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About the Senate Chamber | Historical Overview

For more than 160 years, the Senate has occupied its current Chamber in the United States Capitol. Measuring 114 feet long by 80 feet wide, and 36 feet from its floor to the highest point of its ceiling, the Senate Chamber retains an intimacy characteristic of a 19th-century legislative hall, while simultaneously meeting the needs of modern legislators. Mahogany desks and spittoons from that earlier era coexist with microphones, computers, and television cameras, linking today’s senators to their historical predecessors.

The Senate Chamber was constructed as part of the extensions of the Capitol that were completed between 1851 and 1859. Architect Thomas U. Walter and Superintendent of Construction Montgomery C. Meigs designed a Senate Chamber based on the latest advances in lighting, acoustics, and ventilation. They placed the Chamber in the center of the new wing. Meigs believed that a room without windows would prevent outside noises from disturbing debate and eliminate drafts that might affect the health and speaking voices of the senators. This positioning also permitted broad hallways surrounding the Chamber, which provided access to the floor and gallery from all sides. To compensate for the absence of windows, steam-powered fans provided a constant supply of fresh air. Sunlight was admitted into the room through an ornamental skylight decorated with stained-glass images, including those depicting “Industry” and “Agriculture.” During the day, the skylight provided the principal illumination, while at night gas jets located above the glass ceiling furnished artificial light.

The architects who designed the new Chamber had heard senators' frequent complaints about lack of space in the old chamber. Not only was the new Chamber significantly larger, but its galleries could hold up to 600 visitors. The new Chamber also included cloakrooms for members of each party, allowing them a space to gather and discuss political strategy just off the Chamber floor. Adjacent to the Chamber, the architects created additional meeting spaces, including the "Marble Room," a room for the convenience of the president when he visited the Capitol, and a formal office for the vice president (who serves as the president of the Senate). Nearby, an elaborately decorated reception room provided a place for senators to greet constituents and other visitors. On January 4, 1859, members of the Senate solemnly proceeded from the Old Senate Chamber to their new Chamber.

The design of the new Chamber did have flaws, however, and senators soon raised numerous concerns about Chamber conditions. Because of the glass skylight, changes in the weather could sharply alter the Chamber’s lighting and appearance. The ceiling deflected sound and made it difficult for senators and visitors to hear debate. Thunder and the deafening sound of rain on the skylight sometimes halted debate. The Senate had to rely on gas lighting located above the ceiling of the windowless Chamber until 1888, when electric lighting was first installed. Both means of illumination caused an uneven, shadowy glare on the desks below. Senators also spoke of the Chamber’s unhealthy air quality.

In 1860 Senator John P. Hale introduced a resolution directing the superintendent of the Capitol Extension to draw up plans to relocate the Chamber so that it had an exterior wall and windows. In 1861 Hale urged creation of a committee to consider alterations to the Chamber, complaining that the Chamber “is the worst, the most inconvenient, uncomfortable, and unhealthy place that ever I was in in all my life.” Calls for correcting the problems, or reconstructing the Chamber, continued for decades. Updates to the ventilation of the Chamber were made in 1896, but senators sought further improvements. Only the introduction of air conditioning in 1929 saved the Chamber from a major reconstruction.

In 1938 architects warned the Senate and the House that corrosion threatened to collapse their Chambers’ 90-ton ceilings. The architect of the Capitol began planning for repair and reconstruction, but work was delayed by the advent of World War II. In order to maintain safe conditions until the needed repairs could be made, engineers added a framework of steel girders to support the two ceilings. For nine years, from 1941 to 1950, senators conducted business beneath these temporary braces, which some likened to “barn rafters.” Meanwhile, the architect of the Capitol, on behalf of the Senate, contracted for studies on other aspects of the Chamber’s environment. Senators adopted a proposal to replace the old glass and iron ceiling with a plaster-and-perforated steel ceiling, thereby addressing the persistent lighting and acoustic issues. The Chamber underwent substantial reconstruction between 1949 and 1951, during which time senators returned to the Old Senate Chamber down the hall.

When the renovated Senate Chamber opened on January 3, 1951, visitors commented on its “theatrical splendor” and “technicolor” halls. Senators applauded its improved acoustics and lighting. The renovated Chamber looked more modern and sleek. Desks fashioned from Italian marble, on a raised dais, replaced the walnut desks that had served the presiding officer and legislative clerks since 1859. Gone, too, were the ornate details of the Victorian era, replaced by the clean lines of the modern age. Yet, the new look also had its critics. Changes in design and decoration failed to impress many architectural historians, who regretted the loss of the glass-and-iron ceiling and other elaborate artistic details. Despite these changes, the modern Chamber retains reminders of the Senate’s past, including the original 48 desks, installed by the Senate in 1819, which sit alongside newer desks constructed to resemble them. In the niches surrounding the Chamber gallery stand the busts of the nation’s first 20 vice presidents, part of a collection first commissioned by the Senate in 1886.

Several inscriptions were added to the Chamber during renovation. Over the presiding officer’s desk appears the motto E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One). Above the doors are Annuit Coeptis (God Favors Our Undertakings) over the east entrance; Novus Ordo Seclorum (A New Order of the Ages) over the west entrance; and the U.S. national motto, In God We Trust, over the south-central entrance.

Senate Chamber 1859–2009 (PDF)

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