Timeline of Senate Meeting Places and Quarters
Federal Hall, New York City, 1789-1790
Congress Hall, Philadelphia, 1790-1800
Washington, D.C., 1800- present
Old Supreme Court chamber, 1800-1807
Old Senate chamber, 1810-1814
British burn the Capitol, 1814
Old Senate chamber, 1819-1859
Senate chamber, 1859-present
Senate chamber reconstruction, 1949-1950
Russell Office Building completed, 1909
Dirksen Office Building completed, 1958
Hart Office Building completed, 1982
Before Moving to Washington
In November 2000, the United States Congress commemorated two centuries of residence in Washington, DC. Since their initial meeting in New York City's Federal Hall in March 1789, followed by a decade at Philadelphia's Congress Hall, the Senate and House of Representatives have occupied numerous chambers in Washington. The nation's rapid growth from thirteen seaboard-hugging eastern states to a continent-spanning union of fifty states inspired a constant quest for larger and more functional quarters. The development of congressional accommodations on Capitol Hill over the past two centuries dramatically symbolizes the expansion of both the country's physical domain and the national's government's role in domestic and world affairs.
New York City
The government created by the United States Constitution went into effect in March 1789. The previous government under the 1781 Articles of Confederation had determined that its own location, New York City, would serve as a temporary capital until the new Congress could make a permanent selection. This delighted city merchants and officials, ever fearful of the lure of the nation's largest and most cultured city, Philadelphia. The mayor placed at the new federal government's disposal his city hall, located on Wall Street, just north of the Battery. A project to remodel and enlarge the city hall began in October 1788. Reflecting the city's optimism that the government would decide to remain there permanently, officials renamed the greatly expanded structure "Federal Hall." As members of the First Congress arrived for the appointed convening date, March 4, 1789, workmen hastened to complete the job.
Most observers admired the remodeled structure, an early example of a new federal architectural style. One who did not was the Speaker of the House—Pennsylvania's Frederick Muhlenberg, who had begun quietly to lay plans for a move southward to Philadelphia.
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 sixty-five-member House of Representatives met in the larger ground floor chamber, while the twenty-six-member Senate convened in smaller second-floor quarters. From its earliest days, the Senate thus came to be referred to as the "upper chamber."
The Senate chamber occupied a richly carpeted space, forty feet long and thirty feet wide. The chamber's most striking features were its high arched ceiling, tall windows curtained in crimson damask, fireplace mantels in 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 thirteen 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.
The issue of the location of a permanent capital city hung over the First Congress like a damp and threatening cloud. Finally in the summer of 1790, following an acrimonious debate that produced the Senate's first filibuster, members agreed to locate the capital city along the Potomac River, in a district under federal control. While that new city was being built, the government would reside for ten years in Philadelphia.
The Senate and House moved into Philadelphia's newly named Congress Hall in December 1790 and remained there until the end of a congressional session in May 1800. Few members minded the change to Philadelphia, a larger but quieter city than New York. Congress Hall, built eleven years earlier, had originally served as a county courthouse. The first-floor House chamber had been specially refurbished to include a gallery to accommodate four hundred spectators.
Upstairs, the Senate needed no gallery because its sessions remained closed to the public. 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 thirteen 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.
The Philadelphia chamber would undergo two major modifications in the mid-1790s. By 1793, results of the 1790 census were in. That enumeration increased the number of House members from 65 to 105 and made necessary a twenty-six-foot extension of the chamber. That extension expanded the Senate chamber as well and doubled the office space available to staff and committees from two rooms to four. A year later, in 1794, the Senate voted to open its legislative sessions to the public. This decision required construction of a gallery, which was ready for visitors by the end of the following year.
At century's end, as members prepared for their move to the new national capital in Washington, depressing rumors circulated about that location's ever-present mud and mosquitoes. Those stories would turn out to be more than rumor!
Senate Chambers, 1800-1819
The Capitol in Washington took shape after President George Washington placed the cornerstone in September 1793. William Thornton, a physician and amateur architect, had designed a long classical building with a low central dome. Construction proceeded slowly, as overseers were regularly hired and fired. A financing scheme failed, depriving builders of the funds required to construct Senate and House wings simultaneously. By 1796 architects and engineers abandoned the House wing and concentrated limited resources on the Senate's. Because that wing had a larger number of small rooms than its House counterpart, it could more easily accommodate, on a temporary basis, the building's many prospective tenants. They included the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, a district court, and associated offices. Consequently, when members arrived in November of 1800, they were immediately confronted with the need for more space.
Members accustomed to Philadelphia's broad streets and stately mansions immediately disliked Washington. A New York senator commented, the new city lacks only "houses, cellars, kitchens, well-informed men, amiable women, and other little trifles of this kind to make our city perfect." The only amenities in this desolate place were to be found in the nearby villages of Georgetown and Alexandria.
