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Senate Stories | U.S. Capitol Complex


Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.

Samuel F. B. Morse, ca. 1845 202405 7“What Hath God Wrought”: Morse’s Telegraph in the Capitol
May 7, 2024
On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse achieved a historic triumph when he successfully transmitted a message over copper wire from the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol to Baltimore, Maryland, the first long-distance demonstration of his electromagnetic telegraph. His invention would revolutionize communications in the United States and throughout the world.

On May 24, 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse achieved a historic triumph when he successfully transmitted a message over copper wire from the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol to Baltimore, Maryland, the first long-distance demonstration of his electromagnetic telegraph. His invention would revolutionize communications in the United States and throughout the world. The son of famed preacher and geographer Jedidiah Morse—whose book The American Geography (1789) was a best-seller in the country for decades—Samuel Morse began his career as an artist. After graduating from Yale College in 1811, he went to London to study painting and returned to the United States in 1815 with hopes of earning public acclaim for his art. His first major painting, a now-famous depiction of the House of Representatives in session, was a commercial failure, leaving him to earn a meager living as a portrait painter. In 1824 he won the commission to paint a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette during his tour of America, and the painting launched him into the upper echelon of New York artists. In the 1830s, Morse went on to found and lead the National Academy of Design and became a professor at the University of the City of New-York (later known as New York University). He also became active in politics as chief spokesman for the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Native American Democratic Association. His career as a painter effectively ended in 1837, when he failed to win a commission for one of four monumental paintings to be added to the Capitol Rotunda, leaving him dejected and embarrassed.1 That same year, Morse’s interest in technology and invention set him on a new path. More than five years earlier, building on what others had learned in the fields of electricity and electromagnetism, Morse had conceived of transmitting messages using electrical current over wire and had built crude devices for sending and receiving these coded messages. In the fall of 1837, news about experiments in electrical telegraphs began to trickle into the United States from Europe. Upon learning this news, Morse quickly began to publicize his earlier work on the electric telegraph and identified himself as its inventor. Amid challenges to this claim from other inventors, and seeking to protect his rights in the invention, Morse reached out to his friend and Yale classmate Henry L. Ellsworth, who was Commissioner of Patents. Ellsworth provided him with a caveat, a document that preserved his claim of priority, while he prepared to apply for a patent.2 Not having expertise in the science of electricity, Morse partnered with a chemistry professor at the University of the City of New-York, Leonard Gale, to build a working telegraph, and in September 1837 the two men gave their first demonstration. Morse then turned to a former student and toolmaker, Alfred Vail, to assist with refining and producing his instruments. In December Morse submitted a proposal to Secretary of the Treasury Levi Woodbury, who had been tasked by the House of Representatives with soliciting proposals for the construction of a telegraph system in the United States. All but one of the respondents presented plans for an optical telegraph—a series of towers with humans sending signals in semaphore to one another, a version of which had already been established in France. Morse was the lone respondent to propose an “electromagnetic telegraph,” with electrical signals sent over long distances by wire. Morse informed Woodbury that his device had sent a signal over 10 miles of spooled wire and that he “had no doubt of its effecting a similar result at any distance.”3 After demonstrations in New York and Philadelphia—in which Morse introduced the now famous code of dashes and dots that bears his name—he set up his equipment in the room of the House Committee on Commerce in the Capitol in February 1838 and gave a demonstration, explaining the technology to a group composed of members of Congress and President Martin Van Buren and his cabinet. In an era when investment funds were scarce and public support for national infrastructure was hotly debated, many inventors came to Congress looking for financial support. “It was not an uncommon thing for inventors of all kinds of outlandish and impractical machines to hang around the Capitol buttonholing every senator and member they could meet,” recalled Senate doorkeeper Isaac Bassett. The House Committee on Commerce, chaired by Francis O. J. Smith, asked Morse to submit a full report on his invention and, once received, recommended to the full House an appropriation of $30,000 to construct a 50-mile test line. Smith was so impressed by the potential of Morse’s telegraph that after losing his bid for reelection, he signed on as one of Morse’s partners.4 Unfortunately for Morse, the financial panic of 1837 had weakened political support for public investment in infrastructure projects, and over the next four years Congress took no action on the Commerce Committee’s bill. The news in 1842 that English telegraphers were seeking investors in the United States and that the Commerce Committee was considering funding a version of a French optical system (at a fraction of the cost of an electromagnetic system) set a fire under Morse, prompting him to finally take steps to acquire his U.S. patent and once again seek funding from Congress.5 Morse began a correspondence with Representative William Boardman of Connecticut to get a petition on the floor of the House urging the Commerce Committee to explore establishing an electromagnetic telegraph system. With improved equipment, Morse began a new round of public demonstrations in New York and succeeded in passing a signal over 33 miles of wire. With the support of Boardman and Representative Charles Ferris of New York, he was able to resume his demonstrations in the Capitol, running wire from the Commerce Committee room across the length of the building to the Senate Naval Affairs Committee room. Ferris then submitted to the full House on behalf of the Commerce Committee a report stating that Morse’s apparatus was “decidedly superior to any now in use” and drafted legislation to appropriate the $30,000 to support the construction of a telegraph line “of such length, and between such points, as shall fully test its practicability and utility.” It passed the House and Senate and was signed into law on the last day of the Congress on March 3, 1843.6 Morse and his partners regrouped in Washington to begin the work on the test line. They chose Baltimore as the destination, with plans to install the wire along the route of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a process delayed by numerous setbacks and frigid temperatures. In April 1844, Morse again set up his equipment in the Capitol, this time in a room on the north end of the Senate wing. One person who saw Morse’s apparatus in the Capitol later characterized the Senate room as “small and dingy” with a window “looking out onto Pennsylvania Avenue,” though the exact location remains unclear. As the wire reached farther east, Morse began sending out test messages, and on May 1, he gave the American public a first taste of what the electric telegraph could do. The Whig Party was holding a convention in Baltimore to nominate its presidential ticket. Alfred Vail, who had set up a station in Annapolis, 22 miles from Washington, intercepted the news of the balloting being carried by rail. He immediately transmitted it to Morse at the Capitol, bringing news of Henry Clay’s nomination to Washington a full hour before the train carrying the same message arrived.7 Finally, on May 24, with the wire stretching 38 miles between Washington and the railroad depot in Baltimore, Morse was prepared to officially open the telegraph line. In front of a small group of guests, he invited Annie Ellsworth, the daughter of the patent commissioner, to compose the first message. She chose the biblical phrase, “What hath God wrought.” Moments later, an identical message was returned from Vail in Baltimore, making the experiment a stunning success. Decades later, accounts stated that this first message was sent from the Old Supreme Court Chamber, and in 1944, to commemorate the centenary of the event, a plaque was placed outside the chamber identifying it as the site of the demonstration. Researchers have found no documentation, however, to suggest that Morse moved from the room in the Senate wing where he had set up his equipment, making it the most likely location from which the famous message was sent.8 The May 24 demonstration was a private event and attracted little press attention. Days later, Morse demonstrated the revolution in communications to a wider audience. As the Democratic Convention met in Baltimore to select their presidential candidate, Vail telegraphed to the Capitol “with the rapidity of lightning” minute-by-minute updates on the balloting and the dramatic nomination of James K. Polk. President Pro Tempore Willie Mangum called the telegraph “a Miraculous triumph of Science” and recounted that a crowd of as many as a thousand eagerly awaited convention news outside of the Capitol. Morse wrote to his brother that the crowd “of some hundreds” called him to make an appearance at the window and offered three cheers to him and the telegraph. “Time and space have been completely annihilated,” declared one correspondent.9 Morse hoped to secure long-term federal funding to extend his line from Baltimore to New York and eventually to sell his invention to the government. Congress, however, appropriated only an additional $8,000 to keep the existing line in operation for another year under the direction of the Post Office, with Morse paid a salary as superintendent. Despite widespread awe at the technological achievement, lawmakers had trouble envisioning the telegraph as a useful, profitable venture. When renewal of the appropriation came up in 1845, Senator George McDuffie of South Carolina asked, “What is this telegraph to do? Would it transmit letters and newspapers?” Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri praised the technology and saw a future for it, but “wanted it to be called for by the commerce of the country, and pay its own expenses.” Congress funded the Washington-Baltimore line for only two more years, and in 1847 the Post Office leased it to private investors.10 Morse spent the next 20 years embroiled in legal fights as he, his partners and agents, and business rivals feuded over the rights and profits of establishing and growing a nationwide telegraph network. Despite Congress’s decision not to fund Morse’s work further and all the challenges that followed, private investment poured into the telegraph industry. Two decades after Morse’s Capitol demonstration, 100,000 miles of telegraph wire connected towns and cities across the United States, and Morse finally reaped the financial rewards of his invention. A few years later, the first transatlantic cable was laid between the United States and Europe. The telegraph revolutionized communications by sending news and information over vast distances almost instantaneously. It hastened westward expansion and spurred economic growth and investment in the United States, providing a handsome return on Congress’s initial investment.
1. Kenneth Silverman, Lightning Man: The Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 3–20; “Samuel F. B. Morse,” National Gallery of Art, accessed April 11, 2024, 2. Silverman, Lightning Man, 147–59. 3. Telegraphs for the United States, H. Doc. 15, 25th Cong., 2nd sess., December 11, 1837; Silverman, Lightning Man, 160–61. 4. Silverman, Lightning Man, 168–71; US Senate, Office of Senate Curator, Isaac Bassett Papers, Box 20, Folder B, p. 3, Records of the U.S. Senate, Record Group 46, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Richard R. John, Network Nation: Inventing American Telecommunications (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010), 34–36. 5. Silverman, Lightning Man, 212–14. 6. An Act to test the practicability of establishing a system of electro-magnetic telegraphs by the United States, 5 Stat. 618 (March 3, 1843); Silverman, Lightning Man, 220–21. 7. John W. Kirk, “Historic Moments: The First News Message by Telegraph,” Scribner's Magazine 11 (May 1892): 652–56, (accessed April 9, 2024). 8. Silverman, Lightning Man, 174–214, 220–21. 9. Willie Mangum to Priestly H. Mangum, May 29, 1844, in Henry T. Shanks, ed., Papers of Willie Person Mangum, Vol. IV, 1844–1846 (North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1955), 127–28; Morse to Sidney Morse, May 31, 1844, Samuel Morse Papers, Bound volume---15 January–8 June, Library of Congress Manuscript Division,,0.058,1.106,0.66,0 (accessed April 9, 2024); “The Magnetic Telegraph,” Baltimore Sun, May 31, 1844, 2. 10. Congressional Globe, 28th Cong., 2nd sess., February 28, 1845, 366; Silverman, Lightning Man, 257–58; John, Network Nation, 58–61.
