The new House Chamber was not only meant to create more room and provide better ventilation. The whole endeavor of the Capitol extension was also motivated by a desire for an updated space with fashionable interior design, reflective of the growing size and stature of the United States.
The Walter Desk: 1857–1873
Furnishings for the Chamber, designed by the Architect of the Capitol Thomas U. Walter embody the idea of the growing nation. Made in the Renaissance revival mode, a historical revival style fashionable in the Victorian period, the 262 oak desks and chairs were both sturdy and ornate. The profusion of decorative details was not just an expression of the period’s prevalent taste for flamboyant embellishment. The concept of Manifest Destiny—the nation’s ambition to expand westward across the continent—is illustrated on the desk fronts, which are decorated with a carved globe with “America” emblazoned across it. A shield with stars and stripes is carved above the globe, on the top rail, emphasizing the Union.
The matching chairs have a similar decorative treatment. Along the top rail, the stars-and-stripes shield is flanked by an oak branch and a laurel branch. Traditional symbols of longevity and victory, respectively, they symbolically enforce the idea of the Union spreading across North America and beyond, an ideology that underpinned hope for the future of the nation during the sectional crisis and the impending Civil War.
The Klipper Desk: 1873–1901
As space became increasingly scarce, the Chamber’s furnishings became increasingly practical. The 1870 census added 42 Members to the House, so the desks needed to be more compact. Also, the elaborate and symbolically adorned Walter furniture fell short on practicality—from the beginning, Members complained about the inability to turn around in the chairs. So, in 1873, the House ordered 304 oak desks from Klipper, Webster and Company and matching, swiveling cane chairs from W.B. Moses Co. The fabric-surface desks opened up for storage, like the previous desks. However, simplicity prevailed in the ornamentation. The architecturally detailed legs terminated in scroll feet, and the lower shelf was enclosed by a decoratively perforated panel, but they were otherwise unadorned.
The Segment Form Desk and Beyond: 1901–1950
The Klipper desks remained in the Chamber through the turn of the 20th century, with purchases of additional pieces in the same style to accommodate the increasing number of Members accompanying the growing population of the United States. 1901, though, saw the arrival of the final desk style—the segment form desk. As the number of Members passed 350, space between seats was an unaffordable luxury. The segment form desks fitted together, forming a continuous surface, in curved rows. Ten years later, when even more Members joined the House, desks left the Chamber for good, and they were replaced by rows of conjoined, upholstered seats, similar to the seating in the Chamber today. The desks were no longer as necessary—as of 1908, each Member had a work space in the House Office Building just across the street.