Located in the north wing of the United States Capitol adjacent to the Senate Chamber, the Senate Reception Room (room S-213) is one of the building’s most richly decorated public rooms. Designed in 1853 to function as a meeting place where constituents could meet informally with their senators, the room continues to serve primarily as a public gathering space. Adorned with a variety of ornate materials and artwork, the space reflects both its high importance as a public space within the Capitol and the elaborate decorative tastes of the mid-19th century. The room was initially designed by Thomas U. Walter, one of America’s premier 19th-century architects, and decorated by accomplished Italian painter Constantino Brumidi and others. Much of the room’s elaborate decorative program can be attributed to Brumidi and to the supervising engineer of the Capitol extension, Captain Montgomery C. Meigs.
Walter designed a two-part room that is divided by a monumental arch. The southern portion is crowned by a shallow coffered dome, and the northern portion by a Roman-style vault (known as a groined vault). While the architect initially envisioned restrained ornamentation in the classical vein, Meigs and Brumidi desired the more elaborate, rococo effect fashionable at the time. While portions of the original scheme remain unfinished, the effect of Brumidi’s design is largely intact. Highlights include the allegorical figures on the ceiling of the room that were executed by Brumidi in the true fresco technique; an ancient technique where watercolor paints are applied directly onto wet plaster. Other portions of the wall and ceiling decorations were rendered in oil paints on dry plaster. Elaborately crafted plaster ornament, gilding, and painted architectural elements frame and enhance the figure paintings that adorn the walls and ceilings of the room. The complex floor pattern adds to the decorative effect of the room. It is rendered in Minton ceramic tiles that were manufactured in England by Minton, Hollins and Company.
The room has been in use since the Senate moved to its new chamber in 1859. Since then, the room has undergone seasonal cleaning, redecorating, and various upgrades to its systems and its décor. In the early decades, the Minton tile floors of the room were entirely covered with velvet carpeting during the winter months and re-exposed and laid with area rugs during the summer months. During the 19th century, when the room was unofficially known as the “Ladies Reception Room” or the “Ladies parlor,” richly upholstered chairs, sofas and settees furnished the room along with heavy brocade and lace draperies on the windows. The room acquired its unofficial name during the American Civil War (1861-1865), when it became the place where women widowed by the war gathered to lobby senators for individual claims for survivors’ benefits or for employment in the federal government. Through the late 19th century, as decorative tastes changed and furniture wore out, the room acquired additional furnishings, including the elaborate gilded cornices that crown both of the windows and the mirror above the mantel. In 1899, the benches that presently line the walls of the room were purchased. In the same period, the custom of applying carpeting in the winter was discontinued and area rugs were used exclusively thereafter.
In 1893, the addition of a telephone switchboard and a telephone booth added a new dimension to the room’s primary role as a place for informal meetings. Located along the west wall of the northern section of the room, the booths changed the look and use of the space. With the addition of telephones, the room became a busy and open communications center that senators, staff, and visitors used to communicate with those inside and outside the Capitol building. Around the same time the room became known as the “Public Reception Room.”
Through the remainder of the 20th century, the room continued to function as a meeting place for senators and their constituents. Its essential design and layout remained unchanged. In 1958, the Senate added a new dimension to the room’s purpose when it decided to fill the empty and unfinished spaces on the walls of the room with portraits of distinguished senators. In 1959, five new portraits were unveiled in the rondels on the walls of the room and, in 2000, an additional two portraits were approved for installation in the south lunette of the room. These decisions cemented the room’s symbolic role as a senatorial portrait gallery or “hall of fame.”
Today, the room continues to operate in a capacity similar to its original purpose. While small changes have taken place both in its use and its physical fabric, the Senate Reception Room continues to reflect the vision of its creators and the purpose of its users.