Statue of Freedom Awaiting Installation, 1863 202312 11In Form and Spirit: Creating the Statue of Freedom
December 11, 2023
The massive bronze Statue of Freedom has been perched atop the great dome of the United States Capitol since its assembly was completed on December 2, 1863, amidst the pall of civil war. As the crowning feature of the building’s new cast-iron dome, it offered a glimmer of hope that the nation would endure. The continuation of the construction of the dome had served as a symbolic backdrop during the dark war years, but Freedom’s journey to the top of the dome had begun years before.

The massive bronze Statue of Freedom has been perched atop the great dome of the United States Capitol since its assembly was completed on December 2, 1863, amidst the pall of civil war. As the crowning feature of the building’s new cast-iron dome, it offered a glimmer of hope that the nation would endure. The continuation of the construction of the dome had served as a symbolic backdrop during the dark war years, but Freedom’s journey to the top of the dome had begun years before. The Capitol underwent a major transformation during the Civil War. On March 4, 1861, with war looming, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address in the shadow of the half-finished dome. The building was in the midst of a major expansion project that had begun 10 years earlier and included the construction of two large wings and a new, taller dome. At the onset of the war, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, the superintendent of the Capitol extension and dome construction, observed that the government had “no money to spend except in self defense” and issued the order to stop working. Despite this order, the iron foundry hired to construct the dome, Janes, Fowler and Kirtland, continued the project without pay. The foundry worried that the cast iron materials already procured would be damaged or destroyed if installation was delayed.1 Members of Congress, many of whom shared similar concerns, debated a resolution to restore funding in the spring of 1862. “Every consideration of economy, every consideration of protection to this building, every consideration of expediency requires that it should be completed, and that it should be done now,” Vermont senator Solomon Foot appealed to his fellow senators. “To let these works remain in their present condition is, in my judgment, to say the least of it, the most inexcusable, needless, and extravagant waste and destruction of property,” he argued. “We are strong enough yet, thank God, to put down this rebellion and to put up this our Capitol at the same time.” Congress restored construction funding in April 1862, and the foundry’s dome contract was renewed. Slowly and steadily, the massive dome became a reality during those difficult war years. The vision of this continuing endeavor provided inspiration during this perilous time. “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on,” remarked President Abraham Lincoln. “War or no war, the work goes steadily on,” reported the Chicago Tribune.2 To crown the new dome, Architect of the Capitol Thomas U. Walter, who designed the cast-iron structure, called for a large statue, which he originally conceived as an allegorical figure “holding a liberty cap”—a cloth cap worn by the formerly enslaved in Ancient Greece and Rome that later became a popular symbol of the American and French Revolutions. In 1855 Meigs asked American sculptor Thomas Crawford, who had produced other sculptural pieces for the Capitol project, to create a representation of Liberty for the dome’s statue. Working in his studio in Rome, Crawford instead proposed a figure representing “Freedom triumphant in War and Peace.” His first design, a female holding an olive branch in one hand and a sword in the other, was made before he realized that the sculpture needed more height and a taller pedestal. His second sketch, which Crawford said represented “Armed Liberty,” was a female figure in classical dress wearing a liberty cap adorned with stars and holding a shield and wreath in one hand and a sword in the other.3 Upon receiving Crawford’s second design, Meigs rightly anticipated that his superior, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, a Southern enslaver (and future president of the Confederacy) who oversaw the Capitol construction project, would object to the inclusion of the liberty cap. “Mr. Crawford has made a light and beautiful figure of Liberty…. It has upon it the inevitable liberty cap, to which Mr. Davis will, I do not doubt, object,” Meigs recorded in his journal. Indeed, Davis did object. “History renders [the liberty cap] inappropriate to a people who were born free and would not be enslaved,” Davis argued, willfully ignoring the millions of enslaved people who toiled across the nation. “[S]hould not armed Liberty wear a helmet?” Davis offered. Crawford’s third and final design reflected Davis’s suggestion. Freedom was clad with a helmet, "the crest of which is composed of an eagle’s head and a bold arrangement of feathers, suggested by the costume of our Indian tribes," Crawford explained.4 Once the statue design was approved, Crawford prepared a plaster model in his studio, his last work before he fell ill and died in 1857. Divided into five separate pieces, the model was shipped to America. After a long and arduous journey in a ship plagued by leaks, all of the pieces finally arrived in Washington in March 1859. An Italian craftsman working in the Capitol reassembled the model, covering all the seams with fresh plaster, and it was temporarily displayed in the old House Chamber (now known as Statuary Hall). Clark Mills, the owner of a local iron foundry, was hired to cast the statue in bronze in 1860. When the time came to disassemble the plaster model for casting, the Italian craftsman demanded additional pay from Mills, claiming that he alone knew how to separate the model. Mills turned instead to one of his foundry workers, an enslaved African American artisan named Philip Reid, who skillfully devised a method of separating the plaster model so that the individual sections could be cast and the bronze statue assembled. Reid labored seven days a week on Freedom, the only worker in Mills’s foundry paid to attend to the statue on Sundays, according to government records. Reid's rate of pay was $1.25 per day; however, as an enslaved man, he was likely only permitted to keep his Sunday earnings. While Reid was one of many enslaved people who helped to build the Capitol, he is unique in that his name has been documented in official records. “Philip Reid’s story is one of the great ironies in the Capitol’s history,” architectural historian of the Capitol William C. Allen observed, “a workman helping to cast a noble allegorical representation of American freedom when he himself was not free.”5 More ironic yet was the fact that when the statue was finally placed atop the dome on December 2, 1863, Reid was a free man, liberated by the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act in 1862 . Reporting from Washington that December day, a correspondent for the New York Tribune recounted Reid’s central role in the creation of Freedom, and reflected, “Was there a prophecy in that moment when the slave became the artist, and with rare poetic justice, reconstructed the beautiful symbol of freedom for America?” The installation of the Statue of Freedom proved to be symbolic, signifying the enduring nation in a time of civil war. A solemn ceremony marked completion of the dome and the placement of Freedom. The “flag of the nation was hoisted to the apex of the dome,” wrote an observer, “a signal that the ‘crowning’ had been successfully completed.” A salute was ordered to commemorate the event, “as an expression…of respect for the material symbol of the principle upon which our government is based.” The 12 forts that guarded the capital city answered with cannon fire when artillery fired a 35-gun-salute—one gun for each state, including those of the Confederacy.6 “Freedom now stands on the Dome of the Capitol of the United States,” wrote the Commissioner of Public Buildings, Benjamin Brown French, in his journal; “May she stand there forever, not only in form, but in spirit.” It was an appropriate finale to a year that began with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. “Let us indulge the hope that our posterity to the end of time may look upon it with the same admiration which we do today,” one observer wrote of Freedom that December day, “and an unbroken Union three years since would have viewed this glorious symbol of patriotism and achievement of art.” Indeed, the nation emerged from the Civil War damaged but intact, improved by the permanent emancipation of four million African Americans in December 1865. 7
1. William C. Allen, The Dome of the United States Capitol: An Architectural History (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992), 55. 2. Congressional Globe, 37th Cong., 2nd sess., March 25, 1862, 1349; Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, eds., Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 147; “The Capitol Improvements,” Chicago Tribune, October 15, 1863, 1. 3. “Statue of Freedom,” Architect of the Capitol, accessed November 30, 2023,; "The Liberty Cap in the Art of the U.S. Capitol," Architect of the Capitol, accessed November 30, 2023,; William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001), 246; Allen, Dome, 42. 4. Wendy Wolff, ed., Capitol Builder: The Shorthand Journal of Montgomery C. Meigs, 1853–1859, 1861 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2001), 332; Allen, Dome, 42–43. 5. Allen, Dome, 42–43; John Philip Colletta, "Clark Mills and His Enslaved Assistant, Philip Reed: The Collaboration that Culminated in Freedom," Capitol Dome 57, (Spring/Summer 2020): 19; "History of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the United States Capitol," report prepared by William C. Allen, Architectural Historian, Office of the Architect of the Capitol, June 1, 2005, p. 16, included in the subject files of the Senate Historical Office. 6. “The Statue of Freedom,” correspondence of the New York Tribune, reported in the Chicago Tribune, December 14, 1863, 1; "The Statue on the Capitol Dome," National Intelligencer, December 3, 1863, 3; S. D. Wyeth, The Rotunda and Dome of the US. Capitol (Washington, D.C.: Gibson Brothers, 1869), 193. 7. Benjamin Brown French, Witness to the Young Republic, A Yankee’s Journal, 1828–1870 (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1989), 439; "The Statue on the Capitol Dome," National Intelligencer, December 3, 1863, 3.
Latrobe Cenotaphs in Congressional Cemetery 202310 10The First National Burial Ground: Congressional Cemetery
October 10, 2023
When Pierre L’Enfant produced his design for the new federal city in 1791, his plan did not include burial grounds. With the relocation of the nation’s capital from Philadelphia to the District of Columbia set to happen by 1800, DC’s commissioners anticipated the influx of population that would follow and set aside land in 1798 for two cemeteries on the outskirts of the city, one on the west side and the other on the east. When the site on the east side of the city proved to be unsuitable for burials, a group of parishioners of Christ Church on Capitol Hill established a new burial ground two miles from the Capitol, known by the 1830s as Congressional Cemetery.