On November 21, 1800, meeting in the ground-floor room that is today restored as the old Supreme Court chamber, the Senate achieved its first quorum in Washington. It then immediately received President John Adams, who delivered his annual State of the Union message. Several months later, on March 4, 1801, Thomas Jefferson walked from his nearby boardinghouse to this chamber to take his presidential oath.
In 1803 Congress appropriated $50,000 to resume the Capitol's stalled construction and hired the nation's premier architect, Benjamin Latrobe. Latrobe began with the House wing, but after that project got underway, he turned to the Senate wing. Latrobe found the Senate's quarters to be in sad shape with leaks and falling plaster everywhere. The architect recommended a major reconstruction to remove rotting timbers and improve ventilation. His plan, which Congress accepted, proposed building a Senate chamber on the second floor, to match the location of his redesigned House chamber, and converting the Senate's old ground floor chamber into a room for the Supreme Court.
In 1807, as Latrobe's Senate reconstruction plan proceeded, the Senate took temporary quarters across the hall in space formerly occupied by the Supreme Court. The Senate remained in the old court chamber for less than a year, complaining about its poor ventilation and lack of protection from the hot afternoon sun that poured in through the western windows. Throughout this period, the only office space available to members was found in their respective boardinghouses. In 1809, the itinerant Senate moved upstairs to the abandoned room—today part of the Republican leader's suite—that earlier had served as the House chamber. Finally, in 1810, members believed their travels, and travails, had come to an end as they moved across the hall into the room that today is restored to look like the Senate chamber of the late 1850s. For the next four years, there were few complaints.
Word reached the Capitol on a sweltering summer's afternoon in August 1814 that invading forces had swept aside the defending American army at Bladensburg, Maryland, and would arrive by dusk. Despite the wartime emergency, Congress had been in recess for the past four months. The Capitol proved a welcoming target for British troops with torches. The large amount of timber in its floors, walls, and ceilings ensured extensive destruction in the ensuing conflagration.
Returning to session in September, Congress appropriated $500,000 for the repairs and again assigned Benjamin Latrobe to oversee the project. The Senate seized on the reconstruction as a welcome opportunity to gain an enlarged chamber and additional committee rooms. The project took more time and money than Latrobe had anticipated, a miscalculation that would cost him his job in 1817.
During the reconstruction, the Senate moved downtown to Blodgett's Hotel on E Street, Northwest, between 7th and 8th Streets. Built in 1793, this structure was one of the largest of Washington's early buildings to survive the British attack. It housed a hotel, the city's first theater, a post office, and the federal patent office.
Congress convened in these cramped quarters from September 1814 until the following March. As many members pushed for a return to Philadelphia, worried local property owners quickly raised funds to build a temporary capitol across the street from the gutted ruin. Members moved into the so-called "Brick Capitol" on the site of today's Supreme Court in December 1815 and remained there until March 1819.
The Senate Chamber, 1819-1859
The newly completed Senate chamber offered seemingly ample space for the Senate's 46 members. Each member had a new desk to serve as his Capitol office. (By the 1830s members seeking more workspace would add writing boxes to the desk tops.) Visitors may tour that chamber today. Although it has been restored to its appearance of 1859, one can get a sense of how it looked in 1819 by visually removing eighteen desks—for the nine states that would join the Union between 1820 and 1850—and eliminating the cast iron circular gallery added in 1828.
Beginning in the late 1820s, national attention shifted to the Senate as the only forum for solving the issue of whether to permit the expansion of slavery into the nation's newly acquired territories and the states that would form in these areas. In an effort to accommodate the rapidly increasing number of visitors flocking to the Senate in those dramatic days, the Senate authorized a new gallery along its western wall. Soon the gallery became packed with impatient visitors seeking overflow space on the Senate floor. From the 1820s through the 1850s, the Senate regularly debated revisions to its rule governing floor access. Invariably, the list of those nonmembers entitled to access grew longer with the passing decades. By 1850, with the admission of five new states within five years, the chamber barely had room for the sixty-two members then serving. The space situation turned critical and a solution was desperately needed.
In September 1850, Congress appropriated $100,000 to plan a major addition, with Senate and House wings placed near the building's northern and southern walls attached by narrow corridors. Construction began in June 1851.
This massive project doubled the Capitol's original space. Lasting seventeen years and employing seven hundred men, this would become one of the largest and most expensive construction projects in nineteenth-century America. No other building could compare in cost, scale, complexity, and richness. On January 4, 1859, sixty-four senators lined up, two by two, in the cramped old chamber and moved in solemn procession to the spacious new chamber. They knew that the fate of the Union would be decided in that place.
