Why the U.S. Capitol Building Is So Important and How the Damage Will Be Fixed

Mary Elizabeth Andriotis
·4-min read
Photo credit: Reuters
Photo credit: Reuters

From House Beautiful

On Wednesday, a crowd of President Trump's supporters stormed the United States Capitol in a domestic terrorist attack while Congress met to certify the most recent presidential election. As elected officials were evacuated, the group broke through police barriers and into the historic building, causing a stunning wake of damage: They smashed windows and doors to senators' offices, vandalized hallways and statues, and stole furnishings and politician’s belongings (such as podiums and mail).

Many have expressed disgust at this attack in our nation’s capital. But what exactly makes the Capitol building so important, and what will be done to fix the damage?

Why the Capitol Matters

Since 1800, the United States Capitol has been the meeting place of the House of Representatives and the Senate, which together form the United States Congress. This iconic building serves many purposes: It’s where our nation’s laws are created and it’s also where presidential inaugurations take place and where presidents give their State of the Union Addresses.

The Neoclassical-style building that we know as the United States Capitol was designed by architect William Thornton. His creative vision was chosen as part of a competition established by then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1792, wherein architects submitted design plans for both the Capitol building and the White House. (The prize? $500 and the honor of designing two of the most important buildings in the United States of America.) Thornton's submission came in late January of 1793, months after the competition was established in spring of the prior year. George Washington, who was president at the time, admired Thornton’s designs for their “grandeur, simplicity, and beauty,” according to the official Senate website. The architect's inspiration for the Capitol building's design came from the Louvre and the Paris Panthéon.

While the January 6 attack was in many ways unprecedented (and not just because it was carried out by our country's own citizens), this is actually not the first time the Capitol has been damaged: In 1814, the building—as well as the White House (then called the Presidential Mansion)—and other notable landmarks were set on fire by invading British troops following the Battle of Bladensburg as part of the War of 1812. But within five years, the Capitol was restored.

Photo credit: ROBERTO SCHMIDT - Getty Images
Photo credit: ROBERTO SCHMIDT - Getty Images

How Damaged Is the Building?

After the January 6th attack, shattered glass was found from insurgents breaking into the edifice and into various senators’ offices, including that of Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi's mail was stolen, as was her name plaque—which was also broken—and papers and folders found in her office were defaced with phrases such as “WE WILL NOT BACK DOWN.” There was also damaged and broken furniture, papers scattered all over senators’ offices in disarray, pieces of door frames broken off, trash scattered about the building, and bloodstains on the busts of important historical figures, among even more grotesque defacement.

A Plan for Restoration

While we can’t predict just how long it will take to restore the Capitol to the way it appeared prior to the January 6th attack, we can speculate how the damage might handled. A large part of it, apparently, will be through prison labor.

When purchasing furniture on its own dime, the government is legally required to buy through UNICOR, a Washington, D.C.-based prison labor program run by Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (or FPI). UNICOR was created in 1934, and it’s a requirement that all physically able convicts who do not have any health or security risks must work for either UNICOR or another prison labor program. In 2018, Vox reported that the inmates who are forced into doing this work make items such as lamps, office supplies, air filters, and clothing—labor for which they are paid a minimum of 23 cents per hour to a maximum $1.15 per hour. UNICOR is owned by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and it made over $530 million in revenue in 2019.

Photo credit: Alex Wong - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alex Wong - Getty Images

There has yet to be an official announcement on plans for restoring the Capitol—although some senators, including New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim, took it upon themselves to begin clearing garbage and debris in the days following the attack, joining custodial workers tasked with clearing the halls of the building.

Many have speculated that this week's attacks will mean more restricted access to the Capitol building for tourists and visitors—though no government officials have yet to confirm or deny that this will be the case.

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