When Pierre L’Enfant produced his design for the new federal city in 1791, his plan did not include burial grounds. With the relocation of the nation’s capital from Philadelphia to the District of Columbia set to happen by 1800, DC’s commissioners anticipated the influx of population that would follow and set aside land in 1798 for two cemeteries on the outskirts of the city, one on the west side and the other on the east. When the site on the east side of the city proved to be unsuitable for burials, a group of parishioners of Christ Church on Capitol Hill established a new burial ground along the Anacostia River, two miles from the Capitol. In time this cemetery came to be regarded as the first national burial ground, known by the 1830s as Congressional Cemetery.1 Just a few months after the Christ Church cemetery opened, Senator Uriah Tracy of Connecticut became the first member of Congress to be buried there. A Revolutionary War veteran and former president pro tempore of the Senate, Tracy died on July 19, 1807, and a few days later was interred in the cemetery “with the honors due to his station and character, as a statesman.” A member of the House of Representatives was buried there in 1808, and the following year Senator Francis Malbone of Rhode Island, who died on the steps of the Capitol after only three months in office, was interred there as well. Vice President George Clinton was interred there in 1812 and Vice President Elbridge Gerry followed in 1814, each escorted to his final resting place by a grand procession down Pennsylvania Avenue.2 The Washington Parish Burial Ground, as it was formally known at the time, was a public cemetery open to all, including African Americans (though in a segregated portion of the grounds). In addition to serving as the final resting place for some members of Congress, the cemetery also accommodated Senate officers, staff members, and even laborers who worked at the Capitol. William Swinton, a stonecutter who had worked on construction of the Capitol, was the first individual interred there in April 1807, just days after the cemetery was created. The Senate’s first doorkeeper and sergeant at arms, James Mathers, was laid to rest in the cemetery in 1811, as was the first secretary of the Senate, Samuel Otis, in 1814. Numerous members of the Tims family, who worked as doorkeepers, messengers, and pages in the early Senate, also found their final resting place in the cemetery. During the early years of the 19th century, embalming practices did not allow for long-distance transportation of the deceased, making local burial a necessity. Consequently, when a member of Congress died during a congressional session, he was typically buried in a local cemetery. Between 1800 and 1830, practically every member of Congress who died in office was buried at this site. Facing this reality, in 1817 Christ Church donated 100 burial sites for the interment of representatives and senators. In 1820 it opened those sites to the families of members of Congress as well as the heads of cabinet departments. A few years later, the church provided 300 additional burial sites for members of Congress and government officials. Around this time, the site became popularly known as Congressional Cemetery.3 To give distinction to the gravesites of lawmakers, Congress in 1815 commissioned Capitol architect Benjamin Latrobe to design a stately monument to honor each of the deceased members. Latrobe’s design featured a large cube topped with a small, conical dome made from the same sandstone used to construct the Capitol. An engraved marble plaque identified the deceased. Latrobe believed the monuments would be more durable than the typical marble headstones in use at the time. As years went by, improvements in embalming practices and in transportation—particularly with the construction of railroads—made it possible to return the deceased to home-state cemeteries. It became more common for members to be temporarily interred at the cemetery, then later transported for a home-state burial, leaving the space beneath the monument empty. For decades to come, Congress continued to add a monument to the cemetery whenever a member died in office, regardless of whether or not mortal remains ever rested there. By the 1870s, the cemetery held more than 150 of the Latrobe-designed monuments, arranged in long rows, although only about half actually covered a body. They became known as “cenotaphs,” which means “empty tomb.”4 Unfortunately, the stone markers weathered poorly over time and became increasingly unpopular with Washingtonians, including some members of Congress. One representative complained that the cenotaphs resembled a huge “dry-goods box with an old-fashioned bee-hive on top . . . , the most complete consummation of hideousness that it has ever been my misfortune to observe in a cemetery.” Above all, prayed another, “I hope to be delivered from dying—[at least] while Congress is in session.” When a bill was introduced in 1876 to require production of a granite monument matching the existing cenotaphs for future representatives and senators interred at the cemetery, Representative (and later Senator) George Hoar succeeded in striking the requirement from the bill. “It is certainly adding new terror to death,” Hoar stated, to require deceased members to lie beneath a cenotaph. This marked the end of new cenotaphs in Congressional Cemetery for nearly a century. A number of members of Congress were interred there in the years following, but those graves were marked with small headstones. One last cenotaph was placed in 1972 to mark the passing of House Majority Leader Hale Boggs who perished in a plane crash that year, his body never recovered.5 Though Congress did not have a formal relationship with Christ Church or ownership of the cemetery, it played an important financial role in the burial ground’s care and maintenance. Following the first congressional burials in the early 19th century, Christ Church officials hoped the donation of burial plots to Congress would strengthen ties with lawmakers and lead to financial support for the cemetery as a quasi-public institution. In 1824 Congress appropriated $2,000 to Christ Church to build a wall around the cemetery. Congress contributed more funds in the 1830s to build a house for the cemetery caretaker, plant trees, and “otherwise improve the interment of members of Congress and other officers of the General Government.” Between 1832 and 1834, Congress also appropriated $2,800 to build a vault to hold bodies awaiting burial, a service provided to representatives and senators free of charge. (Former First Lady Dolley Madison was interred there for three years while funds were raised to allow her to be moved for burial at her husband’s Montpelier estate in Virginia.) By 1846 Congress had appropriated $10,000 for upkeep and repairs. That year, when Congress provided funds for the cemetery and the road that led to from the Capitol, it used the name “Congressional Burial Ground,” solidifying its special relationship to the cemetery.6 With the establishment of Arlington Cemetery after the Civil War, Congressional Cemetery yielded its active role as the chief national burial ground. By that time, the cemetery had been the site for grand funeral services for deceased presidents William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and John Quincy Adams, and the final resting place of U.S. Attorney General William Wirt and U.S. Secretary of State John Forsythe. During the late 19th century, notable individuals from Senate and House history continued to be interred there, including former sergeant at arms Dunning McNair; Isaac Bassett, one of the first Senate pages and later a longtime doorkeeper of the Senate; Joseph Gales and William Seaton, early newspapermen who recorded congressional debates; and Anne Royall, one of the first women journalists to cover Congress. The cemetery also continued to serve private citizens well into the 20th century, eventually providing the resting place for 60,000 individuals, including pioneering photographer Matthew Brady, famed military composer and conductor John Philip Sousa, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a Washington native. By the mid-20th century, Congress had long ceased providing appropriations for the cemetery, and Christ Church’s congregation lacked the resources to maintain it. Despite efforts by groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution to generate public and congressional support for the historic site, it gradually fell into disrepair. In 1976 a nonprofit organization, the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery (APHCC), assumed management of the site. After decades of neglect, however, the APHCC struggled to keep up with the overgrown grass and weeds, repair broken monuments and crumbling private vaults, and protect the grounds from vandalism. That year Congress passed legislation authorizing the architect of the Capitol to assist in the maintenance of the cemetery and appropriated funds for that purpose. Congress did not provide additional funds in the years following, however, and by 1997 Congressional Cemetery had fallen on such hard times that the National Trust for Historic Preservation added it to its list of most endangered historic sites. Neighborhood volunteers—especially dog owners who frequented the grounds with their pets and formed the K9Corps at Historic Congressional Cemetery—worked with the APHCC to raise money and devoted hundreds of hours to bringing the cemetery back to life. In 1997 volunteers from all five branches of the military gathered at the site to mow the grass and repair headstones, an event that continues to be an annual tradition. As the cemetery’s 200th anniversary approached, Congress once again provided monetary support, passing legislation in 1999 and 2002 to establish an endowment for its ongoing restoration and maintenance. The cemetery was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011.7 Through the efforts of local volunteers and with funds appropriated by Congress, Congressional Cemetery, the first national burial ground, has been restored as both a meaningful community space and a monument to the elected officials who died while serving their nation in Washington, DC. Eighty-four representatives, fourteen senators, and five individuals who served in both houses of Congress are interred at Congressional Cemetery alongside the cenotaphs that memorialize the passing of dozens more.
1. Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol: Congressional Cemetery and the Memory of the Nation (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2012), 9–14. 2. Johnson and Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol, 23–24, 53–54. 3. Johnson and Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol, 35; Rebecca Boggs Roberts and Sandra K. Schmidt, Historic Congressional Cemetery (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2012), 7. 4. Roberts and Schmidt, Historic Congressional Cemetery, 25–27. 5. Congressional Record, 44th Cong., 1st sess., May 15, 1876, 3092–93; Kim A. O’Connell, “A Monumental Task,” Preservation (July/August 2009): 18–19; History of the Congressional Cemetery, S. Doc. 72, 59th Cong., 2nd sess., December 6, 1906, 35. 6. Johnson and Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol, 33, 36–37; History of the Congressional Cemetery, 11–15. 7. Johnson and Johnson, In the Shadow of the United States Capitol, 223–64; “Ruin of Tombs,” Milwaukee Sentinel, August 31, 1890, 9; House of Representatives, Committee on Interior Affairs, “Relating to the Preservation of the Historical Congressional Cemetery,” H. Rpt. 667, 97th Cong., 2nd sess., July 27, 1982; Betsy Crosby, “To Hell and Back: The Resurrection of Congressional Cemetery,” Preservation (January/February 2012): 28–33; “The Cemetery Lost Its Aura,” Washington Star, September 19, 1971, 1; “New Panel Eyes Cemetery Bill,” Washington Post, July 28, 1976, A15; “A Gentle Reminder of Congressional History, 20 Blocks from Capitol Hill,” Roll Call, September 18, 1988, 31; “Congressional Cemetery Could Get Funding,” Roll Call, July 26, 2001, 46.
George Norris (R-NE) 202305 4Senators Balk at Dial Telephones
May 4, 2023
Adjusting to new technology is never easy. With today’s proliferation of smart phones, smart watches, and virtual reality devices, it might be hard to appreciate that a hundred years ago the rotary dial telephone was cutting-edge technology. And some senators did not like it!

