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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.

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, D.C., 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, D.C., 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, D.C., 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, D.C., 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, D.C.: 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, D.C.: 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, D.C., 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.