March 4, 1921
“Famous Marble Room to Become Retreat for Senators.” So declared a headline in the Washington Evening Star in March of 1921, announcing a decision by the Senate Rules Committee to designate the Marble Room as “senators only.” Aptly named, the Marble Room is a long narrow space just outside the Senate Chamber, between the Vice President’s Office and the President’s Room. With its ceiling of veined Italian marble, walls of dark Tennessee marble, and ornate mirrors that reflect a magnificent chandelier, the Marble Room is one of the Capitol’s most unique spaces.
Long before it became the exclusive domain of senators, the room enjoyed a colorful history. Union troops camped there during the Civil War. Harper’s Magazine noted that soldiers filled the ornate space with flitches of bacon, slices of which they “toasted on their jack-knives at roaring fires in the chimney-place.” I saw soldiers “bring arms full of bacon” and “throw them down on the floor of the Marble Room,” recalled Senate Doorkeeper Isaac Bassett. I had to “caution them not to grease the marble walls.” From the 1850s until 1921, the Marble Room served as a general meeting place, accessible to all, including reporters, lobbyists, constituents, and even protestors. Suffragists demanding the vote occupied it in 1896.
By the early 20th century the Marble Room was a busy public lounge, so congested that senators were forced to retreat to the smaller, less decorous cloakrooms. When a 1914 ban on smoking in the chamber forced smokers into those small, windowless spaces—making them all but unbearable—it became clear that senators needed some private space as well as a little fresh air! Consequently, on March 4, 1921, the Rules Committee designated the Marble Room, with its large windows and comfortable balcony, as part of the Senate Chamber, then proclaimed it to be senators-only. Even wives were not allowed.
The creation of this inner sanctum did not go unnoticed. “The new arrangement gives light and air to the resting senators,” reported the New York Times. “They look out on the terrace, smoke,” and no doubt occasionally think about legislation. No longer would senators be pestered by the public. Instead, the Senate will be “dodging the common people,” noted the Los Angelos Times. Senators finally had a quiet place to smoke, read home-state newspapers, take a nap on an oversized sofa, or just eat a light lunch. Coffee, tea, salads, and sandwiches were carted into the room each day. As the Baltimore Sun observed, “The tea parlors of the British lords . . . did not far outshine this service a la carte.”
For decades, the Marble Room provided a handy retreat for senators. Louisiana’s Huey Long used its cozy nooks to prepare for filibusters. Quentin Burdick of North Dakota played cribbage there. Washington’s Warren Magnuson favored it for afternoon power naps. It was in the Marble Room in 1972 that senator and presidential contender George McGovern had a fateful phone conversation with his vice presidential running mate’s psychiatrist. Later that day, Thomas Eagleton withdrew from the race.
The Marble Room is often empty today, thanks to availability of Senate offices and hideaways, but it remains senators-only.