Adjusting to new technology is never easy. With today’s proliferation of smart phones, smart watches, and virtual reality devices, it might be hard to appreciate that a hundred years ago the rotary dial telephone was cutting-edge technology. And some senators did not like it! A telephone was first installed in the U.S. Capitol in 1880, four years after its demonstration by inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Situated in a room near the House Chamber, the telephone was placed under the supervision of the House doorkeeper. On the Senate side of the Capitol, telephones for the offices of the Secretary of the Senate, the Senate Sergeant at Arms, and the Senate Post Office followed in the 1880s. In 1897 the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, which provided phone service to the District of Columbia, installed a switchboard with capacity for 100 lines in the Senate Reception Room with 25 to 30 active lines in service. When users of one of these original phones picked up the receiver, they were connected to a switchboard operator who would patch the call through to an office in the Capitol or to an outside line to reach someone off of Capitol Hill.1 The Senate and House switchboards were replaced in 1901 by a single switchboard that served the entire Capitol. Three operators directed calls on the new switchboard, which was installed in the Capitol’s first floor. As the telephone grew in popularity, Congress installed larger switchboards and hired more operators to connect calls, placing them under the supervision of operator Harriott G. Daley. By 1926, with every office in the Capitol as well as the House and Senate office buildings equipped with a phone, the Capitol switchboard, by then located in the House office building, served almost 1,700 lines, the equivalent of a switchboard serving a small city. Daley supervised 18 operators—almost exclusively women—who handled between 300 and 400 calls per hour.2 In 1930 a new advancement in telephone technology arrived at the Capitol: the dial telephone. Rather than placing a call with an operator, members of Congress would now use the rotary dial to place the call directly, triggering an automatic switchboard to connect to the receiving party. Although the first rotary dial phones and automatic switchboards dated back to the 1890s, they suffered from a number of technical and financial drawbacks and were not widely adopted. More importantly, executives of the Bell Telephone Company—which held a virtual monopoly over the nation’s telephone system—believed that dial phones and automatic switching could not compete with switchboard operators in providing personalized service and individual attention to customers. Companies in the Bell System—controlled after 1900 by American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T)—did not adopt dial phones until 1919, when the company sought cost savings by replacing operators with automatic switchboards. Even then, phone companies prudently introduced the new system gradually, recognizing, as one executive wrote, that “subscribers are prejudiced in favor of the system they have used for forty years, and will not, I am afraid, in their present frame of mind accept the dial.” AT&T thus embarked on a campaign to educate the public on how to use the new phones and the benefits of automatic switching.3 One phone user who did not “accept the dial” was Senator Carter Glass of Virginia. When the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, by then a subsidiary of AT&T, installed dial telephones on the Senate side of the Capitol in May 1930, the 72-year-old veteran lawmaker introduced a resolution:
Whereas dial telephones are more difficult to operate than are manual telephones; and Whereas Senators are required, since the installation of dial phones in the Capitol, to perform the duties of telephone operators in order to enjoy the benefits of telephone service; and Whereas dial telephones have failed to expedite telephone service; Therefore be it resolved that the Sergeant at Arms of the Senate is authorized and directed to order the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. to replace with manual phones within 30 days after the adoption of this resolution, all dial telephones in the Senate wing of the United States Capitol and in the Senate office building.
Glass was not alone in his objections to the dial phone. He received correspondence from individuals around the country lauding his resolution and complaining about the decline of personal service that accompanied automatic switching. President Herbert Hoover had banned dial phones from the White House when he took office in 1929, and North Carolina representative Charles L. Abernathy introduced a similar resolution in the House of Representatives.4 Glass’s resolution received broad support in the Senate. Arizona's Henry Ashurst objected to dial telephones and praised Glass for his restrained language in introducing his resolution. The Congressional Record would not be mailable, he said, "if it contained in print what Senators think of the dial telephone system.” (Apparently, Glass’s language was still a little too salty for the Record. A newspaper reported that he exclaimed, “I want those abominable dial telephones taken out,” but that statement did not make it into the Record.) When Joe Robinson of Arkansas pointed out that the dial telephones were “a great conservation measure” in that they would allow for reduction in the number of telephone employees, Glass shot back, “I object to that phase of it, and I object to being transformed into one of the employees of the telephone company without compensation.” When Washington senator Clarence Dill asked why the resolution did not also ban the dial system from the entire District of Columbia, Glass said he hoped the phone company would take the hint and do so. The resolution passed without objection.5 The dial telephone, of course, had its defenders, particularly the national telephone companies working under the umbrella of AT&T. The New York Telephone Company, which began switching to dial phones in 1922, put out a statement a few days after Glass introduced his resolution noting they had received very few complaints about the new phones and that the company could not maintain efficient service for its growing number of customers without the dial phone and automatic switching. The company pointed out that the phones were particularly helpful for immigrants who weren’t fluent in English, as they had a difficult time communicating with operators. “The dial represents the highest type of telephone in existence,” the company concluded.6 Despite Glass and his many allies, some members of the Senate embraced the new technology. Senator George Norris of Nebraska declared, “I like the dials.” He believed that passing the ban meant the Senate was “standing in the road of human progress.” One day before the scheduled removal of all dial phones, Maryland senator Millard Tydings offered a resolution to give senators a choice as to which phone was installed in their offices. Glass objected. He thought it onerous for senators to have to contact the phone company to convey their preference. Beginning the next day, the phone company removed 789 dial phones from the Senate.7 A week later, senators reached a compromise. Senator Claude Swanson of Virginia introduced a resolution to instruct the phone company to install phones that could be operated either by operator or by dial. In acquiescing to the deal, Glass insisted that he had not objected to senators having access to dial telephones, but rather that the changeover appeared to be “purely for the benefit of the telephone company.” Senator Dill, who had complained that the dial phone “could not be more awkward,” added that in opposing the phones he was not against “progress,” as some had charged. “So long as I am not pestered with the dial and may have the manual telephone, while those who want to be pestered with it . . . may have it, all right.”8 The final compromise meant that the Senate’s manual switchboards and operators would remain in place. Harriott Daley managed them until her retirement in 1945. Phone and switching technology continued to advance greatly in the Senate of the 20th and 21st centuries, but today, Capitol operators still play an important role in Senate telecommunications.
1. H. B. Stabler, “Memorandum Regarding Telephone Service for the U.S. Capitol,” undated, included in the files of the Senate Historical Office. 2. Annual Report of the Architect of the Capitol, 69th Cong., 2nd sess., H.Doc. 554, December 6, 1926, 15–16. 3. Kenneth Lipartito, “When Women Were Switches: Technology, Work, and Gender in the Telephone Industry, 1890–1920,” American Historical Review 99, no. 4 (October 1994), 1075–1111; Venus Green, “Goodbye Central: Automation and the Decline of Personal Service in the Bell System, 1878–1921,” Technology and Culture 36, no. 4 (October 1995), 912–94; B. E. Sunny to H. B. Thayer, AT&T Vice President, March 18, 1919, AT&T Archives, quoted in Green, “Goodbye Central,” 944. 4. S. Res. 274, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., May 22, 1920; H. Res. 223, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., May 22, 1930. 5. “Senate Orders Its Dial Phones Off Premises,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 23, 1930, 4; Congressional Record, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., May 22, 1930, 9341. 6. “Company Insists New York Likes Dial Phones,” New York Times, May 24, 1930, 3. 7. Congressional Record, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., June 19, 1930, 11,161; “Dial Phone Has Senate Friends, But Ban Stands,” Chicago Tribune, June 20, 1920, 3; “Senate’s Dial Phone War Simmering Down Quietly,” Washington Post, June 20, 1930, 1; “Choose Your Telephones,” Baltimore Sun, July 14, 1930, 6; S. Res. 278, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., June 20, 1930. 8. Congressional Record, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., June 25, 1930, 11,649; S. Res. 300, 71st Cong., 2nd sess., June 24, 1930; “Dial Phone Dispute Ends in Compromise,” Boston Globe, June 26, 1930, 11.
Senate Monorail 202301 17Senate Subway
January 17, 2023
Beneath the ground between the Capitol and the three Senate office buildings runs a unique transportation system. Two subway lines shuttle senators and staff between their offices and the Senate wing of the Capitol. The subway system has undergone numerous changes since the Senate’s first office building opened in 1909, and while it has served its main purpose of allowing lawmakers to travel quickly to the Senate Chamber for votes, it has also become a popular Senate attraction.

Beneath the ground between the Capitol and the three Senate office buildings runs a unique transportation system. Two subway lines shuttle senators and staff between their offices and the Senate wing of the Capitol. The subway system has undergone numerous changes since the Senate’s first office building opened in 1909, and while it has served its main purpose of allowing lawmakers to travel quickly to the Senate Chamber for votes, it has also become a popular Senate attraction. During the late 19th century, senators occupied offices in the Capitol, in the nearby Maltby Building (also known as the Senate Annex), and in other rented space on Capitol Hill. When Congress approved a proposal to construct a new building to provide all members with office space, the plans included subterranean tunnels and a rail system to deliver senators to the Capitol. Concerned about construction costs and potential public criticism that a rail line would be seen as a luxury, the commission in charge of the project scrapped the proposed subway.1 The 760-foot tunnel from the newly constructed Senate office building (named for Georgia senator Richard Russell in 1972) to the Capitol had been completed, however, and senators had grown fond of the prospect of some kind of transportation to and from the Capitol. When the building opened in 1909, Capitol Superintendent Elliott Woods arranged for two custom-built lemon-yellow electric battery-powered Studebaker cars to run in the underground tunnel. Each car could hold eight people plus an operator positioned in the center of the car on a reversible seat, avoiding the need for the car to turn around. While the cars could travel up to 12 miles per hour, they moved much more slowly in order to navigate the narrow, winding tunnel. Woods saw the cars as a temporary solution and consulted with Senate Rules Committee chairman Murray Crane of Massachusetts about other options. One possibility was to install a moving sidewalk. Woods also revisited plans for a rail system but warned that it would be quite noisy rumbling through the basement. In the end, the Senate opted to stick with the electric cars, which senators affectionately named “Tommy” and “Peg.”2 Senators found the Studebakers charming and useful, but they soon wanted a vehicle that could move more senators at faster speeds. In search of more efficient travel through the tunnel, engineers finally implemented the rail system, replacing the cars in 1912 with an electric monorail system consisting of a single car suspended from an overhead rail that provided the electricity. The rail car traveled one-way on a track that formed a loop in the basement of the office building rotunda. The monorail car was replaced with a new one in 1915, and an additional car was added in 1920. The new cars held 18 people each and moved at a top speed of eight miles per hour. The monorail line, referred to by senators as the “Toonerville Trolley” after the train station at the center of the then popular Toonerville Folks comic strip, operated for over 50 years.3 “The world’s shortest subway” became a popular attraction for visitors to the Capitol. President William Howard Taft decided in 1911 to make a detour from his usual walking route around the city to take a ride through the tunnel on one of the Studebakers (briefly causing a panic because he did not inform the White House that he was venturing underground and was thought to be missing.) In March 1914, the Boston Daily Globe reported that newlyweds George and Henrietta made their way to the subway tunnel for a joyride, taking six round trips, all while wearing their wedding attire.4 Despite its popularity, at least one senator was not pleased with the new system. In 1913 Senator William Stone of Missouri complained about the noise of the new cars and introduced a resolution to ditch the monorail and bring back the Studebakers. Senator John Bricker no doubt was glad the railway was there in 1947, however, when