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The ‘Faulty Construction of the U.S. Capitol’!

On Dec. 13, 1803, architect Benjamin Latrobe wrote to Vice President Aaron Burr:

"Soon after my appointment to the direction of the public buildings at Washington, I did myself the honor to address a letter to you at Charleston, on the subject of rendering the chamber of the United States Senate more commodious, and especially on the means of warming it more effectually. I much fear that this letter, which I transmitted by a private hand, did not reach, it being probable that you had left Charleston before it could arrive. In the meantime the early meeting of the Legislature rendered it necessary that the best means which I could devise should be pursued toward accomplishing the latter object, and, with the approbation of the President of the United States, the works, which I much regret were not completed, were commenced. The faulty construction of the Capitol rendered it absolutely necessary to open windows for the admission of light and air into the cellar story under the Senate chamber. It was then discovered that some of the timber of the floor was in a state of decay; that the cellar was filled with stones and rubbish, in many places to its whole depth, and that, owing perhaps to alterations in the first designs, walls of enormous mass, but of little use, occupied some of the most useful space."

Benjamin Latrobe, "Sketch of the Capitol from the West," 1803 Charles Dickens, "American Notes for General Circulation," 1850

A new American Memory presentation, "American Notes: Travels in America, 1750-1920" is full of nuggets such as this from Latrobe. The presentation comprises 253 published narratives by Americans and foreign visitors recounting their travels in the colonies and the United States and their observations and opinions about American peoples, places and society from about 1750 to 1920. Also included is the 32-volume set of manuscript sources titled "Early Western Travels, 1748-1846," published between 1904 and 1907 after diligent compilation by the distinguished historian and secretary of the Wisconsin Historical Society Reuben Gold Thwaites.

Although many of the authors represented in "American Notes" are not widely known, the collection includes works by major figures such as Matthew Arnold, Fredrika Bremer, William Cullen Bryant, Fran?ois-Ren? de Chateaubriand, William Cobbett, James Fenimore Cooper, J. Hector St. John de Cr?vecoeur, Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Sir Charles Lyell, William Lyon Mackenzie, Andr? Michaux, Thomas Nuttall, Frederick Law Olmsted and Robert Louis Stevenson. The narratives therefore range from the unjustly neglected to the justly famous and from classics of the genre to undiscovered gems. Together, they build a mosaic portrait of a young nation.

Commentary from Charles Dickens notes the following:

"But I may be pardoned, if on such a theme as the general character of the American people, and the general character of their social system, as presented to a stranger's eyes, I desire to express my own opinions in a few words, before I bring these volumes to a close.

"They are, by nature, frank, brave, cordial, hospitable and affectionate. Cultivation and refinement seem but to enhance their warmth of heart and ardent enthusiasm; and it is the possession of these latter qualities in a most remarkable degree, which renders an educated American one of the most endearing and most generous of friends. I never was so won upon, as by this class; never yielded up my full confidence and esteem so readily and pleasurably, as to them; never can make again, in half-a-year, so many friends for whom I seem to entertain the regard of half a life."

Many of the locations described in "American Travels" can be viewed by going to "Map Collections, 1500-2004." You can search by "Cities and Towns" or along thematic lines such as "Cultural Landscapes," "Conservation and the Environment," "Military Battles and Campaigns," "Discovery and Exploration" or "Transportation and Communication."

A. Benjamin Latrobe, "Sketch of the Capitol from the West," 1803. From "Being the Notes And Sketches of an Architect, Naturalist and Traveler in the United States from 1796 to 1820," 1905 edition. Library of Congress General Collections. Call No.: E164 .L35 1905

B. Charles Dickens, "American Notes for General Circulation," 1850. Library of Congress General Collections. Call No.: E165 .D575