Art and Artifacts
Once the Old Hall of the House was rebuilt after the 1814 fire, new furniture and art also needed consideration. Under the direction of Speaker Henry Clay, an advertisement was placed in the leading newspapers of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York in search of a cabinetmaker who could supply "chairs and tables . . . made out of the best St. Domingo mahogany, well-seasoned, strong, neat and plain; without any superfluous ornament.”
The Constantine Desk and Chair
Congress chose a New York cabinetmaker named Thomas Constantine. A Constantine desk and chair in the House Collection serve as examples of the simple, well-made mahogany furniture that the Members used in the Old Hall of the House from 1819 until furniture was made for the new Chamber in 1857.
The desk in the House Collection was used by one-term Representative Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. Benton went on to serve 30 years in the Senate. He sat in this single-drawer version of the Constantine desk, in the front row, during the 33rd Congress (1853–1855). It has a bowed hexagonal shape to allow for the curved rows of seating in the Old Hall. All of the Members’ desks had unusual shapes like this example, but others had two or three drawers. Benton’s desk was sold in an 1858 auction—along with all the other outdated Capitol furniture—for $6.25. It was acquired by the American Antiquarian Society in 1886, who returned the desk to the Capitol as a gift in 1981.
The matching chair has a similar no-nonsense design. In addition to being made of fine mahogany without “superfluous ornament,” the original order for the chairs specified that they were to be straight-backed, with splay feet in back, turned legs in front, on brass castors, with “the bottoms and backs of the chairs . . . stuffed with hair and covered with the best hair cloth.” Horse hair stuffing and upholstery were the material of choice by the 18th century. Both durable and shiny, the upholstery looked attractive and stood up to hard use.
Classically Styled Sculptures
The Greek theater–inspired design of the room lent itself to the choice of two classically themed sculptures in the Hall of the House.
The allegorical group Liberty and the Eagle by Enrico Causici, perched high above the rostrum, serves as a snapshot of symbols incorporated into the arts during the federal period. Two features—a female figure of Liberty, here holding a scroll that represents the Constitution, and the national bird, the bald eagle—gained traction as decorative features and remain part of the American visual vocabulary. Snakes were traditionally a symbol of wisdom, and the one depicted in this group, wrapped around a fluted, bundle-like column representing unity, made for a complex visual reference, which eventually faded from the national symbolic lexicon. White marble was difficult to obtain in the early 19th century, so the original plaster model was deemed sufficient for the long term, and it remains in place today.
A smaller block of marble, though, was obtained for The Car of History clock, above the north door of the Old Hall. Carved by Carlo Franzoni in 1819, the sculpture depicts Clio, the Greek Muse of history, in a winged chariot with a clock face on its wheel. The chariot rides through the heavens—indicated by the domed base, carved with signs of the zodiac—whilst Clio makes note of the historical events unfolding in the Chamber beneath her. A profile of George Washington appears on the front of the vehicle, facing out toward the room, to make clear the national origin of the Muse’s inspiration.