a disgruntled former Capitol police officer fired two gunshots at him. He was able to escape quickly by jumping into the car and telling the operator, “Let’s get out of here!”5 The construction of a second Senate office building in the late 1950s (named for Illinois senator Everett Dirksen in 1972) led to major changes to the subway system. In addition to a tunnel between the newest building and the Capitol, another tunnel was constructed to maintain the connection between the Capitol and the Russell Building. (The original tunnel was converted to space for the Senate recording studio.) In each tunnel, two lanes of track ran parallel to each other. Four new rail cars were purchased, each able to carry up to 18 passengers at a top speed of 20 miles per hour. At the opening of the new session in January 1960, Senator Dennis Chavez of New Mexico, who chaired the commission that oversaw the construction of the Dirksen Building, cut the ribbon and officially opened the new line to passengers. Senate Chaplain Frederick Brown Harris offered a blessing for what he called the “swift chariots of Democracy.” Chavez and Architect of the Capitol J. George Stewart climbed into one car for the maiden ride, while Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia boarded the second car with some journalists, and the two cars raced through the tunnel in what a Washington Post writer dubbed “the Capitol Hill version of Ben Hur,” referring to that film’s famous chariot race.6 But once again, not all senators were happy with efforts to modernize the subway system. Arkansas senator J. William Fulbright stated that he preferred the old “Toonerville Trolley” system, which he found “soothing to jangled nerves.” He called the new system “vulgar,” “noisy,” “disgusting” and “a stupid engineering job completely lacking in thought.” In a proposed Senate resolution, he blamed the new ride for the “irritable, testy, acrimonious atmosphere prevailing in the Senate” that session. If that weren’t bad enough, he charged that the new cars added to senators’ expenses for “frequent repairs to their wives’ coiffeurs” because the open-air cars traveled too fast. Apparently, Fulbright was right that the new cars did have a rather noisy and bumpy ride, and this was alleviated in December 1961 when the Capitol engineers replaced the steel wheels with rubber ones. With these complaints addressed, the system worked reasonably well for more than 20 years.7 The opening of a third Senate office building in 1982 (named for Michigan senator Phillip Hart) placed new strains on the system and led to a major overhaul. Initially, the existing line that served the Dirksen Building was simply extended to reach the Hart Building, but the 50 senators with offices in the Hart Building were served by only one rail car, often leading to excessive wait times. In 1987 Architect of the Capitol George White proposed construction of a new, state-of-the-art automated magnet-powered subway line to serve the Dirksen and Hart Buildings. The new system, modeled after a railway installed at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, was estimated to cost $10 million but promised to be less expensive to maintain than the existing line. Some senators initially balked at the price tag, but grumblings about long waits and missed votes—senators had just 15 minutes to cast their votes—led to more support. When eight senators missed a vote on February 2, 1988, due to congestion on the subway line, Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama took to the Chamber floor to complain that “from an engineering, mathematical, mileage, [and] measurement basis,” the Hart car could not make enough trips in 15 minutes to ensure all senators made votes in time. Majority Leader Robert Byrd of West Virginia vowed to take the issue up with the Architect of the Capitol, and soon the Senate approved construction of the new system.8 The new automated line began operating in 1994, with enclosed cars running along a “pinched loop.” (The Russell Building line remained intact.) The new system—with three-car trains that could whisk 25 people at speeds of 14 miles per hour—cut wait times down to a minute and reduced the time to travel the 1,600 feet from the Hart Building to the Capitol to less than two minutes. This modern line also had the added benefit of being wheelchair accessible. Today, no visit to the Senate is complete without a ride on the Senate subway.9
1. “No Cars for Congress,” Washington Post, August 18, 1908, 12. 2. “Capitol Auto Line Tested,” New York Times, March 8, 1909, 2; “Senate Autos Now in Use,” Washington Post, March 9, 1909, 2; “The Capital Subway Buses,” The Power Wagon, July 1909, 5-6; Elliott Woods to W. Murray Crane, June 3, 1909, “Senate Subway,” files of the Architect of the Capitol. 3. “Senate Subway Line,” Washington Post, March 17, 1912, F2. 4. “President Lost, Alarms Capital,” Washington Times, January 14, 1911, 5; “World’s Shortest Subway,” Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 1948, 9; “Honeymoon Joy Riding,” Boston Daily Globe, March 15, 1914, 10; “The Shortest Railroad,” Los Angeles Times, October 1, 1916, 16. 5. S. Res. 41, 63rd Cong., 1st sess., April 12, 1913; “Gunman Fires 2 Shots at Bricker,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 13, 1947, 1; “Bullets of an Assassin Miss Bricker in Capitol Tunnel,” New York Times, July 13, 1947, 1. 6. “Senators Dedicate Subway with Race,” Washington Post, Times Herald, January 6, 1960, A11; “Modern Subway Ends Toonervillian Era at the Capitol,” Washington Post, Times Herald, May 1, 1961, A2. 7. “Fulbright Mourns Passing of Old Subway Trolleys,” Washington Evening Star, May 30, 1961, 1; “Noise of Capitol’s New Subway Cars Provokes Senatorial Echo and Anger,” Washington Post, Times Herald, July 10, 1961, A1; “Senate Bumps Ironed Out,” Washington Evening Star, Dec 16, 1961, 1. 8. “Architect Wants Driverless Senate Subway,” Roll Call, June 1, 1987, 13; Congressional Record, 100th Cong., 2nd sess., February 2, 1988, 631–32; “Senate Subway Improvement on Track,” Washington Post, August 22, 1989, A11; “Construction of $18 Million Senate Subway Begins,” Roll Call, June 3, 1993, 3. 9. “After Years in Pipeline, Hill Subway Nears,” Washington Post, January 25, 1994, A17.
McMillan Commission Plan, 1901 202212 12A Capital Plan: James McMillan, the Senate Park Commission, and the Rediscovery of the National Mall
December 12, 2022
Leading up to the centennial commemoration of Washington, D.C., in 1900, competing plans to redesign and improve the capital city, particularly the public space now known as the National Mall, were being formed. Decades of haphazard development had produced a city that hardly resembled the original plan designed by Pierre L'Enfant in 1791. Among those dedicated to improving the design was Senator James McMillan. As chairman of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, McMillan used his position to promote a far-sighted plan to beautify Washington.

Leading up to the centennial commemoration of Washington, D.C., in 1900, architects, engineers, and other interested parties had begun to develop several competing plans to redesign and improve the capital city, particularly the public space now known as the National Mall. Decades of haphazard development had produced a city that hardly resembled the original plan designed by Pierre Charles L'Enfant in 1791. Among those dedicated to improving the design at the dawn of the 20th century was Michigan senator James McMillan. As chairman of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, McMillan used his position to promote a far-sighted plan to beautify the nation’s capital. A transportation industry magnate, philanthropist, and leader of the Republican Party machine in Michigan, McMillan came to the Senate in 1889 and quickly established himself as a hard-working and influential senator. He developed strong relationships with his Senate colleagues, founding the “School of Philosophy Club,” a gathering of powerful Republican senators who met at his home to fine tune their legislative agenda. Named chairman of the Committee on the District of Columbia in 1891, McMillan immersed himself in work to improve the city’s infrastructure, including the streetcar, railway, and water systems. A longtime patron of the arts and promoter of cultural civic improvements, McMillan also became heavily invested in efforts to develop and beautify the Mall, the city’s central feature, which had greatly expanded with recent efforts to fill in and reclaim the tidal flats of the Potomac River near the Washington Monument.1 Washington, D.C., was unique in that a plan for the nation’s capital city had been designed at its inception. The 1790 Residence Act established a federal district along the Potomac River to include the city as the permanent seat of government. It authorized President George Washington to appoint three commissioners to survey and define the boundaries of the district and to provide for public buildings to accommodate the government by 1800. In 1791, under the auspices of this law, Washington charged L'Enfant, a military engineer who had served on Washington's staff during the Revolutionary War, with creating a plan for the city. L'Enfant proposed a grid system of residential streets with broad diagonal avenues radiating from the principal governmental buildings—the “President’s House” and “Congress House.” The centerpiece of L'Enfant's plan was a Mall, where he envisioned a dedicated public space for learning and recreation—a “place of general resort,” a tree-lined “grand avenue,” surrounded by “play houses, room[s] of assembly, academies and all sort of places as may be attractive to the learned and afford diversion to the idle.” L’Enfant “conceived the capital as the seat of a ‘vast empire,’” one scholar wrote, and the Mall was “the physical and symbolic heart” of his plan.2 During the century that followed, much of L’Enfant’s design for the Mall never materialized. The young republic was not equipped financially or organizationally to fulfill such a plan. L'Enfant's grand and cohesive vision was gradually lost to decentralized and private land development. “Over time, as the view from the west front of the Capitol affirmed,” noted one historian, “the Mall had devolved into a hodgepodge of misplaced buildings, odd structures, and meandering garden paths, all constructed without regard for [L’Enfant’s] intentions.” As another historian wrote, “By 1900 … the Mall had become a chain of individual public parks, each associated with a different Victorian building, most of them built of red brick.” Among the developments that violated L’Enfant’s original design was the terminal of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad at Sixth Street west of the Capitol. The terminal was constructed in 1870 and its tracks cut directly across the Mall, proving to be both an eyesore and a safety concern.3 As the 19th century drew to a close, several groups consisting of local and state authorities as well as members of Congress emerged to discuss plans for a centennial celebration of the capital city. In a February 1900 meeting of the various groups, participants created a special committee of five to review suggestions and make final recommendations and chose Senator McMillan to serve as chairman. McMillan and the committee subsequently proposed a celebration in December 1900 that would include commemorative exercises in both houses of Congress along with a parade and a reception. The committee also recommended a plan to revive L’Enfant’s original vision by converting the entire Mall into a grand boulevard named Centennial Avenue. “Upon looking at the maps which the committee had before it,” McMillan noted, “it was seen that the original plan of Washington, as prepared by Major L’Enfant, provided for just such an avenue, public buildings to be erected on either side of the same.”4 Other organizations and agencies invested in the development of the District criticized the committee’s plan for not being fully developed. Throughout the centennial year, architects and planners from various organizations continued to produce competing designs. The debate culminated in the annual convention of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) held in Washington in December of 1900 to coincide with the centennial celebration. Architects attending the convention presented several additional plans, hoping to draw attention to the subject of beautifying Washington. “It is intended by these papers to call the attention of Congress forcibly to the need of some harmonious scheme to be followed in the future development of Washington,” AIA secretary and noted Capitol historian Glenn Brown wrote. “We propose to have the reading and discussion open to the public and invite all Congressmen and officials to attend."5 Within days, McMillan and other members of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia met with AIA members to craft a joint congressional resolution authorizing the president to appoint a commission “to study and report on the location and grouping of public buildings and the development of the park system in the District of Columbia.” When the House of Representatives showed little interest in the joint resolution, McMillan instead secured passage of a Senate resolution in March 1901. This resolution authorized the Committee on the District of Columbia to form a commission of experts “to consider the subject and report to the Senate plans for the development and improvement of the entire park system of the District of Columbia.” Although McMillan’s resolution focused generally on the city’s park system, his true purpose soon became apparent. “It was obvious from his actions in the following weeks,” noted one historian, “that what he had in mind was nothing less than a comprehensive development plan for all of central Washington in addition to certain studies of Rock Creek and Potomac Parks.”6 The District of Columbia Committee consulted the AIA to determine who should be on the new Senate Park Commission, which became known as the McMillan Commission due to the senator’s prominent role in its creation. The organization recommended architect Daniel Burnham, who had successfully transformed Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, as well as landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., who had presented at the AIA convention and urged a return to the “greatness” of L’Enfant’s original plan. McMillan’s longtime aide Charles Moore played an influential role as the commission’s secretary and helped to draft much of the final report. Members of the commission agreed