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A House Built on Sandstone

We know that marble, granite, and so on have been used as building material for thousands of years. The world’s great monuments are made from natural stone. As one stands before a certain great monument or work of art, it’s natural to take some time to reflect on the meaning and significance of the piece. For me, though, and maybe for some other tile geeks out there, it’s also interesting to hear the origin story of the material itself. This week, we’ll be covering the material involved in the creation of the US Capitol Building. While it’s not a monument, it is still a building of great significance to those of us here in the States, and, truly, there have been many decisions made in that building that have made a tremendous impact on world history. The story of the Capitol’s construction begins with a man called, “Father of His Country,” George Washington. In 1791, Washington selected three commissioners to survey and oversee the construction of what would become the capitol of the United States, and home to the new central government that had been created with the newly ratified Constitution. The commissioners selected French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to plan the new city. While he did select the site for the new Capitol, L’Enfant was fired because of his refusal to submit any drawings for the Capitol Building, as the plans were “in his head,” and the fact that he refused to believe that he was subject to the authority of the commission. In a topsy-turvy world, it’s nice to know that the French never change. At the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson, a contest was held to find the best design for the building, and the winning submission was from a Scotsman named Dr. William Thornton, who submitted the neoclassical design that we know today. George Washington gave his approval and laid the cornerstone himself in a Masonic ceremony on September 18, 1793. Now, as for the material, it’s interesting to note that the Capitol was originally built using sandstone. While those of us in the tile business might scratch our heads at that choice, the plain truth is that it was the only material readily available and affordable at the time. The sandstone came from a nearby quarry at Aquia, Virginia, which was convenient because labor was hard to come by and it was difficult work transporting the material to a place that was essentially nothing but wilderness. It’s also worth noting that sandstone is soft, and therefore easy to cut and shape; this helped the project move forward in the early stages. The building was first occupied in the year 1800, although it was still far from finished. In fact, construction was still ongoing during the War of 1812, when the British burned the Capitol and many other buildings in the city. Luckily, a sudden rainstorm put the fire out and the Capitol building was salvageable. Architects used this disaster as an opportunity to rebuild the structure with more durable material, as the sandstone had already begun to wear down. Marble from a nearby quarry on the Potomac River was brought in for the rebuilding process, and this would begin a long process of bringing in more durable material for repairs and expansion. Marble from Massachusetts and Maryland was used for a major expansion that began in 1851 and more marble was brought in for yet another expansion in 1884. While the building’s exterior at this point is made entirely from either marble or limestone, it is interesting to note that there is still some original sandstone remaining in the building, and most of it is used for the Rotunda walls. That does it for this week, everyone. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this week’s piece, and maybe if you make it out to Washington, you can give a tour guide a few extra facts that he didn’t know. If you’re in the market for the classic, durable material that is marble, you can always check out our collection online here: Thanks for reading and, until next time, you stay classy, tile people!

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