the completed north and west corridors. Credit: Architect of the Capitol
September 26, 2017

The Brumidi Corridors at the U.S. Capitol Finally Look Their Best

  • By: Meghan White
  • Photography: Architect of the Capitol

Benjamin Franklin Gates (played by Nicolas Cage) & Company went to a lot of effort to steal the Declaration of Independence, but there was a national treasure right under their noses (that to view required breaking zero laws)—the Brumidi Corridors in the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol. Back when Gates was running all over the nation’s most historic spots in 2004, however, the murals adorning the first-floor corridors from floor to ceiling weren’t at their best. It wouldn’t be until 2017, after a multi-year conservation effort led by the Architect of the Capitol, that the murals would once again look as they were intended to when Constantino Brumidi first lifted his brush in 1857.

With the expansion of the U.S. Capitol building in 1852 came fresh opportunity to decorate the interiors to reflect the best of American ideals. Thomas U. Walter, who designed the new wings, wished for minimal decoration on the walls, save for simple oil paintings on the 14,000 square feet of wall space. However, his wishes were overruled by Captain Montgomery Meigs, an Army engineer in charge of the construction and funding.

“I like to describe Meigs as the ‘American Medici',” says Michele Cohen, curator at the Architect of the Capitol. While Meigs never traveled to Italy to see in person the impressive frescoes and murals of the Renaissance greats, colored engravings of Raphael’s work in the Vatican inspired him. “He wanted the Capitol to rival the great palaces of Europe and to impress visitors, conveying the message that America had culturally come of age.”

The senate reception area is bright and back to its original color scheme. Credit: Architect of the Capitol

The restored Senate reception area.

Brumidi, a talented fresco artist who emigrated from Italy in 1852, landed the job. Though he actually had many craftsmen assisting him, the murals today bear his name.

Brumidi and his team created a collection of murals diverse in topic, but united in their message. “Taken as a whole, the Brumidi Corridors link American government, history, and the North American continent to classical antiquity and the great artistic traditions of the Italian Renaissance,” says Cohen.

The corridors’ walls and vaulted ceilings show natural objects like insects and fruits as well as classical symbols. Other murals depict military equipment and eagles. Monochromatic medallions of famous Americans in profile dot the walls at evenly spaced intervals.

Above the doorways that line the corridors are frescoed lunettes. Brumidi completed these in 1878 at the end of the project. Originally, these frescoes indicated the function of the rooms through each doorway. While that isn’t the case today, the historical scenes and people detailed continue to tell America’s story, from the Signing of the First Treaty of Peace with Great Britain to depictions of American inventors like Robert Fulton and John Fitch. Because America has accumulated new stories to tell in the years following the initial paintings, several murals in the hallways reflect modern-day events, including the first landing on the moon in 1969 and the crew of the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.

Not to be outshone by the walls and ceilings, the floors are equally impressive. Six-by-six-inch Minton tiles that boast geometric patterns inlaid in the clay line the floors. These high quality tiles retain their luster and rich hues to this day, despite being in such a high-traffic area.

It was inevitable that over time, the walls (especially corners), after being bumped against for 157 years, suffered damage. And though the original colors were the patriotic trifecta of red, white, and blue, subsequent fixes changed the color scheme to yellow, tan, and pale green. This was due to the color of the varnish applied to protect the walls, which yellowed over time. When the walls were repainted, the colors were matched to the aging varnish. The cycle continued for years, until the early 1990s, when conservators suggested that the current condition of the walls were not as they seem, and that scraping off layers of paint would reveal Brumidi’s original intent.

Their hunch was right. Conservators working on the murals discovered that some sections had been repainted up to 15 times with colors that were nowhere near the original color scheme.

Through the years of overpainting, grime, and discolored varnish, Brumidi’s talent had been literally covered up. “The subtleties of trompe l’oeil architectural details [were] obscured by cartoonish outlines,” notes Cohen. In some cases, the murals were reinterpreted completely. “The restoration of the Brumidi Corridors led to the rediscovery of Brumidi as a muralist and designer."

The mural of authority consults the written law before conservation. Credit: Architect of the Capitol

The "before" image of "Authority Consults the Written Law."

The mural is very different after conservation. Credit: Architect of the Capitol

The "after" image of "Authority Consults the Written Law."

The restoration of the corridors was tricky because Brumidi left behind no detailed drawings or plans. “Conservators relied primarily on their knowledge of Brumidi’s work throughout the Capitol and empirical evidence, such as oil paint over tempera, to identify overpaint that required removal. In some areas, conservators had to recreate passages based on other parts of the mural cycle,” explains Cohen.

There is so much going on in the Brumidi Corridors that it’s easy for a person to feel intimidated. However, even if the historic scenes taking place in each frescoed lunette and mural are hard to identify, it’s clear that the murals recognize and celebrate America’s role in the world and the individual events and people that collectively contributed to the country.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and an editorial assistant for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

mwhite@savingplaces.org

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