to focus on restoring L’Enfant’s vision for the Mall, and, as expressed by Burnham, “make the very finest plans their minds could conceive.” They set to work surveying the existing landscape of Washington and studying the plethora of proposals for its beautification. In the summer they embarked on a lengthy tour of European cities, “intended as a systematic exploration of the sources of inspiration that had guided L'Enfant’s original plan and an examination of current European treatment of civic architecture and its relationship to open spaces.”7 One of the principal challenges facing the commission was the domineering presence of the railway terminal. As a businessman with lifelong ties to the railroad industry, McMillan assumed a perpetual presence of a railway terminal on the Mall, but members of the commission disagreed. “Mr. Burnham…informed me…that little could be done toward beautifying the Mall as long as the railroad tracks were allowed to cross it," McMillan told a reporter. "The problem then was to get rid of the station." This presented quite a challenge, but the McMillan Commission ultimately succeeded in securing an agreement with the Pennsylvania Railway Company and its subsidiary, the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad, to relocate the terminal. Provided “the Government would meet the company in a spirit which would enable him to justify the move to the stockholders,” the railway company president agreed to consolidate its rail lines to the proposed Union Station terminal north of the Capitol. The station’s design became a core component of the commission’s plan. "This great station forms the grand gateway to the capital, through which every one who comes to or goes from Washington must pass,” the commissioners wrote in their report, calling it “the vestibule" of the capital. “The three great architectural features of a capital city being the halls of legislation, the executive buildings, and the vestibule," the commissioners added, “the style of this building should be equally as dignified as that of the public buildings themselves." The hallmark contribution of the elegantly designed Union Station would become one of the enduring legacies of the Senate Park Commission.8 The commission unveiled its plan to an excited crowd at the Corcoran Gallery in January 1902, complete with two scale models—one showing the city’s central core at present, and one displaying the commission’s ambitious plan. The exhibit also featured maps and artists’ sketches of proposed improvements to the city. In its report, the commission emphasized its fundamental allegiance to L’Enfant’s design. "During the century that has elapsed since the foundation of the city the great space known as the Mall…has been diverted from its original purpose and cut into fragments, each portion receiving a separate and individual informal treatment, thus invading what was a single composition," the commissioners wrote. "The original plan…has met universal approval. The departures from that plan are to be regretted and, wherever possible, remedied."9 The scaled models showed the National Mall as an extensive park that stretched from the Capitol to the Potomac River. Stately museums faced each other across a wide lawn. A new monument to Abraham Lincoln anchored the western end, connected by a long reflecting pool to the Washington monument. A decorative memorial bridge spanned the river to Arlington, Virginia. It was a bold and ambitious plan to create a common, national space. Beyond the Mall, the commission developed expansive plans that included a neighborhood park system, scenic parkways, reclamation of the tidal flats in Anacostia, and several public buildings. As their report indicated, the commissioners understood the ambitious nature of the plan and knew that what they conceived would be a guide for the city's development for generations to come. "The task is indeed a stupendous one; it is much greater than any one generation can hope to accomplish," they wrote, noting that their objective was "to prepare … such a plan as shall enable future development to proceed along the lines originally planned—namely, the treatment of the city as a work of civic art."10 James McMillan’s sudden death in August 1902 prevented him from seeing the fruits of his labor. The legacy of the McMillan Commission endured, however, and while its proposed plan has not always been strictly followed, many of its recommendations have become a reality. The plan has served as a guide for the development of Washington, as well as providing a model for city planners across the country. In 1910 Congress established a permanent federal commission, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, "to ensure that the McMillan Plan for the National Mall was completed with the highest degree of civic art." In 1926 Congress established the National Capital Planning Commission, still in existence, "to ensure the continuation of good planning for the city in the tradition of L'Enfant and McMillan." The McMillan Commission’s report and models “were at once a blueprint for the future of the capital and an early twentieth-century primer for enlightened urban planning,” concluded one historian. McMillan's efforts ultimately succeeded in producing a design that would remain true to L’Enfant’s 1791 vision, while simultaneously reshaping the heart of the city into a modern showplace.11
1. Geoffrey G. Drutchas, “Gray Eminence in a Gilded Age: The Forgotten Career of Senator James McMillan of Michigan,” Michigan Historical Review 28, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 94; Geoffrey G. Drutchas, "The Man with a Capital Design," Michigan History 86 (March/April 2002): 33–34; Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 76. 2. John W. Reps, Monumental Washington: The Planning and Development of the Capital Center (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), 17; Jon A. Peterson, "The Senate Park Commission Plan for Washington, D.C.: A New Vision for the Capital and the Nation," in Designing the Nation's Capital: The 1901 Plan for Washington, D.C., ed. Sue Kohler and Pamela Scott (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, 2006), 2. 3. Tom Lewis, Washington: A History of Our National City (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 247–48; Peterson, "The Senate Park Commission Plan for Washington, D.C.,” 3. 4. Reps, Monumental Washington, 72–74; William V. Cox, comp., Celebration of the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Establishment of the Seat of Government in the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1901), 37. 5. Tony P. Wrenn, "The American Institute of Architects Convention of 1900: Its Influence on the Senate Park Commission Plan," in Kohler and Scott, Designing the Nation's Capital, 57. 6. Reps, Monumental Washington, 92–93. 7. Peterson, "The Senate Park Commission Plan for Washington, D.C.,” 6, 14; Wrenn, "The American Institute of Architects Convention of 1900," 62; Drutchas, “Gray Eminence in a Gilded Age," 99–100; Lewis, Washington, 252; Reps, Monumental Washington, 95. 8. “Union Station Plans,” Washington Post, November 12, 1901, 2; Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia, S. Rep. 166, 57th Cong., 1st sess., 1902, 29–30. 9. Drutchas, “Gray Eminence in a Gilded Age,” 100; “The New Washington: Plans for Beautifying City Ready for Inspection,” Washington Post, January 15, 1902, 5; Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, The Improvement of the Park System, 10, 23. 10. “Plan of New Capital,” Washington Post, January 16, 1902, 11; Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, The Improvement of the Park System, 12, 19. 11. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Subcommittee on National Parks, National Mall, S. Hrg. 109-45, April 12, 2005, 4; Lewis, Washington, 255.
Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME), Senate Committee Hearing 202203 1Making Room for Women in the Senate
March 1, 2022
Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who served four terms in the Senate from 1949 to 1973, spent more than half of her Senate tenure as the sole woman senator. Only the seventh woman to serve in the Senate and the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, Smith often confronted uncharted territory for women in the Senate. One such instance involved a special perk for senators—private "senators only" restroom facilities in the Capitol.
Categories: Women | U.S. Capitol Complex

Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, who served four terms in the Senate from 1949 to 1973, spent more than half of her Senate tenure as the sole woman senator. Only the seventh woman to serve in the Senate and the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress, Smith often confronted uncharted territory for women in the Senate. One such instance involved a special perk for senators—private "senators only" restroom facilities in the Capitol. Today, access to private restrooms near the Senate Chamber is a privilege that senators take for granted. Margaret Chase Smith did not enjoy that luxury. While her male colleagues used a “senators only” restroom just steps from the Senate Chamber, Smith was forced to dart down a flight of stairs and queue up with tourists to use the women’s public restroom. One wonders if visitors to the Capitol realized that the distinguished woman in the next stall was a U.S. senator. Reluctant to “rock the boat,” for years Smith quietly endured the inconvenience of sharing a public restroom, but eventually her annoyance at the injustice of the situation prompted her to petition Rules Committee Chairman Carl Hayden for a solution. Although Hayden could not provide a senators-only restroom for women near the Chamber, he gave her a key to a restroom near the Rotunda. “You won’t mind if the Capitol women employees share it with you, will you?” he asked. No, Smith responded, but added, “This is not equal treatment.” She noted that the men in the Senate didn’t share their restroom near the Chamber with other Capitol employees. Later that afternoon, Smith ran into Senator Owen Brewster, her senior colleague from Maine. He looked rather glum. “What’s wrong?” Smith inquired. Brewster held out a key and explained that it used to fit the lock on a restroom near his private office near the Rotunda. “The lock has been changed,” he complained. “I am looking . . . for the fellow who has priority over me.” Smith realized that Hayden had duped them both by changing a men's restroom for employees to a women's restroom. Smith sympathized with Brewster, a friend and colleague, but she relished the prospect of having access to a non-public restroom. She remained silent and went on her way.1 Smith continued to use this restroom until Chairman Hayden ultimately found a way to fulfill her request for a private, senators-only bathroom. He waived senatorial seniority rules for private offices in the Capitol, known as “hideaways,” in order to provide Smith with a small, windowless room that had been used as storage space. Hayden instructed the Senate sergeant at arms to install a private restroom. Although it was not directly outside the Senate Chamber, Smith finally enjoyed the convenience of her own private facility in the Capitol.2 In 1961 Smith was joined by another woman, Maurine Neuberger of Oregon, who was elected to a full term in 1960. The prospect of two women senators serving simultaneously prompted Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to provide them hideaway space in the newly constructed East Front extension of the Capitol, where they would share a semi-private restroom. Smith's new office, with windows, was larger and more ornate than her previous hideaway, but ultimately, she found the arrangement unsatisfactory. Not only was the restroom quite far from the Senate Chamber, but Smith also noted that Neuberger “had many people coming and going,” taking away any sense of privacy. When Neuberger left the Senate in 1967, Smith took advantage of the situation and had her neighbor’s door to the restroom sealed off.3 Smith retired in 1973, but the women senators who followed faced similar problems. For another two decades, during which the number of women senators never exceeded two, party leaders continued to make temporary arrangements to provide them with restroom facilities. Like Smith, some queued up to use the public restrooms. The year 1992, coined the “Year of the Woman” by the press, further changed the power structure of the Senate. In November an unprecedented number of women won election to the Senate, tripling their numbers from two to six. The growing presence of women could not be ignored. Before long, Majority Leader George Mitchell announced that women senators “would soon have a restroom of their own next to the men’s [restroom] just off the Senate floor.” “Plumbing and progress,” one female reporter quipped. From now on, no woman senator will “miss an important vote because she was downstairs in line with the girls from a 4-H club.”4 To accommodate the growing number of women senators in the 21st century, the Senate expanded the women's restroom near the Chamber. At long last, the women of the Senate enjoyed the "equal treatment" once sought by Margaret Chase Smith. It may seem like a small accomplishment, but in an institution long governed by men, it was a major achievement. The Senate was growing accustomed to women senators. Like Smith before them, women senators of the 21st century continue to challenge old assumptions and reshape their working environment. "This place was not built for us," lamented Mary Landrieu of Louisiana about the Capitol. The women of the Senate, like female pioneers in all professions, had to fight to bring physical as well as cultural change to the Capitol Hill environment. Looking ahead, Landrieu added: “I hope the young women never have to even think this way because we want them to know that the Supreme Court was built for them to serve, that spacecraft are built for them to be astronauts…. So maybe this next century, this 21st century, buildings and places of power will feel more comfortable." No doubt, Margaret Chase Smith would have agreed.5
1. Margaret Chase Smith, “Anecdotes: Rest Room for Women Senators,” Margaret Chase Smith Library. 2. Smith, “Anecdotes”; Jack Anderson, “Are Ladies Welcome in the House?” Boston Globe, April 23, 1967, C16. 3. Smith, “Anecdotes.” 4. Anna Quindlen, “A (Rest) Room of One's Own,” New York Times, November 11, 1992, A25. 5. "Mary L. Landrieu, U.S. Senator from Louisiana, 1997–2015," Oral History Interview, September 18, 2017, Senate Historical Office, Washington, DC.
