This section is from the book "The National Capitol. Its Architecture Art And History", by George C. Hazelton, Jr. Also available from Amazon: The National Capitol Its Architecture Art and History.
The narrow, tortuous stairway which leads to the dome rises from the circular vestibule before the entrance to the office of the Marshal of the Supreme Court. There are 365 steps in the ascension, one for each day in the year. The bird's-eye view from either the lower or upper circular balcony which encompass the dome amply repays the climb. This is graphically described by Mr. Spofford in his Eminent and Represen-. tative Men of Virginia and the District of Columbia : " Viewed from the vantage-ground of the capitol dome, or even the western portico, or more widely from the top of the Washington monument, the environs of Washington present a landscape of rare beauty and varied effect. The near view includes the mass of the city, thickly covered with dwellings, stores, and shops, intersected by the two great arteries of Pennsylvania avenue, running to the treasury, and Maryland avenue, running westward to the Potomac. At frequent intervals through the perspective of roofs, rise' the tall steeples of churches and the massive white marble edifices of the various government buildings. Turning westward, the bright, broad current of the Potomac— nearly a mile wide opposite the capitol—sweeps southward, while there comes in on the left, joining the main stream at Greenleaf's point (on which the government arsenal is situated), the deep current of the Anacostia, or eastern branch of the Potomac. To the south, on the heights beyond the eastern branch, is seen the long mass of the government insane asylum buildings. On the Virginia shore rises a long forest-clad range of hills, amid which may be discerned Arlington heights, with its pillared edifice erected by George Washington Parke Custis, now occupied by the government, and its National cemetery or city of the dead, where 15,000 Union soldiers are interred; while the spire of Fairfax seminary, six miles distant, rises above the horizon in the direction of Alexandria. The latter little city, with its houses, churches, and shipping lying along the harbor, is clearly visible, and the river is at almost all seasons dotted with the sails of river craft and with steamers plying up and down. To the northwest, over the roofs of the executive mansion and the new state department, rise the lofty and picturesque heights of Georgetown, attaining at the adjoining village of Tenallytown, just outside the borders of the District of Columbia, a height of some 400 feet above the level of the sea. To the north are seen the buildings of Howard university, crowning Seventh street hill, and beyond the towers of the Soldiers' home, a free refuge for the disabled soldiers of the army, comprising a beautiful park of 740 acres in extent. It was this delightful and comprehensive view which drew from Baron von Humboldt the remark, as he stood on the western crest of Capitol hill and surveyed the scene, ' I have not seen a more charming panorama in all my travels.' "
How different the spirit with which Dickens described the same scene after beholding it, in 1842 : " It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions; for it is only on taking a bird's-eye view of it from the top of the Capitol, that one can at all comprehend the vast designs of its projector, an aspiring Frenchman. Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants ; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament,—are its leading features ... a monument raised to a deceased project, with not even a legible inscription to record its departed greatness. Such as it is, it is likely to remain".
We can imagine Mark Twain about 1874, quite out of breath after struggling up the long flight of steps to the dome, contemplating with pitiful eyes his poor fellow mortals beneath. " Now your general glance," he drawls humorously, " gives you picturesque stretches of gleaming water, on your left, with a sail here and there and a lunatic asylum on shore; over beyond the water, on a distant elevation, you see a squat and yellow temple which your eye dwells upon lovingly through a blur of unmanly moisture, for it recalls your lost boyhood and the Parthenons done in molasses candy which made it blessed and beautiful. Still in the distance, but on this side of the water and close to its edge, the Monument to the Father of his Country towers out of the mud—sacred soil is the customary term. It has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off. The skeleton of a decaying scaffolding lingers about its summit, and tradition says that the spirit of Washington often comes down and sits on those rafters to enjoy this tribute of respect which the nation has reared as the symbol of its unappeasable gratitude. The Monument is to be finished, some day, and at that time our Washington will have risen still higher in the nation's veneration, and will be known as the Great-Great-Grandfather of his Country. The memorial Chimney stands in a quiet pastoral locality that is full of reposeful expression. With a glass you can see the cow-sheds about its base, and the contented sheep nibbling pebbles in the desert solitudes that surround it, and the tired pigs dozing in the holy calm of its protecting shadow.
" Now you wrench your gaze loose and you look down in front of you and see the broad Pennsylvania Avenue stretching straight ahead for a mile or more till it brings up against the iron fence in front of a pillared granite pile, the Treasury building—an edifice that would command respect in any capital. The stores and hotels that wall in this broad avenue are mean, and cheap, and dingy, and are better left without comment. Beyond the Treasury is a fine large white barn, with wide unhandsome grounds about it. The President lives there. It is ugly enough outside, but that is nothing to what it is inside. Dreariness, flimsiness, bad taste reduced to mathematical completeness is what the inside offers to the eye, if it remains yet what it always has been.
" The front and right hand views give you the city at large. It is a wide stretch of cheap little brick houses, with here and there a noble architectural pile lifting itself out of the midst—government buildings, these. If the thaw is still going on when you come down and go about town, you will wonder at the short-sightedness of the city fathers, when you come to inspect the streets, in that they do not dilute the mud a little more and use them for canals".