The U.S. Capitol is a building armed to the hilt with columns of every variety imaginable. Huge marble Corinthians with finely detailed acanthus leaves, scrolly limestone Ionics and heavy-duty granite Dorics. The neoclassical ornamentation was a very deliberate effort to portray the young nation in the same cloth as the ancient Roman Republic, and similar styles seem to be ever-present across the city. All that is, except for an unassuming corner of the Senate basement with a rebellious set of “corncob capitals.”
The Senate corncob capitals are a decorative motif born of engineering necessities. When skilled British architect Benjamin Latrobe took over construction of the Capitol Building from William Thorton he found key parts of the structure poorly designed and structurally unstable. Writing at the time in his diary, Latrobe complained that “the design was evidently the production of a man wholly ignorant of architecture, having brilliant ideas, but possessing neither the knowledge necessary for the execution nor the capacity to methodize and combine the various parts of a public work.”
In some places there were “walls of enormous mass, but of little use,” while other parts of the building were supported by rotting timbers and in danger of failure. In 1809 Latrobe launched an emergency intervention on the northern Senate wing and revaulted much of the first floor in stone. New columns were required to carry the weight, and the architect saw it as an opportunity to leave his creative mark on the structure, and perhaps veil the costly renovation in forms that would appeal to his American benefactors.
Latrobe reimagined typical smooth fluting with hardy bundles of American corn stalks, topped by capitals embellished with husks splayed to reveal intricately carved rows of kernels. The Cornic, or perhaps Corn-inthian columns bore bountiful accolades. Latrobe noted that they “obtained me more applause from members of Congress than all the works of magnitude or difficulty that surrounded them.” Then as now, visitors at the Capitol often pause under the corncob capitals, do a double take, and smile at the uniquely American take on neoclassical architecture.
Know Before You Go
The Corncob Capitals are outside the old Supreme Court Chamber in the basement of the Senate wing.