The Senate Reception Room (S-213) is one of the Capitol’s most richly decorated spaces, with ornate gilded plasterwork and frescoed walls and ceilings featuring the work of Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. Known at various times as “the antechamber of the Senate,” the “Receiving Room of the Senate,” and, during the late 19th century, the “Ladies Reception Room,” the room continues to serve its original purpose as a place where senators could meet constituents. Beginning in 2009, the Office of the Senate Curator, in partnership with the Architect of the Capitol, began the restoration of the room. One component of this effort was the conservation of the room’s oak benches.
In researching the room and its appearance, the curator’s staff examined early etchings that show the room either sparsely furnished or containing a variety of Victorian chairs and tables. By the 1870s, upholstered furniture appeared, including a set purchased specifically for the room that was described as Turkish upholstered furniture with a morocco finish.
In 1896 the secretary of the Senate purchased six oak benches for the Reception Room at a cost of $4.50 each. However, within a few years, these proved inadequate and were replaced in 1899 with eight more substantial benches. In procuring these benches, the secretary turned to W.B. Moses & Son, headquartered in Washington, D.C. at 11th and F Streets N.W. At that time, they were the largest exclusively retail furniture, carpet, and drapery business in the nation. For $565.25, Moses provided two 12-foot benches, five 6-foot benches, and one 4-foot bench.
Having a public meeting space was especially important during the decades before senators had individual offices, so the Reception Room was a high-traffic area. As it inevitably does, usage and the passage of time took a toll on the Reception Room benches. In addition, the benches were subjected to multiple refinishing campaigns and some significant modifications. For example, upholstery was added to the backs and seats of seven of the eight benches and the carved back panels were removed.
In deciding to conserve the benches, the Curator’s Office weighed several treatment options. For example, the evolution of the benches could be honored by retaining the upholstery and modern finish but addressing damage and upgrading previous repairs of poor quality. Alternatively, the benches could be restored to their original 19th century appearance. The Office of Senate Curator had to consider the benches in context of the overall effort to restore the Reception Room as well as focusing independently on the benches as historic pieces in their own right.
In deciding how to proceed, the Curator’s Office conducted usage surveys that determined that visitors and staff do not sit on the benches for extended periods of time. This observation made it easier to consider removing the upholstery, which had presumably been added for comfort at the expense of dramatically changing the original profile of the benches. Ultimately, the decision was to restore the benches to their original appearance.
Once the work began, the conservator was happy—and somewhat lucky—to find that although the benches had been stripped and refinished at various times, the original Flemish oak finish was evident when the upholstery was removed. Period publications describe this finish as “almost black,” “much admired,” and giving the “furniture a substantial appearance.” Using historic formulas and traditional materials, the conservator was able to recreate the original finish. As a bonus, this approach yielded a durable finish that can stand up to daily use, yet also allow for easy future repairs. Other restoration tasks included filling nail holes left by the various upholstering campaigns and recreating the carved back panels of the benches.
The results of this work can be seen (and sat upon!) in the Reception Room, where four of the eight benches remain, and outside the Foreign Relations Committee Room, where three benches are now located. Staff and visitors can once again appreciate the carved panels that feature dragon heads, a human face, and scrolling vines, as well as other decorative elements such as paw feet, ball-and-claw arms, and stylized water-leaves. In addition, the restored pieces now seem especially at home in the Reception Room, where the carved panels of the benches complement the Victorian aesthetic reflected in the room’s gilded plasterwork and ornate decoration.
The Senate’s historic benches are now ready to provide another century of service.