A space dedicated to receiving honored guests, a staging spot for invitees addressing joint meetings and a genteel setting for photo ops wasn’t part of the Speaker’s suite of offices until the mid-1930s, after the Longworth House Office Building opened. Increased space, more frequent visits by foreign dignitaries, and the demand for news photos spurred development of what is today known as the Speaker’s Ceremonial Office.
The current room serving as the Speaker’s Ceremonial Office, just across the hall from the Speaker’s Lobby, was part of the 1857 Capitol extension. Its previous residents included the Committee on Appropriations (1889–2010), the Sergeant at Arms (1880–1889), and the Clerk (1867–1879). With a painted vaulted ceiling and colorful, patterned original floor tiles, the room reflects the Victorian taste en vogue when it was first built. The space is furnished to suit this style with pieces from the House Collection.
The enormous walnut secretaire, which has been associated with the Speaker’s offices since the cabinet arrived in the Capitol in 1870, is one of the pieces that reflects the vintage of the office. The combination bookshelf/pull-down secretary desk is more than 11 feet tall, covered in symbolic carvings, including a flying eagle at its crown and a female personification of “America” holding a Liberty cap on its lower cabinet doors.
A Walter desk—made for a Member’s use in the House Chamber when it first opened in 1857—is also part of the décor and likewise reflects the room’s original aesthetic. Like the secretaire, it is covered in carvings. Patriotic motifs dominate: stars, oak branches and acorns, and a globe with a banner inscribed “America” appear on the back alone. Although the Chamber was once full of these desks, only a few remain in the Capitol as part of the House Collection.
Rarer still is Constantino Brumidi’s first sketch for the Capitol, a proposal for the fresco design in the House Committee on Agriculture, on the first floor of the Capitol. Depicting George Washington’s favorite Roman historical tale, the sketch shows General Cincinnatus being recalled from retirement to civic duty. The Agriculture room’s Cincinnatus fresco was the first work in Brumidi’s decades-long decoration of the Capitol.
The bust of George Washington hails from the 20th century. Much like the Walter desks, these busts were once everywhere you turned in the House. In honor of George Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932, Representative Sol Bloom had plaster copies made of the portrait sculpture by late-18th century British artist Joseph Nollekins. All Members received them to display in their offices. This is one of only a few remaining examples in excellent condition.
The furniture and decorative objects chosen for the Speaker’s Ceremonial Office give its visitors a sense of the material history of the House, the Speakership, and the spaces they have lived in for the past two centuries.
Sources: William C. Allen, History of the United States Capitol (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2001); Barbara Wolanin, Constantino Brumidi: Artist of the Capitol (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1998)Follow @USHouseHistory