The Empty Crypt Beneath the U.S. Capitol Rotunda

The U.S. Capitol Crypt in all its splendor.
The U.S. Capitol Crypt in all its splendor. / USCapitol, Flickr // Public Domain

The U.S. Capitol Crypt is home to 40 Doric columns, a dozen statues, and no human remains. It’s also a lot less far off the beaten track than your regular run-of-the-mill underground vault—visitor tours of the Capitol building pass through it on a daily basis.

In fact, the Capitol Crypt wasn’t exactly intended as a crypt. According to Architect of the Capitol, the building’s first architect, Dr. William Thornton, called it a “Grand Vestibule” on a blueprint from 1797. Nine years later, his successor dubbed it the “General Vestibule to all the Offices.” But while the room was mainly meant to function as a thoroughfare, it was also supposed to be the final resting place of George Washington and his wife, Martha.

After Washington died in 1799, Congress decided it would be fitting to entomb him in the Capitol. Though Washington’s will expressed his wish to be interred at Mount Vernon, Martha considered it her “public duty” to grant Congress permission to move him. Architects altered the Capitol building plans to make room for a tomb below the so-called “Grand Vestibule,” which itself was below the Rotunda (the extravagant circular chamber beneath the Capitol dome). A statue of the first president would sit atop the tomb, and a 10-foot hole in the vestibule’s ceiling would allow people in the Rotunda to look down on it.

An aerial view of the Capitol Rotunda.
An aerial view of the Capitol Rotunda. / Ron Cogswell, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

But Congress couldn’t agree on the specifics of the memorial, and Washington’s body stayed at Mount Vernon as architects tried to finish work on the building itself. That project was fraught with delays, too, thanks to financial issues and the War of 1812, during which British forces actually burned the Capitol. The Rotunda was finally finished in 1824, and the Vestibule followed three years later. Calling it a “Vestibule,” however, never really caught on. Soon after its completion, people casually began referring to it as a crypt.

“The large, round, central hole in the stone floor to give light to the crypt below, is an eye-sore,” one Rotunda visitor wrote in December 1827. Incidentally, workers did away with the hole the very next year, since the crypt’s cold, dank air was seeping into the Rotunda.

While it’s possible that people took to calling the vestibule a “crypt” because they knew about Washington’s (still empty) tomb, they may have just thought it really resembled a crypt. “This room is similar to the substructions of the European Cathedrals, and may take the name of Crypt from them,” The American Farmer reported in 1828.

The Capitol Crypt, circa 1900.
The Capitol Crypt, circa 1900. / USCapitol, Flickr // Public Domain

A few years later, to celebrate what would’ve been Washington’s 100th birthday in 1832, Congress at last reached an agreement to bring his body to the Capitol Crypt. Unfortunately, Martha’s permission no longer counted for much. She herself had passed away in 1802, and Mount Vernon now belonged to John A. Washington II, a nephew of George Washington’s brother’s son. He—having just overseen the construction of a new mausoleum at Mount Vernon for George, Martha, and other members of the family—denied Congress the authorization to disturb the Founding Father’s “perfect tranquility.”

Though Washington’s tomb remains vacant, the Capitol Crypt itself does not: It currently houses a statue of a notable figure from each of the 13 original colonies. (Except, for the moment, Virginia—the Robert E. Lee sculpture was removed in December 2020 and will soon be replaced with one commemorating civil rights activist Barbara Johns.)