The Hole in the Wall

"Washington, D.C.—Incidents of Life at the National Capital during a Session of Congress." (detail)
Unknown Artist
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
April 9, 1881


The Hole in the Wall

Of the many distinguished persons who at the present day frequent the Senate restaurant during the sessions of Congress, few if any have any knowledge of its origin, or of the primitive manner in which senators appeased their appetites in the early days. The idea of a lunchroom in the Capitol originated with Sergeant at Arms Beale. It was located in what was known in those days as the Hole in the Wall, a circular room situated near the old Senate Post Office, through which access was had to it. It was perfectly circular in form and but ten feet across. But into this small space I have seen crowded many times the greatest statesmen of the country. If those old walls could speak what wonderful stories they could tell of scenes that have transpired there. It was no uncommon thing to see congregated there Clay, Webster, Calhoun, Benton, Cass, Preston, Phelps, Douglas, Wright, Slidell, Mason, and others. What momentous questions have been discussed, & what results have come to this country from plans laid in that small room. I have heard their discussions & words spoken there which I dare not reveal even at this late day. When the yeas and nays were called in the Senate I knew just where to go to find the missing senators; in fact they used to tell me I would find them there when wanted. After it ceased to be used as a lunchroom I had much more difficulty in finding the senators for they were scattered in their various committee rooms where they kept such refreshments as they desired. At the present time, the senators are much more careful what they keep in their rooms than they were in former days, & what they do have in the form of beverages are kept carefully under lock & key, & they are more particular as to who has access to them. . . . [20F157-20F158]

Editor's Note:

The Hole in the Wall was the first restaurant in the Capitol and was available for the exclusive use of members. Opening in the early 1800s, the restaurant was in a small circular room near the Capitol Rotunda. The popularity of the Hole in the Wall soon made additional dining rooms necessary, and by 1834 a second restaurant for members opened in the basement of the Capitol. Today, senators can still dine in the Capitol, selecting from several eating establishments. The illustration above does not depict the Hole in the Wall, but is one of the lunch counters located in the Capitol in the 1880s.

People, Places, & Things:

  • Sergeant at Arms - This position was originally that of doorkeeper, and was established in 1789. The doorkeeper tended the Senate Chamber door and enforced order in the galleries. Over the years, the title and duties grew; the title is now "sergeant at arms and doorkeeper." The sergeant at arms serves the Senate as its chief law enforcement officer, protocol officer, and executive officer.
  • Henry Clay (Democratic Republican, National Republican, Whig - KY) U.S. senator 1806-1807, 1810-1811, 1831-1842, and 1849-1852.
  • Daniel Webster (Adams, Anti-Jacksonian, Whig - MA) U.S. senator 1827-1841 and 1845-1850.
  • John Caldwell Calhoun (Democratic Republican, Nullifier, Democrat - SC) U.S. senator 1832-1843 and 1845-1850.
  • Thomas Hart Benton (Democratic Republican, Jacksonian, Democrat - MO) U.S. senator 1821-1851.
  • Lewis Cass (Democrat - MI) U.S. senator 1845-1848 and 1849-1857.
  • William Campbell Preston (Nullifier, Whig - SC) U.S. senator 1833-1837 and 1837-1842.
  • Samuel Shethar Phelps (Whig - VT) U.S. senator 1839-1851 and 1853-1854.
  • Stephen Arnold Douglas (Democrat - IL) U.S. senator 1847-1861.
  • Senator Wright - During Bassett’s tenure in the Senate, there were four senators named Wright. This reference likely refers to Silas Wright, Jr., who Bassett wrote about on other occasions. However, since it is unclear which senator he is describing here, all four are identified.
    George Grover Wright (Republican - IA) U.S. senator 1871-1877.
    Joseph Albert Wright (Unionist - IN) U.S. senator 1862-1863.
    Silas Wright, Jr. (Jacksonian, Democrat - NY) U.S. senator 1833-1844.
    William Wright (Democrat - NJ) U.S. senator 1853-1859 and 1863-1866.
  • John Slidell (Democrat - LA) U.S. senator 1853-1861.
  • James Murray Mason (Democrat - VA) U.S. senator 1847-1861.