The Senate Chamber

Remodelling, 1949-1950


When the Senate moved into its richly decorated new chamber on January 4, 1859, members enthusiastically applauded the facility's more spacious accommodations. Soon, however, senators began to complain about poor acoustics, bad lighting, and inadequate ventilation. The multi-colored glass ceiling panels filtered light onto the floor below in melancholy patterns of green and blue. Over the next eight decades, the Senate ordered many adjustments in an attempt to make the chamber more comfortable, so that, by the mid- 1930s, the addition of air conditioning and a voice amplification system had settled some of the the room's most pressing problems.

A more serious challenge awaited. Engineering surveys of the chamber's roof, conducted in 1938, revealed that eighty years of load bearing had seriously stressed the ceiling's iron framing. Without immediate attention, the ninety-ton structure was in danger of collapsing. Consequently, on November 22, 1940, the Senate vacated its chamber for five weeks so that engineers could jack up the ceiling and install temporary steel trusses. These trusses rested on steel columns that rose to the ceiling from the gallery level. Reassured about their safety, senators joked that the newly installed "rafters" gave the chamber all the ambience of a barn.

Before the actual reconstruction could begin, however, the emergency of World War II intervened, and, for another nine years, the Senate continued to meet beneath these temporary braces. Once the war ended, Congress expanded the Senate and House reconstruction projects beyond a simple reenforcement of the existing ceilings to encompass the entire chambers. Engineers recommended replacing the glass ceilings, which contributed significantly to the ventilation and acoustical problems, with plaster ceilings. Walls, galleries, and floors would be stripped and rebuilt in a style that departed dramatically from that of the 1850s.

In order to make way for the construction work, senators moved out of the chamber on July 1, 1949, and met for the session's remaining fifteen weeks in the nearby room that had served as the Senate's chamber until 1859. Again, in August 1950, for the remainder of that year's session, the ninety-six displaced members crowded into the old chamber that had accommodated only sixty-six senators in its day. The result proved well worth the inconvenience, for when the Senate of the Eighty-second Congress convened in January 1951, the renovated chamber no longer gave senators reason to complain about lighting, ventilation, or acoustics.