June 23, 1818
Senate Chamber Desks
On June 23, 1818, Speaker of the House Henry Clay received 13 bids on a project to completely refurnish the House Chamber, following the Capitol's near destruction by invading British forces. Speaker Clay sought carpets, wall hangings, lamps, 187 chairs, and 51 tables. In ordering group tables, in preference to individual desks, Clay continued the House practice of seating members together, presumably to symbolize their equality and interdependence. Aiming for utility and durability, rather than elegance and style, the frugal Clay selected the lowest bid. It came from a 27-year-old New York City cabinetmaker named Thomas Constantin
The more deliberative Senate took much longer to arrange for its new postwar furnishings. The Chamber's presiding officer, Vice President Daniel Tompkins, a victim of chronic alcoholism and distracting personal financial difficulties, waited for more than a year before concerning himself with this task. Unlike Speaker Clay, Vice President Tompkins did not bother to advertise for bids among numerous eligible East-Coast cabinetmakers. With only six weeks remaining before the December 1819 convening of the 16th Congress, Tompkins simply turned to the cabinetmaker the House had selected—Thomas Constantine. To Constantine's delight, the deadline-pressed vice president offered him a no-bid, spare-no-expense furnishings contract that included construction of 48 armchairs and 48 mahogany desks
Constantine based his design of the throne-like Senate armchairs—today's chairs are copies—on a sketch from an 1807 book on English furniture. His chairs reflected the influence of the then-popular French Empire and English Regency designs. Unlike the more commonplace House chairs, which he upholstered in black horsehair fabric, Constantine covered the Senate pieces in red morocco leather to confer upon their occupants an image of power and authority.
Constantine's tight deadline may have led him to subcontract work on the 48 chairs. Specialists in historic furniture note that his desks—all 48 of which remain in service today—do not seem fully compatible with the chairs. Anyone who tries to roll the chair so that its arms fit underneath the desk will quickly discover that aberration.
It is not known with certainty which of today's 100 desks were among the original 48. If you are curious about your desk, there are some clues. For example, Constantine fashioned each Senate desk to fit in a unique position in the Old Senate Chamber's semicircular seating pattern. Desks to be placed along the outside aisles were narrower and more trapezoidal, compared to the wider and squarer center desks.
Constantine received no advance funding for this costly project. Nonetheless, he faithfully delivered his chairs and desks in time for the opening of the new Congress. Unfortunately, the Senate was not so timely with its payment. Seven years later, shortly after the death of 50-year-old former Vice President Tompkins, Thomas Constantine was still trying to collect in full on their original agreement.