March 5, 1909
Russell Building Opens
In March 1907, the dirt and noise of a major construction project disrupted life on Capitol Hill. Work on the Russell Senate Office Building had been underway for a year—on schedule and on budget. When it opened two years later, on March 5, 1909, the $5 million structure won wide approval for its beauty and "architectural simplicity."
The three-sided building included 98 suites and eight committee rooms. The fourth side, along First Street, existed only as an architectural plan for the next quarter century, until the Senate's growing workload forced its construction in the early 1930s.
Most of the office suites, described as "elegant but subdued," consisted of two rooms linked by a corridor with a closet and lavatory. Each senator's office contained specially designed mahogany furniture, washed in acid to impart a richer, time-worn appearance. It included an imposing double knee-hole desk and barrel-backed chairs with scrolled arms, many of which continue in use today. The adjacent smaller office for the member's secretary and clerk featured two roll-top desks and an operator-assisted telephone
The building's marble rotunda, and its grand "Conference Chamber" (Caucus Room) intended for party caucuses, attracted special attention. The New York Times reported that senators "are usually touchy about the word ‘caucus' and generally refuse to enter one unless it is called a ‘conference'."
In a jab at House members, who had moved into the four-sided Cannon building a year earlier, and who bragged about their new showering facilities, Senate planners included extensive Turkish baths modeled after those in the nation's finest private clubs. With funds saved by not building a fourth side to its building, the Senate was able to use interior decorative materials of marble and bronze, where the House had to settle for plaster and iron.
House members had decided it would be politically inexpedient to acquire subway cars to carry them back and forth to the Capitol. Harboring no such concerns, senators commissioned two Studebaker electric vehicles. Each of these yellow rubber-wheeled conveyances, seating ten passengers on side benches, looked like a combination automobile and dogcart. (Railcars replaced them within three years.)
In late 1909, a visiting journalist observed that the Russell Building had become part of "the most magnificent and expensive legislative plant in the world." He added, "Yet no one can say that Congress has been unduly extravagant in providing for these great buildings. The American who visits Washington and looks upon these symbols of national authority goes home with a deepened patriotism and a more adequate idea of the greatness of the American people."
U.S. Congress. Senate. History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics, by William C. Allen. 106th Congress, 2d sess., 2001. S. Doc. 106-29.