Prior to moving into its current Chamber in 1859, the Senate met in chambers in Federal Hall in New York City (1789–1790), Congress Hall in Philadelphia (1790–1800), and in various quarters in (and briefly nearby) the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.
The new Congress under the U.S. Constitution first met in New York City Hall, located on Wall Street, in what is today the Financial District. Originally built in 1703, the three-story structure had been the meeting place of the Confederation Congress operating under the Articles of Confederation. The New York City Council and Mayor James Duane, in hopes of making the city the nation’s permanent capital, hired French architect Pierre L’Enfant to remodel the building and in 1789 renamed it Federal Hall. Most observers admired the remodeled structure, an early example of a new federal architectural style.
Because the building was demolished in 1812, we must rely on sketchy contemporary accounts for a sense of how space was assigned. We know that the 65-member House of Representatives met in the larger ground floor Chamber, while the 26-member Senate convened in smaller second-floor quarters, making it literally the "upper house."
The Senate Chamber occupied a richly carpeted space, 40 feet long and 30 feet wide. The Chamber's most striking features were its high arched ceiling, tall windows curtained in crimson damask, fireplace mantels of handsomely polished marble, and a presiding officer's chair elevated three feet from the floor and placed under a crimson canopy. The ceiling was adorned with a sun surrounded by 13 stars.
The Chamber's elegance may have prompted the planners of George Washington's first inauguration to select it for his swearing-in ceremony. Washington took his oath on the Chamber's outdoor balcony, with Secretary of the Senate Samuel Otis holding the Bible, and then returned inside to deliver a brief address to assembled members of Congress.
Congress only met in Federal Hall for the first two sessions of the First Federal Congress before embarking for Philadelphia to meet for the third session in December 1790.
The Senate met in a room on the upper level of Philadelphia’s Congress Hall, the building previously used as the Philadelphia County Courthouse. The Senate's chamber offered accommodations considerably more elegant than those available to the House. In addition to a double row of members' desks and chairs upholstered in red leather, the room's furnishings included a large handwoven carpet brightly designed with an eagle clutching an olive branch and 13 arrows, two fireplaces, and the presiding officer's desk and red leather chair under a crimson damask canopy lined with green silk. The chamber's only illumination came from candles on each member's desk.
Congress Hall underwent two major modifications in the mid-1790s. The growth in population, indicated by results of the 1790 census, increased the number of House members from 65 to 105 and made necessary a 26-foot extension of their chamber. That extension also expanded the Senate Chamber and doubled the office space available to staff and committees. Initially, the Senate had met in closed sessions, but in 1794 senators voted to open legislative sessions to the public, prompting construction of a gallery that opened to visitors in December of 1795.
When Congress moved to the new capital city of Washington in November 1800, only the north wing of the Capitol had been completed. Here the Senate met in a two-story room on the ground floor, now the site of the Old Supreme Court Chamber. Sixteen ionic columns—made of wood and covered with plaster—stood on a brick arcade to support the ceiling, and a public gallery was constructed on the second floor. In 1803 Congress hired the nation’s premier architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, to continue the Capitol’s construction. Latrobe identified shoddy workmanship, questionable design, and poor materials throughout the Capitol, including in the Senate Chamber. There were cracks in the columns, and the ceiling appeared ready to fall. Latrobe proposed a redesign of the entire first floor of the north wing. He transformed the Senate Chamber into a one-story chamber for use by the Supreme Court and constructed for the Senate a new two-story chamber located on the floor above.
In 1808, while the Senate’s new chamber was being constructed, senators convened in a small committee room on the first floor of the north wing of the Capitol, a space previously occupied by the Supreme Court. Prior to the opening of the 11th Congress in 1809, the Senate asked architect Benjamin Latrobe to secure a larger, more airy chamber for the upcoming summer session. Latrobe made room for the Senate in the library on the second floor. To give the library room greater appeal, Latrobe had decorative painter George Bridport design and install a pavilion, pitched like a tent, in the center of the library. The Senate met in this pavilion during the first session of the 11th Congress while their new chamber was being completed.
The Senate moved into its new chamber on the second floor of the Capitol’s north wing in 1810. Designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe, the semi-circular room with a half-dome ceiling featured a small gallery on the western side, which was screened by marble columns with magnolias incorporated into the capitals. The magnolia design was Latrobe’s second “American order,” a compliment to the “corncob capitals” on the columns of the Senate vestibule. The chamber also included a canopied rostrum flanked by Argand lamps. These and other architectural features were completely destroyed in the fire set by British soldiers in 1814 during the War of 1812.
When the British burned the Capitol and much of Washington in 1814 during the War of 1812, the Senate met temporarily in emergency quarters in one of the few large buildings in the city to survive the attack, Blodgett’s Hotel, located at Eighth and E streets, NW. Designed by architect James Hoban—who also designed the White House—Blodgett’s Hotel had also served as the city’s first theater until it was purchased by the federal government in 1810 to house the U.S. Patent Office. The building later burned and was razed in 1836.
From 1815 to 1819, the Senate occupied a chamber in a newly constructed building that became known as the Old Brick Capitol. During the Civil War, the Old Brick Capitol was repurposed as a prison for Confederate prisoners of war, spies, blockade runners, and Union army officials convicted of insubordination. The building later served as the headquarters of the National Women’s Party. In 1929 the building was razed to make way for the U.S. Supreme Court’s new building, which opened in 1935.
In 1819 the Senate moved back into its rebuilt and redesigned chamber on the second floor of the Capitol’s north wing. The chamber was designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe and constructed under the supervision of his successor, Charles Bulfinch. Larger than the chamber that had been destroyed by fire in 1814, the semicircular room was 75 feet long and 55 feet wide and offered seemingly ample space for the Senate's 46 members. Each member had a new desk, built by New York cabinetmaker Thomas Constantine, to serve as his Capitol office. A gallery on the east wall, supported by eight Ionic columns of variegated marble quarried from along the Potomac River, provided space for the press. In 1828, to accommodate growing crowds interested in witnessing Senate debates, a new gallery was installed along the curved western wall. A glass screen separated the vice president's dais from a small lobby where senators could confer with each other, or, in winter months, warm themselves near one of four fireplaces.
The Senate met in this chamber, now known as the Old Senate Chamber, for 40 years, becoming the forum for great national debates over the powers of the federal government, westward expansion, internal improvements, and the institution of slavery. After the Senate moved to its current Chamber in 1859, the Supreme Court met here until 1935, when it moved to its own building across the street. Today, the Old Senate Chamber has been restored to reflect its 1859 appearance. Occasionally used for official Senate business, such as caucus meetings or closed-door sessions, the chamber mostly provides a stately site for ceremonial events such as portrait unveilings and senators reenacting taking the oath of office for photographers.
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