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Constructing a Senate Theater

November 1857

Chamber Construction

For dozens of decades, journalists have employed theatrical metaphors to describe proceedings in the Senate Chamber. High drama, low comedy, soaring oratory, play-acting, and staged colloquies have long since become commonplace usages.

In November 1857, visitors to the site of the current Senate Chamber found a stage set under construction. A rare photograph reveals a large, mostly bare room with exposed brick walls, a simple scaffolding above a partially completed rostrum, and a floor littered with boards and nail kegs. Hoop-skirted ladies and stovepipe-hatted gentlemen stand observing a lone construction worker. Those who designed Congress' new chambers in the mid-1850s were acutely concerned that these rooms have the acoustical and line-of-sight qualities of good theaters.

As soon as senators moved in on January 4, 1859, however, they began to complain about poor acoustics, chilling drafts, and the deafening sound of rain on the glass-paneled ceiling. Despite these objections, the chamber quickly took on theatrical functions beyond the purely legislative. In January 1863, for example, a gala crowd turned out for a prominent actor's presentation of The Sleeping Sentinel. This narrative poem recounted an 1861 incident in which a Union soldier fell asleep at his guardpost and was sentenced to be shot. In the chamber's audience was President Abraham Lincoln, who months earlier had pardoned the young sentinel.

With few other theaters of comparable capacity in Washington, the Senate received numerous requests to use its chamber. Finally, members grew tired of the competition. On May 8, 1866, they permitted one final performance—a free public lecture on postwar reconstruction by Mrs. M. C. Walling, advertised as "the greatest female speaker of the age." Then members unanimously adopted a rule, still in force today, "that hereafter the Senate Chamber shall not be granted for any other purpose than for the use of the Senate."

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