Landmark of the Month (December): "Freedom"

The crowning feature of the United States Capitol dome is a bronze statue entitled "Freedom" by Thomas Crawford. She was hoisted into place on December 2, 1863.

"Freedom" is a classical female figure wearing flowing draperies. Her right hand rests upon the hilt of a sheathed sword; her left holds a laurel wreath of victory and the shield of the United States with thirteen stripes. Her helmet is encircled by stars and features a crest composed of an eagle's head, feathers, and talons, a reference to the costume of Native Americans. A brooch inscribed "U.S." secures her fringed robes. She stands on a cast-iron globe encircled with the national motto, "E Pluribus Unum". The lower part of the base is decorated with fasces and wreaths. Ten bronze points tipped with platinum are attached to her headdress, shoulders, and shield for protection from lightning. The bronze statue stands 19 feet 6 inches tall and weighs approximately 15,000 pounds. The crest of her helmet rises 288 feet above the east front plaza.

A monumental statue for the top of the Capitol appeared in the original drawings for the new dome, drawn up by Architect Thomas U. Walter and authorized in 1855.

Walter's original drawing in 1855

Thomas Crawford was commissioned (for the sum of $5,000!) to design the statue in 1855 and created a plaster model for the statue in his studio in Rome. Unfortunately, he died in 1857 before the model left his studio. All of the pieces were not in Washington until late March of 1859.
The statue was cast at a bronze foundry located on the outskirts of Washington, and the total cost was $23,796.82. Late in 1863, construction of the dome was sufficiently advanced for the installation of the statue, which was hoisted in sections and assembled atop the cast-iron pedestal. The final section, the figure's head and shoulders, was raised on December 2, 1863, to a salute of 35 guns answered by the guns of the 12 forts around Washington.

Hoisting the last piece in place; 1863

The plaster model of the statue, which had been in storage for 25 years, was reassembled and restored in the basement rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, where it was returned to public display in January 1993 (it can now be found in the brand new Capitol Visitors Center).

The original plaster cast, inside the new Capitol Visitor's Center

On May 9, 1993, after almost 130 years in place, the bronze statue was removed from its pedestal by helicopter for restoration. The work was needed because of extensive pitting and corrosion on the surface of the bronze and because of a crack and rusting on the cast-iron pedestal. The project cost $780,000, exceedingly more than the original!

Restoration of the statue and the pedestal was completed in approximately four months. The Statue of Freedom was returned to its pedestal by helicopter on October 23, 1993, amidst the congressional celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Capitol.

And now, 148 years after she took her place on top of the Capitol, she'll once again watch over the Inaugural Events on Jan 20, 2009.

When Freedom was returned to the dome on 23 October 1993, US Poet Laureate Rita Dove read the following poem:

don't lower your eyes
or stare straight ahead to where
you think you ought to be going

don't mutter oh no
not another one
get a job fly a kite go bury a bone

with her oldfashioned sandals
with her leaden skirts
with her stained cheeks and whiskers and heaped up trinkets
she has risen among us in blunt reproach

she has fitted her hair under a hand-me-down cap
and spruced it up with feathers and stars
slung over one shoulder she bears
the rainbowed layers of charity and murmurs
all of you even the least of you

don't cross to the other side of the square
don't think another item to fit on a tourist's agenda

consider her drenched gaze her shining brow
she who has brought mercy back into the streets
and will not retire politely to the potter's field

having assumed the thick skin of this town
its gritted exhaust its sunscorch and blear
she rests in her weathered plumage
bigboned resolute

don't think you can ever forget her
don't even try
she's not going to budge

no choice but to grant her space
crown her with sky
for she is one of the many
and she is each of us

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