Director Otto Preminger and Crew in the Senate Caucus Room, Russell Senate Office Building 202110 5Hollywood on the Hill: The Filming of "Advise and Consent"
October 5, 2021
In the fall of 1961, two worlds collided when a Hollywood film crew arrived at the U.S. Capitol to film Advise and Consent, a movie based on Washington correspondent Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a bitter Senate confirmation battle. Director Otto Preminger brought to the Hill an all-star cast, a crew of more than 150 people, and a lot of commotion.

In the fall of 1961, two worlds collided when a Hollywood film crew arrived at the U.S. Capitol to film Advise and Consent, a movie based on Washington correspondent Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a bitter Senate confirmation battle. Director Otto Preminger brought to the Hill an all-star cast, a crew of more than 150 people, and a lot of commotion. "There's more excitement on Capitol Hill about the soon-to-be filming of 'Advise and Consent' . . . than about the long anticipated adjournment [of Congress]," the Washington Post reported. "Nearly everyone . . . on Capitol Hill is getting into the picture one way or another.”1 The star-studded cast included Franchot Tone as the president, Lew Ayres as the vice president, Henry Fonda as the controversial secretary of state nominee (whose character lied about a youthful flirtation with communism), Walter Pidgeon as the Senate majority leader, and Charles Laughton as the president pro tempore, with other roles portrayed by Peter Lawford, Burgess Meredith, Gene Tierney, and George Grizzard. Adding to the public intrigue, and much speculation in Washington, was the fact that some of the characters in Drury's novel were based on real-life politicians. Grizzard’s character, for example, was loosely based upon Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. Actress Betty White made her feature film debut playing the film’s only female senator, a character based upon Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith.2 When Preminger and his film crew arrived on Capitol Hill, Washington socialites, Capitol Hill staff, members of the press, and even senators quickly found themselves a part of the action both on and off camera. “Scores of Senators' secretaries have been signed up to play themselves in the film and can hardly wait for the Senate to adjourn so they can begin their movie career,” noted one reporter. Preminger hired hundreds of extras, including socially prominent Washingtonians, to stage a key party scene filmed at the palatial Washington estate Tregaron. Members of the Washington press corps were hired to recreate the annual White House Correspondents Dinner at the Sheraton-Park Hotel. Former senator Guy Gillette of Iowa landed a role as a fictional senator, as did Arizona’s former senator, 87-year-old Henry Ashurst, who was cast as an elderly senator with a habit of dozing off during proceedings. Washington senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson played himself in the party scene.3 To ensure authenticity, the filmmakers brought in Allen Drury as technical advisor and consulted other experts, including Senate staff. Ruth Young Watt, chief clerk of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, recalled in an oral history interview being asked to come in on a Saturday morning to advise the movie crew on setting up the large Caucus Room in the Old Senate Office Building (now called the Russell Senate Office Building) for a hearing. When she arrived, she was informed that they planned to have her in the scene as a clerk working at the nomination hearing, but she declined. The film’s director instead cast her colleague Gladys Montier in the role.4 Preminger was permitted unprecedented access to many spaces throughout the Capitol complex. Filming took place in the Senate Press Gallery, the Capitol corridors outside the gallery of the Senate Chamber, the old Senate subway, and inside the Old Senate Office Building. Remaining off limits, however, was the Senate’s Chamber. A long-standing Senate rule prohibited filming in that historic space. Fortunately, Preminger had a remarkably accurate replica at his disposal. Back in the 1930s, when director Frank Capra was similarly denied permission to film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in the Senate Chamber, he constructed an impressive reproduction on a Hollywood sound stage. Preminger brought Capra's old set out of storage, updated it to reflect the modern Chamber, and used the Hollywood set to shoot all Chamber scenes.5 While many on Capitol Hill were star-struck and enthusiastic about the making of the film, there were others who complained about the chaotic atmosphere. As cameras and equipment blocked streets and crowded the corridors of the Old Senate Office Building, senators, staff, and reporters found it difficult to go about their daily business. "In comes a company, lock, stock, and booms,” one person complained, “invading the Capitol and acting for all as though this exalted ground is merely another prop on sound stage seven.”6 As filming continued, events around town brought together Hollywood and Washington celebrities. At a cocktail party in the Senate Caucus Room, actor Charles Laughton chatted enthusiastically with Mississippi senator John Stennis, whose voice he had been studying for his role as a southern senator. "It's getting hard to tell a senator from an actor—and vice versa,” lamented Josephine Ripley of the Christian Science Monitor. “Not only that, even more confusing is the problem of deciding whether a Washington party is a party after all, or just a movie set.”7 To capture the action of Hollywood on the Hill, Washington’s Evening Star newspaper sent artist Lily Spandorf to create on-the-spot drawings. By the time Spandorf completed her assignment for the paper, she had become so enthralled by the movie-making process that she continued sketching throughout the duration of the Washington shoot. She produced more than 80 illustrations, depicting both the filming and the relaxed hours of waiting between takes. Her distinctive pen and ink drawings show Preminger and the actors at work in Washington and around the Capitol. Spandorf’s work caught the director's attention, and at his request her images were displayed at the Washington premiere of the film. “It was exciting and I loved every bit of it," Spandorf recalled. The U.S. Senate Commission on Art later acquired Spandorf’s sketches as a permanent addition to the U.S. Senate Collection.8 On March 20, 1962, senators attended a preview screening of Preminger's Advise and Consent at Washington's Trans-Lux Theater. The film became a box office success, but senators offered predictably mixed reviews. "Many thought it was 'good theater,' but . . . they seemed to agree they were not quite looking into a mirror," the New York Times reported. "We're much more complicated than that," Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy complained. His fellow Minnesotan, Hubert Humphrey, added, "It was good theatre and good drama. If anyone wants a totally accurate reflection of the Senate, he can ask for a newsreel."9 Although it was a thrilling experience, the filming of Advise and Consent proved to be the last time a motion picture production crew was allowed largely uninhibited access to Senate spaces. The disruption of Senate work and other ongoing distractions prompted the Senate to refuse subsequent requests and eventually adopt rules that restrict filming and prohibit commercial use of Senate spaces unless authorized by resolution. Nevertheless, the movie captured a unique moment in time. Today, it serves as a mid-20th century time capsule of Senate history, illustrating through Preminger’s carefully constructed and edited video footage what life was like on Capitol Hill in the 1960s.10
1. Marie Smith, “Senators Won't Be in the Show, But Their Aides Will Be,” Washington Post, August 27, 1961, F5. 2. Robert C. Byrd, “The Senate in Literature and Film,” in The Senate, 1789–1989: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate, vol. 2, ed. Wendy Wolff, S. Doc. 100-20, 100th Cong., 1st sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1991), 487. 3. Smith, “Senators Won't Be in the Show, But Their Aides Will Be.”; Betty Beale, "Capitalites Play Themselves in Film," Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), September 22, 1961, C-4; Eugene Archer Washington, "Cinema Congress: Capitol Sites, Sounds Serve 'Advise' Film," Washington Post, October 1, 1961, X7. 4. Washington, "Cinema Congress"; “Ruth Young Watt, Chief Clerk, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 1948–1979," Oral History Interviews, July 19 to November 9, 1979, Senate Historical Office, Washington, D.C. 5. Byrd, The Senate, 1789–1989, 487. 6. "Capitol Stardust," Roll Call, September 20, 1961, 4. 7. Isabelle Shelton, “Celebrities Meet Celebrities: Women's National Press Club Is Host to Actors,” Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), September 13, 1961, C-1; Josephine Ripley, "The Senate Meets Itself: An Intimate Message From Washington," Christian Science Monitor, September 16, 1961, 14. 8. Amy Keller, "'Advise and Consent' Exhibit Features First and Only Hollywood Movie Allowed to Be Filmed in the Capitol," Roll Call, September 30, 1999, 35–36. 9. "60 Senators Caucus at 'Advise' Preview," New York Times, March 22, 1962, 42; "'Advise and Consent,'" New York Times, May 13, 1962, SM36. 10. Keller, "'Advise and Consent' Exhibit"; Mike Canning, “Through a Dome Darkly: The Capitol as Symbol, Touchstone, and Admonition in American Film,” The Capitol Dome 55, no. 2 (2018): 5–6.
