Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

#ThenAndNow: Photographs from the House Collection

May is National Photo Month. We celebrated by spotlighting four photographs from the House Collection, creating and tweeting #ThenAndNow images around the Capitol. Looking at historic photographs in new ways calls attention to changes in the landscape and built environment.

1. Then
In 1941, Capitol Hill picked Bonnie Patton to be its queen during the Miss Capitol Hill contest. Sitting on a ledge outside the Capitol with their legs daintily crossed, 12 young women participated in the pageant. The queen was chosen by the Little Congress (a congressional staff club). Bonnie Patton was the daughter of Representative Nat Patton of Texas. She competed for the title with other daughters and secretaries of Members of Congress. The Washington Post wrote that the winner was “the toast of the Little Congress conclave in New York.”

To create #ThenAndNow images, we made reproductions so that the original photographs remained safe in archival storage. Copies in hand, we set out to the Capitol, and found the same ledge the Capitol Hill Queen contestants used. Instead of the Little Congress and the Miss Capitol Hill contest, we found the quiet marble staircase of the West Front. In the new image, a few contemporary visitors appeared to be pointing at the queen.

2. Then
One of the most striking House Collection photographs shows the world’s then-fastest tank parked outside the Capitol in 1931. Representatives John G. Cooper, Randolph Perkins, and Edith Nourse Rogers posed on the Army vehicle by the Capitol’s East Front. Modern and metallic, the tank could reach 90 mph on flat terrain and 45 mph uphill. After a demonstration of the tank’s technology, the Members went for a ride.

While snapping our #ThenAndNow version, we encountered Representatives, visitors, and Capitol Police—but no tanks. The East Front was extended 33 feet in 1962, which created perspective challenges for the new image. Despite the differences, the curved line of the curb remained the same.

3. Then
A Congressional Horseshoe Tournament took place on May 30, 1930, at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. In the sunny spring days before the game, Members practiced their horseshoe tossing on the lawn. Representatives Robert Green, Edward Browne, and Melville Clyde Kelly tried to perfect their throw in front of the Capitol, as seen in one House Collection photo. Practice did not make perfect—all three Congressmen were bested by Fred G. Johnson. Representative Johnson took home “a set of silver-plated horseshoes in a leather case,” along with the glory of being called “Champion Horseshoe Pitcher of Congress.”

The most dramatic difference between the original photo and the new image is the Capitol dome. Currently undergoing a substantial restoration project, the dome looks very different than it did in 1930. Scaffolding and a protective sheet enclose and protect the structure during its renewal. Visible atop the dome is the Statue of Freedom, completed in 1863.

4. Then
During a spring afternoon in 1938, House Members Sam Rayburn, Bertrand Snell, and Speaker William Bankhead hit the lawn for a pick-up game of baseball. “Members of the House of Representatives adjourned to the Capitol lawn on April 21st, after Congress closed up for the weekend, to catch up on their spring baseball training,” the photo caption jokes. House Speaker Bankhead was at bat, Majority Leader Rayburn was catcher, and Minority Leader Snell called the game as umpire.

An important difference between the two images is below the surface. The 580,000 square foot Capitol Visitor Center, which opened in 2008, is entirely underground. Only the new paving stones hint at the changes underfoot. In addition to the subterranean transformations, the columns have also been replaced. Because the dainty columns appeared too small to support the weight of the large iron dome, they were removed and replaced in 1958 during the East Front extension. The original columns now stand at the United States National Arboretum.

Sources: Washington Post, March 27, 1941.