The heroes of this story include a Senate subcommittee chairman and a former first lady. The villain—from the Senate’s perspective—was the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. The object of their attention: the historic room in the Capitol that served as the Senate’s chamber between 1810 and 1859.
After the Senate moved to its current chamber in 1859, the Supreme Court took up residence in the old chamber until 1935, when it left the Capitol for its permanent building across the street. The Senate and House then agreed to restore the room to its 1850s elegance.
Despite this agreement, decades passed with no action. In an increasingly crowded Capitol, both houses wanted the room’s convenient space for various meetings and functions. By 1960, countless luncheons and cocktail parties had rendered the old chamber grimy and threadbare. The odor of tobacco and alcohol overwhelmed the aroma of history.
In 1960, construction of a major extension to the east front of the Capitol neared completion. By providing several large meeting spaces, including today’s Mike Mansfield and Sam Rayburn Rooms, the extension would relieve demands on the old Senate chamber.
The first hero of this story is Mississippi Senator John Stennis. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Legislative Branch Appropriations, he secured $400,000 to restore this room and an earlier Supreme Court chamber directly below it.
House appropriators failed to share the Senate’s enthusiasm for this historical project. Although Senator Stennis gained the active support of Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and Senate Appropriations Chairman Carl Hayden, Representative George Mahon, who would soon chair the House Appropriations Committee, had a problem. He made it clear that his problem might be solved if the Senate dropped its opposition to a House-endorsed plan for another Capitol extension project—this one on the west front. No extension; no restored Senate Chamber. This stalemate continued for another 10 years.
Then, in 1972, Chairman Mahon received a phone call from a fellow Texan to whom he could not say “no.” Lady Bird Johnson’s gentle persuasion and Mansfield’s promise to do what he could to ease Senate opposition to the west front project ended the House chairman’s opposition.
The old Senate chamber restoration project concluded with a festive dedication ceremony on June 16, 1976. (The west front extension project was later abandoned.)
Today, this “noble chamber,” as Henry Clay once called it, serves as a reminder of the Senate’s rich history and, perhaps less obviously, of its historically delicate relations with the House of Representatives.