Photo of Vice President Charles Curtis 202108 2Cooling Off the Senate
August 2, 2021
Washington, DC, has evolved over the last two centuries from a collection of wetlands, farms, and sparsely developed tracts of land into a world-class city with a diverse population, vibrant neighborhoods, numerous religious centers, and terrific restaurants, museums, theaters, and music venues—a fitting host for our nation’s government. There is one complaint lodged against Washington, DC, however, that has not changed since it was designated as the U.S. capital more than 200 years ago: the summer heat. How to handle Washington’s often stifling heat and humidity has been a perennial challenge for the U.S. Senate.

Washington, DC, has evolved over the last two centuries from a collection of wetlands, farms, and sparsely developed tracts of land into a world-class city with a diverse population, vibrant neighborhoods, numerous religious centers, and terrific restaurants, museums, theaters, and music venues—a fitting host for our nation’s government. There is one complaint lodged against Washington, DC, however, that has not changed since it was designated as the U.S. capital more than 200 years ago: the summer heat. How to handle Washington’s often stifling heat and humidity has been a perennial challenge for the U.S. Senate. Lawmakers of the 19th century were usually away from the capital during the hottest months of the year. Until adoption of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933, Congress convened in December, typically stayed in session for six or seven months, and then adjourned sine die in June or early July. Short second sessions convened in December and adjourned in March.1 Complaints from lawmakers in the 1840s about the ineffective heating and cooling of the Capitol led supervising engineer Captain Montgomery Meigs to focus on improved ventilation during construction of the new wings of the Capitol in the 1850s. The Senate wing, featuring a new windowless Chamber, opened in 1859, equipped with large steam-engine powered fans to draw in outside air and push it up through registers in the floor. This system proved to be insufficient. In their first summer session there, during June 1860, senators complained of the hot, stale air in the Chamber. If not for the pressing business of the Civil War, the Senate might have adopted proposals to knock down walls and extend the Chamber to the building’s outside perimeter to allow access to open windows. An 1865 report identified the glass ceiling of the Chamber as a major source of excessive heat. The stained glass allowed the sun’s rays to penetrate and heat the room, and in the evening the gas lights that illuminated the room pushed the temperature even higher. Making matters worse, the air sucked into the building tended to be dirty and dusty, as it was drawn from ground-level inlets on the Capitol terrace.2 In 1872 the Senate once again considered plans to rebuild the Chamber. Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was adamant about the need for a change. “Who ever heard of putting men or animals in a box inside a building,” he asked, “shut out on every hand from the outer air.” Nevertheless, the Senate only approved minor changes to the ventilation system. In 1889 a stone tower was built on the Capitol grounds to increase the volume of air brought into the Senate wing, relatively free of the dirt and dust brought in by ground-level intakes.3 These changes helped to purify the air but did little to keep the Chamber cool, which was especially problematic during years when sessions continued into August. In the late 19th century, for example, the mid-summer heat wreaked havoc on the Senate’s sartorial decorum. Newspaper reporters complained about the many lawmakers who went without a vest or jacket in the halls and cloakrooms. “Dignity has gone to the wind,” wrote one correspondent. A jacket was required on the Chamber floor, and some turned to linen suits to stay cool. Reporters observed that members of both the House and the Senate took great advantage of the marble bathtubs in the Capitol basement to refresh themselves.4 In 1890 the Capitol gained electricity, and with it came a new tool for fighting the summer heat. Electric fans were placed strategically in Capitol hallways, often blowing over blocks of ice to cool the air. Some suggested using giant blocks of ice to cool the Chamber itself, but an 1895 report on Chamber ventilation by engineer S. H. Woodbridge, commissioned by the Senate Rules Committee, pointed out that cooling 600,000 cubic feet of air from 95 to 80 degrees would require melting 1,150 pounds of ice. Woodbridge also reported that “the air so cooled would be more uncomfortable and dangerous than the hotter air of 95 degrees because of its excessive humidity.” To remedy that problem would require cooling a ton of ice per hour.5 The Senate again turned to new technology for a solution. In 1895 senators approved a major renovation of the Chamber’s ventilation system, installing new fans beneath the Chamber and a refrigerant machine that promised to deliver cooled air to both senators on the floor and visitors seated in the galleries. This system also proved to be inefficient, however, cooling the air by no more than five degrees. In 1910 the Bureau of Standards of the Department of Commerce and Labor developed a method for removing humidity from the air using a calcium chloride solution pumped through radiator pipes. In 1912 Congress appropriated funds to put this refrigerator system in place, but the plan was scrapped after the superintendent of the Capitol reported that installation required dramatic changes to the existing ventilation system with a cost dramatically higher than Congress anticipated.6 By the early 20th century, the Senate Chamber had gained the reputation of a death trap. Between 1916 and 1924, 22 incumbent senators died. When Senator Royal Copeland of New York, a practicing physician and former commissioner of the New York City Board of Health, took office in 1923, he blamed the poor quality of the Chamber’s air for the deaths. Copeland introduced a resolution directing Capitol officials to consult with leading architects to develop a plan to improve conditions in the Chamber. The Senate approved Copeland’s resolution in June 1924 as the increasingly warm late-spring days again called attention to this perennial problem. Another 12 senators died in office over the next four years.7 The firm of Carrere & Hastings, designers of the Senate Office Building that opened in 1909, revived the idea of removing several walls to extend the Chamber to the Capitol's northern exterior wall. In removing these interior walls, the Senate would have to sacrifice the Marble Room (a popular senators-only gathering spot), the President's Room, and the vice president's formal office, but it would provide windows to the outside world that senators had pined for since the Chamber opened in 1859. In April 1928 Copeland, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, succeeded in adding $500,000 to an appropriations bill for reconstructing the Senate Chamber. Copeland’s plan was not the only one under consideration. The House, in its version of the bill, proposed funding to allow the Architect of the Capitol to accept bids for “an improved and modern system . . . for conditioning the air” of the Hall of the House and the Senate Chamber. The final bill included both appropriations, but only one plan came to fruition. In 1928 the Carrier Corporation won the contract to install in the Chambers of the House and Senate a new technological innovation, which it called "manufactured weather." The system was installed in the Hall of the House in December 1928 and work began on the Senate Chamber early the following year. By August 1929, in the midst of an unusually long session, the Senate had its first air-conditioning system. With the new system in place, the Architect of the Capitol dropped the plan to redesign the Chamber.8 Between 1935 and 1939, air-conditioning was expanded to the rest of the Capitol and to the Senate Office Building. “Summer work,” a reporter commented, “is no longer the broiling death-dealing business for elder Congressmen that it used to be.” Air-conditioning in the Capitol and the office buildings meant, according to another reporter, that lawmakers were “privileged to wave their arms or pound their typewriters or evolve masterpieces of statecraft in relative comfort.”9 Yet even this air-conditioning system proved inadequate for the hottest days, due in part to the Chamber’s glass ceiling (which was finally removed in a 1949 renovation). Plus, no matter how well cooled the Capitol was, senators still had to contend with the city’s summertime climate outside the building. Few members of Congress lived in air-conditioned homes at this time, which made the air-cooled Senate Chamber a double-edged sword. As one writer opined, walking outside or into a non-air-conditioned building became “twice as oppressive.” Some members fled the city, such as a group of five senators who rented a bachelor pad in Bethesda, Maryland, during the summer of 1929 to escape the heat of the city while their wives were out of town.10 Still, the air-conditioning led to a much more comfortable environment in the Capitol, and it had arrived just in time. Adoption of the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution in 1933, which moved the start date of each congressional session to January, meant that long Senate sessions lasting well into summer were about to become much more common.
1. For session dates, see 2. William C. Allen, History of the U.S. Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Structures, and Politics (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2001), 361; Congressional Globe, 36th Cong. 1st sess., May 19, 1860, 2191. 3. Congressional Globe, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess., June 7, 1872, 4353, quoted in Allen, History of the U.S. Capitol, 364; Joint Select Committee on the Senate Chamber and the Hall of the House of Representatives, Improvement of the Halls of Congress, S. Rep. 38-128, 38th Cong. 2nd sess., February 20, 1865, 6; Glenn Brown, Glenn Brown's History of the United States Capitol (Washington, DC: U.S. Capitol Preservation Commission, 1994; originally published 1900), 419. 4. “Reed’s Giddy Suit,” Boston Globe, July 20, 1890, 24. 5. Senate Committee on Rules, Report on the Heating and Ventilation of the Senate Wing of the United States Capitol, Washington, DC, S. Rep. 54-713, 54th Cong., 1st sess., December 14, 1895, 15; Brown, Glenn Brown's History of the United States Capitol, 423; “Thermometer Reached 100 Degrees in the Shade,” Baltimore Sun, June 24, 1894, 2. 6. “Senate Chamber Transformed,” Hartford Courant, November 30, 1896, 6; “Try New Device to Cool Capitol,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 22, 1910, 14; “Refrigerated Air for Congressmen,” Boston Daily Globe, August 18, 1912, SM-5; Ventilation of the Senate Chamber, S. Doc. 62-1061, 62nd Cong, 3rd sess., February 3, 1913; Refrigerating Apparatus, United States Capitol, H. Doc. 62-1419, 62nd Cong., 3rd sess., February 24, 1913. 7. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Legislative Establishment Appropriation Bill, 1929: Hearing on H.R. 12875, 70th Cong., 1st sess., March 13, 1928, 1. 8. Senate Committee on Appropriations, Legislative Appropriation Bill, 1929, S. Rep. 70-857, 70th Cong., 1st sess., April 21, 1928; An Act Making appropriations for the Legislative Branch of the Government for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1929, Public Law 70-386, 70th Cong, 1st sess., May 14, 1928, 45 Stat. 526; Joseph M. Siry, Air-Conditioning in Modern American Architecture, 1890–1970 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021), 84–91; Allen, History of the U.S. Capitol, 401–3. 9. Siry, Air-Conditioning in Modern American Architecture, 91–92; “Congressmen Go To Work in Capitol to Keep Cool,” Boston Globe, July 9, 1939, C3. 10. “Five Senators Take House for Summer Place,” Washington Post, June 3, 1929, 7.