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About Senate Office Buildings | The Russell Senate Office Building

Russell Senate Office Building

The First Senate Office Building

As the 20th century began, an increased workload caused the Senate to outgrow its traditional quarters within the U.S. Capitol. Office space in the Senate wing and Capitol terraces went entirely to committees and support staff. Senators who did not chair committees had to rent their own office space or work out of the Maltby Building, a converted apartment house near the Capitol. In 1903 Congress authorized construction of an office building for the House of Representatives—now known as the Cannon House Office Building—and the following year authorized a similar building for the Senate, today known as the Russell Senate Office Building. The Russell Building occupies the block bounded by Constitution and Delaware avenues, and First and C streets, N.E., diagonally across the Capitol plaza from the Senate wing.

A Classical Design

Both the Senate and House office buildings were designed by the office of Architect of the Capitol Elliott Woods, under the direction of the Senate Office Building Commission. The consulting architects were John Carrére and Thomas Hastings, whose New York firm specialized in buildings in the Beaux Arts School of design, based on classical sources and employing rich decoration. Carrére supervised construction of the Senate building, while Hastings oversaw the nearly identical House building. Since the Senate had fewer members than the House, the Senate Office Building was originally only three sided, with an open courtyard facing First Street. The fourth side was completed in 1933.

Completing only three sides allowed senators to use their excess appropriated funds to upgrade the building’s features, giving it a more elaborate and elegant appearance than its House counterpart. Bannisters were made of bronze in the Senate’s stairways, for example, rather than the cast iron used in the House building. Doors in the Senate building were trimmed with solid mahogany. Representatives got painted trim. The Senate restaurant was fitted with marble pillars and flooring, while the House restaurant made do with plaster and cement.

To conform to the scale of the Capitol, the Senate Office Building was designed to rise only three stories above ground on its Constitution Avenue side. Due to the steep slope of its side streets, it is five stories above ground facing C Street. Although richly decorated with classical elements, the architects designed the office building to avoid any detraction from the Capitol. The exterior of the building is lined with a colonnade of Doric columns and faced with white marble and limestone. On the inside, the new office building was equipped with all of the modern conveniences of its era, including a forced-air ventilation system, steam heat, electricity, telephones, elevators, and a post office and telegraph office.

A Functional Building

The cornerstone of the first Senate Office Building was laid without fanfare on July 31, 1906, and the building admitted its first occupants on March 5, 1909. Originally, each senator received a suite of two rooms, one for the senator and the other for the senator's personal staff—a secretary and a messenger. Each senator's office contained a fireplace and a large window that faced onto the street or the inner courtyard. The vice president also occupied a small suite of rooms. Most of the committees moved to the office building, and a spacious room on the third floor—the Senate Caucus Room—was set aside for party conference meetings and larger public hearings. The Caucus Room soon became the site of some dramatic Senate investigations, including the hearings on the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the Teapot Dome investigation in 1923, the Army-McCarthy investigation in 1954, and the Watergate investigation in 1973. The Senate Office Building also provided a dining room for senators and staff on the second floor, at the current location of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

At the building's southwest entrance, closest to the Capitol, a three-story rotunda is surrounded by Corinthian columns and topped by a coffered dome. Twin marble staircases lead from the rotunda floor to the Caucus Room. Since senators needed to travel frequently between their offices and committee rooms and the Senate Chamber, a tunnel connects the office building to the Capitol. Initially, small electric vehicles shuttled people through the tunnel. In 1912 the first electric monorail subway was installed. In 1960 a new tunnel was constructed and the current subway system began operating.

The growth of Senate staff following the Second World War put considerable strain on the Senate Office Building. Temporary partitions created office space at the ends of corridors, and some staff worked out of closets, bathrooms, and basement storage areas. To relieve these crowded conditions, a new Senate Office Building opened in 1958, after which the original building became commonly known as the "Old Senate Office Building."

With the addition of a third Senate office building in 1982 (the Hart Senate Office Building), suites in the Russell Building were combined to accommodate the increased staff of individual senators. Modern suites string together what had once been several separate offices, and the rooms have been renumbered accordingly. Today 33 senators and 5 committees occupy space in the Russell Building, which in 1958 housed 96 senators and 10 committees.

Among the senators who had offices in the Russell Building were five who went on to serve as president of the United States: Warren G. Harding, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon. The last office of each of these senators is now marked with a commemorative plaque. Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy in the Caucus Room. The Russell Building also became familiar to moviegoers as the setting for such classic Hollywood films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Advise and Consent (1962).

Senator Richard B. Russell

In 1972 the Senate named the Old Senate Office Building after Senator Richard Brevard Russell, Jr., a Democrat from Georgia who had served from 1933 until his death in 1971. Respected at the time as a parliamentary expert and adept strategist, Russell also chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee and was president pro tempore at the time of his death. His role as a defender of racial segregation and opponent of civil rights legislation, a fact that now overshadows his long career, has recently led to calls for renaming the building.

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