The Capitol Since 1859
The Senate Chamber: 1859 to 1950
The New York Herald of January 5, 1859, described the new chamber as light, graceful, and "finely proportioned." The iron ceiling contained twenty-one brilliantly adorned glass panels, which emitted light through a window in the roof or from gas jets placed just under that window. Although the ceiling was thirty-five feet from the floor, the sense of spaciousness seemed much greater. A modern heating and ventilating system was designed to guarantee members' year-round comfort.
The architects who designed the new wing had heard senators' loud and frequent complaints about lack of space and they responded. Not only was the chamber significantly larger, but its galleries would hold up to six hundred visitors, who would have easy access to their seats, unlike the cramped gallery of the previous chamber. Members would have party cloakrooms for private conversations. The architects created additional adjacent meeting space, including the "Marble Room" and a separate room for the convenience of the president when he visited the Capitol at the end of a session to sign last-minute bills. The vice president, no longer obliged to share his Capitol quarters with visiting presidents, obtained a comfortable room close to the Senate floor.
An important feature of the new Senate wing was space for elegant committee rooms. All three floors were honeycombed with such quarters, ranging from grand to modest, assigned according to the chairman's seniority and the importance of his panel's jurisdiction. With member comfort foremost in their planning, architects even included bathtubs in the basement at a time when running water was still considered a luxury in their local boardinghouses.
Within months, members' optimism for the chamber had evaporated. In Washington's tropical summers, many complained that the ventilation system failed to work; in the cold winters, they linked their respiratory ailments to its poorly circulated air. Accompanying the asset of the chamber's larger space was the liability of poor acoustics. The glass ceiling panels absorbed the sound of members' voices and telegraphed the roar of driving rain storms.
The chamber's physical deficiencies, however, paled beside the crisis of secession. In January 1861, the first of the southern states withdrew. With the beginning of hostilities in April, senators representing the remaining eleven states departed. When the Senate convened in emergency session on the Fourth of July 1861, the remaining forty-two senators had more than enough space.
In the years immediately following the Civil War, as the nation moved rapidly toward an industrialized economy, the national government played a greater role in the management of that economy. These changes were reflected in an expansion of the Senate committee system. In 1867, the Senate created a separate appropriations committee to take over that process from individual legislative committees. The Senate also began to create so-called "sinecure committees"—panels with limited legislative responsibilities that existed principally to provide office space and a clerk for the senators who chaired them.
By the early 1870s, Senate working space was again in short supply. In 1874, Congress hired the nation's leading landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, who had recently designed New York City's Central Park. Olmsted created a plan that expanded the Capitol grounds to their modern-day appearance. Included in Olmsted's plan was a marble terrace along the west front with one hundred new rooms for use by Senate and House committees and members. Aware that these rooms would not be ready for several years, the Senate in 1884 authorized its sergeant at arms to rent space for committees in private quarters outside the Capitol. That same year, the Senate took a major step in the development of its full-time staff. In an effort to stop the proliferation of sinecure committees, the Senate authorized all members who were not chairmen to hire a clerk.
The pressure for more space intensified at the end of the 1880s, as six new states entered the Union. Twelve new members would need office and committee quarters. Thus, in 1889, as the Senate observed its one-hundredth anniversary, it was as preoccupied with finding more space as the First Senate had been in 1789.
Maltby Building, 1891
Two years later, in 1891, the Senate's space needs seemed answered. Fifty west front terrace rooms became available just as the Senate purchased a nearby apartment building. The five-story, red-brick Maltby Building, located north of Constitution Avenue on the modern site of the Taft Carillon, had been built only four years earlier. The terribly cold winter of 1888-1889 increased the pressure to find more Capitol Hill office space. Members, including those without much seniority and Democrats who were usually the minority party, generally worked in their boardinghouses, some of which were located more than a mile away. In such cold weather, the trip to the Capitol proved a real hardship.
The Senate's acquisition of the Maltby Building upset House members who loudly wondered why a body of only seventy-six members deserved such additional accommodations, while the House, with 332, had none. Within a few years, however, senators in the Maltby Building began to complain that the structure, which had been built on the former site of a horse stable, was sinking into the underlying manure. Inspectors, noting the structure's rapid deterioration, warned that it might collapse or easily catch fire. At that point, senators began to display a more cordial attitude toward their irritated House colleagues, offering them space they no longer cared to occupy.
In 1897, prime real estate opened up in the Capitol on three floors immediately to the west of the Rotunda. The Library of Congress had occupied that space for more than half a century. Filled beyond reasonable capacity with dry and brittle books, the library had suffered several disastrous fires. By the early 1870s, Congress was more than happy to provide funds for a separate Library of Congress building, in part to reclaim the Library's choice space. By 1901, the Capitol's former library quarters had been reconfigured to serve Congress' escalating space needs.
