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Senate Donates Historic Desk

September 22, 1950

In the summer of 1938, a structural engineer climbed to the roof over the Senate Chamber. After completing a thorough examination of the 90-ton iron and glass-paneled ceiling, he concluded that its beams and supports, installed 80 years earlier, were obsolete, over-stressed, and a direct danger to those below. Discussion of his finding quickly expanded to the related problems of the chamber's inadequate ventilation, acoustics, and lighting. By the time additional studies were completed, however, World War II had engulfed Europe. Facing a wartime emergency, Congress deferred reconstruction of both its legislative chambers and provided for temporary supports that some senators likened to "barn rafters."

With the war over, both houses accepted consulting architects' design plans for a complete renovation of their chambers. These new plans abandoned the Victorian-style Senate Chamber of the late 1850s in favor of the current chamber's neoclassical theme. One architectural historian recently observed that "Few connoisseurs today look upon the [current chamber's] designs with satisfaction, nor has a student of Federal period architecture discovered either authenticity or wit among the details."

The reconstruction took place in two phases. On July 1, 1949, the Senate vacated its chamber to allow for the ceiling's construction and moved down the hall to its pre-1859 quarters for that session's remaining 14 weeks. Owing to the old chamber's smaller capacity, members moved without their desks. A year later, they again returned to those cramped quarters so that the chamber's lower portion could be refashioned.

No longer needed in the Senate Chamber's new design scheme was the historic walnut presiding officer's desk that Capitol Architect Thomas U. Walter had designed in 1858. This gave Senate Chief Clerk Emery Frazier an idea. A student of the Senate's history and a proud Kentuckian, Frazier devised a plan to have the Senate present the surplus desk to its last user—at that time the nation's most famous Kentuckian—Vice President and former Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley. Frazier noted that the desk's first occupant, Vice President John Breckenridge, had also represented Kentucky in the Senate.

On September 22, 1950, the Senate agreed unanimously to present the desk to Barkley as "an expression of high appreciation." Today, this richly historic object is proudly displayed at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

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