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Dirksen Senate Office Building

The Second Senate Office Building

On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, in 1941, the U.S. Senate authorized the Architect of the Capitol to prepare plans for a second Senate Office Building. The federal government’s expanded role nationally and internationally beginning in the 1930s raised new issues for senatorial action, which in turn required increased staff assistance and created crowded conditions in the Capitol and the original Senate Office Building. When the Second World War delayed implementation of the Senate’s building plans, the space problems grew increasingly urgent. Soon after the war, Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, in order to modernize and streamline its operations and provide senators and committees with professional staff assistance. To house the additional staff, the Senate resorted to renting space in nearby buildings.  Moreover, with the anticipated admission of Alaska and Hawaii as states, four new senators also required office space.  As pressure for more space mounted, the Senate in 1948 acquired property on which to erect a second office building in order to accommodate the enlarged staff.

Consulting architects Otto R. Eggers and Daniel Paul Higgins of New York drew the plans for a seven-story building faced in white marble, to be located across First Street from the Old Senate Office Building and diagonally across the Capitol grounds from the Senate wing of the Capitol. Although more streamlined and less ornate, the new building was designed to harmonize with the Capitol and the first Senate Office Building. Bronze spandrels between the third and fourth-floor windows depicted scenes from American industry: Shipping, Farming, Manufacturing, Mining, and Lumbering.  Below the new building’s west pediment is the inscription: “The Senate is the Living Symbol of Our Union of States.”

Although the Senate approved the plans for the new building in1949, construction was delayed until 1956. By then, increased costs of construction caused some scaling back of the original design, including the elimination of a planned central corridor. With Architect of the Capitol George Steward looking on, members of the Senate Office Building Commission laid the corner-stone on July 13, 1956, and the new office building opened on October 15, 1958.  

A Building for the Television Era

Originally, plans called for all of the standing committees of the Senate to be located in the new building. Because few committee rooms in the old building were equipped with a rostrum, senators and witnesses sat instead around a large conference table. Committee staff also worked in the hearing rooms, which reduced the seating available for the public.  As early as 1950 some Senate hearing has been televised, and committees, which had been holding more public sessions, sought to accommodate the newspaper, radio and television reporters who wanted to cover the hearings. In order to meet those needs, committee hearing rooms in the new building were two stories in height, wood paneled, and equipped with raised daises and broadcasting facilities for television networks. Adjoining each public hearing room was a private chamber for the committee’s executive meetings. Connecting rooms were provided for the committee staff. Sixteen suites of offices near the committees would be reserved for the committee chairmen. The largest hearing room, located on the first floor, was assigned to the Appropriations Committee. A corner suite was set aside for the vice president and his staff. The building also featured a 500-seat auditorium, large basement cafeterias for the staff and visitors, and an underground parking garage.

When completed, the new building occupied half the block between First and Second Streets and Constitution Avenue, N.E. The eastern side of the building was left unfinished, with the assumption that it would eventually expand to fill the entire block. In the postwar era, however, the Senate grew much faster than anticipated. Between 1949 when plans were approved and 1956 when construction started, the number of committee staff had doubled, and senators’ personal staffs had also increased considerably. As television coverage made citizens more aware of the work of Congress, they more actively expressed their own views on pending legislation. Senators’ offices reported such a sharp increase in the volume of mail they received, that they needed more staff to handle constituent services.

Rapid growth caused some modification in the building’s original plans. Most but not all of the committees would move to the new building; some would expand their suites in the older office building. Not all of the committee chairmen chose to move into office suites near the committees they chaired, since some chairmen felt sentimentally attached to the office they had long occupied in the original building and declined to move. Other senators were assigned space in the Dirksen Building regardless of whether they chaired committees.

To transport senators to the Capitol, a new subway and pedestrian tunnel was constructed to both the old and new Senate office building. The older monorail subway was replaced by a double-track system with larger cars.  After the building opened, it became apparent that the existing elevators were inadequate to handle the flow of traffic, especially when senators needed to get to the chamber to vote. A new bank of elevators was added near the entrance closest to the subway and the Capitol.

Honoring Senator Everett M. Dirksen

At first simply known as the New Senate Office Building, the building was renamed in 1972 for Senator Everett M. Dirksen. An Illinois Republican, Senator Dirksen had served in the House from 1933 to 1949 and in the Senate from 1951 to 1969. He was the Republican minority leader from 1959 until his death in 1969. Nationally known for his oratorical skills, Senator Dirksen won a Grammy award for Gallant Men, an album of his speeches. He also won recognition as an effective legislative tactician, providing crucial support for the ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the passage of landmark civil rights legislation.

 
  

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