Russell Office Building (1909)
Members continued the practice of renting private offices with personal funds. Those assigned to the dark and damp terrace quarters began to complain that it was no fit place to bring constituents, lobbyists, or public officials. In 1901, as the old Library space was opening up, Congress authorized two new Capitol construction projects. The first would provide for an extension of the Capitol's east front. This project proved highly controversial and would be put on hold for another fifty years. The second project moved ahead more quickly.
On July 1, 1906, dignitaries gathered for a ceremony to place the cornerstone of the structure we today know as the Russell Senate Office Building. Its Roman Doric classical design resembled buildings in Paris that faced the Place de la Concorde. Constructed of American materials, including Vermont marble and Indiana limestone, this new building balanced a similar structure on the House of Representatives' side of Capitol Hill, today known as the Cannon Office Building. Architects chose a relatively modest exterior—no domes, pediments or other points of architectural interest—so as to accentuate, but not overpower the Capitol. Yet, at close range, this new building displayed great richness and detail. No future office building would rival its elegance.
In 1909, members moved into its 94 two-room suites. Each office had a lavatory with hot, cold, and ice water, and one telephone. The building also contained eight committee rooms, a grand caucus room, a barber shop, a dining room, and a gymnasium. Public outcry against these amenities would quickly force their scaling back.
Within ten years, however, members would again be pressing for more space. They succeeded in 1931, when Congress authorized construction of a fourth wing for this building, filling in the open area along First Street. A decade later, planning would be underway for a second structure that we know today as the Dirksen Building.
Senate Chamber Reconstruction (1949-1950)
A 1938 engineering survey revealed serious corrosion in the Senate chamber's cast iron ceiling. Without major attention, the ceiling would surely collapse. Engineers erected steel beams to stabilize the chamber until a reconstruction plan could be agreed to. Then the emergency of World War II intervened, delaying the project until 1949.
Responding to perennial complaints about acoustics and ventilation, Congress decided to fund not only new stainless steel and plaster ceilings in both chambers, but a major renovation for both rooms. With the installation of modern air conditioning and lighting systems, members at last could feel comfortable in their chambers. During the two-year project, senators reversed the march their predecessors made in 1859 and returned to their old chamber for several months at a time.
Dirksen Building (1958)
Immediately after World War II, as the federal government assumed a larger role in domestic and world affairs, Congress experienced a major growth spurt. In August 1946, President Harry Truman, a ten-year Senate veteran, signed the Legislative Reorganization Act, the single most important piece of institutional legislation in congressional history. This law authorized each member of Congress and committee to hire professional staff. Over the following decade, as demands for constituency services increased, the doubling of Senate staff from five hundred to one thousand created pressure for additional office space. As committees held a greater number of hearings, the original building's limited facilities for such meetings became more apparent.
These needs justified construction of a second office building—a committee building. The new building would include twelve major committee rooms surrounded by five-room offices for the various chairmen's staff and additional rooms for other staff. In 1948, Congress purchased the site on which the Dirksen Building now stands. The cornerstone was laid in 1955 and the doors opened to occupants in 1958, just as work was beginning on a long-delayed Capitol east front extension. That extension provided additional rooms when it was completed in 1962.
Hart Building (1982)
The Dirksen Building filled up fast. Within nine years, a space survey concluded "the Senate is experiencing a strain on its existing facilities." Again, Congress was forced to rent space outside its permanent campus, including four old railroad hotels with names such as Senate Courts, the Carroll Arms, the Plaza, and the Immigration Building. A new permanent office building was deemed essential. In 1972, architects proposed a simple addition to the Dirksen Building. A year later, a commission recommended a new concept to accommodate offices for fifty senators, "a flexible, workable and durable building that would reflect the best of contemporary design and technology." Ground breaking took place in 1976 and the Hart Building opened in November 1982 at the cost of $137 million, the most expensive public building constructed to that time.
The members of the first Senate, meeting at Federal Hall in New York City would surely be surprised at the size of the modern Senate—its membership, its staff, and its real estate. Of course, they would also be surprised at the geographical spread of our modern nation with a population grown from four million to 270 million. The growth of the Senate's space from a cramped three-room suite to a vast three-office-building complex is a perfect metaphor for the growth of the United States. This growth did not come without political struggle—Democrats versus Whigs and Republicans; House versus Senate; Congress versus the president; advocates of expansion versus supporters of the status quo; reconstructers versus restorers. It is a rich story.
U.S. Congress. Senate. The Senate, 1789-1989: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate, by Robert C. Byrd, S. Doc. 100-20, 100th Congress, 1st session. Washington: GPO, 1991. Volume II, chapter 18.