construction are the building blocks of civilization, both physically and metaphorically.  

Primarily Thomas Jefferson's vision, the Capitol was intended to symbolize the young nation's democratic ideals - a monument to democracy rivaling the ancient Greece and Rome.  It was to be a world class building for a nation striving for respect on a world stage, under the constant threat of foreign war.  Jefferson aggressively pursued this vision, and his choice for Architect of the Capitol was Benjamin Latrobe, America's first professional architect.

The Capitol was under construction for a third of a century before it could be called complete, from the laying of its cornerstone in 1793 until 1826.  When the British army burned the Capitol in August of 1814, the building was functional but far from complete.    

Soon it had to be expanded.  Thomas Ustick Walter designed and directed the period of expansion from 1851-1865, including the dome built during Lincoln's first administration - the dome we know today.  The sight of this fantastic construction project during the course of the war was a powerful symbol of the American republic's struggle to reconstitute itself.   

As Lincoln heads toward the Oscars, it brings to life the human struggle that lies beneath the written documents.  

So too does the actual building that housed some of these events.  It's always been a living- working museum.  If it's so important to use audio of Lincoln's actual watch ticks, why not take the extra step to make the Capitol correct in the background?  Let the building speak for itself and let its architecture add to the scale of the story. 


Richard Chenoweth is an architect, artist and digital designer living in Princeton, NJ, and  twice has been a research fellow through the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. His research on the U.S. Capitol can be seen at:

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Comments: 2
  • #1

    kristin (Wednesday, 27 February 2013 19:20)

    This is so interesting! thanks for the research and info.

  • #2

    guy.melis (Saturday, 23 March 2013 07:42)

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