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The Senate Chamber 1859-2009

Old Supreme Court Chamber, 1800-1810
Old Supreme Court Chamber

The Senate met in several different locations prior to moving into its current Chamber. When the federal government commenced in 1789, senators convened in a second-floor room in New York City’s Federal Hall. Congress moved to Philadelphia in 1790, where the Senate occupied the second-floor chamber in Congress Hall. Finally, in 1800, the government moved to its permanent home in Washington, D.C. On November 21, the Senate met in the still-unfinished Capitol, in a chamber on the first floor that is now known as the Old Supreme Court Chamber.

Old Senate Chamber, 1810-1859
View of the Senate of the United States in Session.

The Senate's first chamber was described as "magnificent" and "grand," but senators found it dark and cramped. By 1808, architect Benjamin Latrobe was designing a new Senate Chamber. On January 2, 1810, the Senate moved to the Capitol's second-story room now known as the Old Senate Chamber, a space it would occupy for the next 49 years.

A New Senate Wing is Built, 1851-1859
Chamber Construction

By the 1850s the Senate felt cramped in its intimate chamber. The Senate had nearly doubled in size since 1810, as new states entered the Union and sent more members to Congress. To meet the demand for space, two new wings were added to the Capitol, including a new chamber for both the House of Representatives and the Senate. From 1851 through the years of the Civil War, the Capitol became a construction zone, as the new chambers were built and a new dome was placed on the Capitol.

The Senate's New Chamber, 1859
The United States Senate in Session in Their New Chamber.

In contrast to the intimate Old Senate Chamber, the new Chamber was spacious and grand. The New York Herald described it as light, graceful, and "finely proportioned." The subdued colors, accented by a floral-patterned carpet of deep purple hues, complemented the polished furniture, including the original 48 mahogany desks transferred from the Old Chamber and still in use today.

The Ladies Gallery
The Ladies' Gallery in the Senate Chamber, Washington, D.C.

Visitors watch the proceedings of the Senate from galleries that surround the Chamber. The Senate first opened its doors to visitors in 1795. Throughout the 19th century, the Senate visitors' galleries, including a gallery set aside for ladies, became a popular destination for residents and tourists.

The Reporters Gallery
Reporters Gallery

Immediately above the presiding officer's desk, newspaper reporters who cover the Senate's proceedings occupy the central portion of the gallery, known as the Press Gallery.

Chamber Milestones
Opening of the High Court of Impeachment, in the Senate Chamber, Washington, D.C.,  on Friday, the 13th March, 1868, for the Trial of Andrew Johnson, President of the United States.

Since 1859, the Senate Chamber has witnessed some of the most important events in our national history. In 1861, Senator Jefferson Davis bade farewell to his colleagues and led a procession of southern senators out of the Chamber, as the South seceded from the Union. The Chamber became the setting for the first presidential impeachment trial in 1868, that of Andrew Johnson. The Senate welcomed its first African American member, Hiram Revels, in 1870, and its first female member, Rebecca Felton, in 1922.

Distinguished Visitors
Winston Churchill Addresses Congress, 1941

On January 22, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed the Senate in its Chamber on the topic of war. As American relations with Germany deteriorated, Wilson sought the Senate's advice, "as the council associated with me in the final determination of our international obligations." Three months later, Wilson returned to the Capitol to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. Other presidents have spoken in the Senate Chamber, including Warren G. Harding in 1921, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Harry Truman in 1945, and Richard Nixon in 1969. Distinguished foreign visitors have also addressed the Senate. Most memorably, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed a joint meeting in the Chamber on December 26, 1941, less than three weeks after the United States entered the Second World War.

Chamber Renovations, 1949-1950
Chamber Reconstruction

In 1938, architects warned the Senate that corrosion had damaged the nearly 80-year-old ceiling of the Chamber. A prompt remedy to the problem was prevented by the Second World War, and for nine years, from 1941 to 1950, senators conducted business beneath temporary braces that reinforced the ceiling. Meanwhile, other aspects of the Chamber's environment, including acoustics, lighting, and heating, were reconsidered, and a two-year construction project began in 1949. When the renovated Senate Chamber opened on January 3, 1951, visitors commented on its "theatrical splendor" and "technicolor" halls. In comparision to the more ornate 19th- century chamber, the renovated Chamber looked modern and sleek.

First Official Photograph, 1963
1963 Official Photo

Rule IV of the standing rules of the Senate regulates the Senate wing of the Capitol, and forbids "the taking of pictures of any kind" in the Senate Chamber. On September 24, 1963, the Senate suspended this rule for the purpose of taking the Senate's first official photograph. That year, the National Geographic Society requested permission to take the first formal portrait of the Senate in session, as that organization prepared the first edition of We, the People, an illustrated book on Congress. Today, the Senate's Photographic Studio takes the official photo for each two-year Congress.

Television in the Chamber, 1986
Dole, 1986

When the House of Representatives allowed gavel-to-gavel broadcasting of its daily proceedings in 1979, carried live by C-SPAN (the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network), senators resisted the idea of live coverage of their daily operations. Many expressed concern that television would significantly alter the conduct of Senate floor proceedings. In 1986, Senate leaders Bob Dole and Robert Byrd proposed live television coverage of daily Senate sessions, and C-SPAN 2 began broadcasting on June 2.

The Modern Chamber
110th Class Photo

Regardless of the renovations and introduction of new technology, today's Senate Chamber would be familiar to those who visited it in 1859. Senators of the 19th century would marvel at the technological advancements and be surprised by the diversity of the Senate's membership, but senators today sit at the same desks, hear much of the same language of debate, and recognize many of the rules enforced by their predecessors. Issues have changed, but the same lively legislative debate and consensus-building action still shapes Senate deliberation.