Ordinarily, the U.S. Capitol in springtime bustles with visiting school groups and vacationing families from around the world. For visitors who cannot travel to Washington this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the History, Art, and Archives website has a number of resources that visitors can use to learn about some of the Capitol’s statues, landmarks, and art, as well as stories about the people, places, artifacts, and events that make Congress unique. Take a deep dive into both the public spaces that are normally part of an in-person tour, as well as some historic rooms which, because they are working spaces, are not usually accessible to the visiting public.
During major moments in American history, the center of the United States Capitol can feel like the center of the nation. When lawmakers, Presidents, and other national figures lie in state or honor, the catafalque which bears their remains often rests in the center of the Rotunda during periods of national mourning. The Rotunda—the grand midpoint between the House and Senate chambers—hosts festive occasions as well, including important anniversaries, bill signings, Congressional Gold Medal ceremonies, and even tea parties. And then there’s the occasional event that happens to be both celebratory and mournful. In 1882, for instance, a week-long fair was held in the Rotunda to raise money for the memorial statue of assassinated President James Garfield. Today that memorial stands on the Capitol’s West Lawn. The imposing and iconic Capitol Dome, while largely closed off today, was once accessible to tourists via the Rotunda.
The grand space now known as Statuary Hall served as the Hall of the House from 1819 to 1857. For the first 119 years of Congress’ history, Members had little to no office space. They worked primarily from their desks on the House Floor, which meant desk selection became a serious issue. Bad acoustics, poor ventilation, and the ever-expanding number of Representatives led to the creation of the modern chamber, which Members occupied in 1857. Left without purpose, the Old Hall rapidly became an unkempt storage space for everything from artwork to sandwich wrappers. Seven years later, Vermont Representative Justin Morrill proposed that the Old House Chamber display statues of luminaries from each state, formally creating National Statuary Hall. Alongside the statues on the black and white checkered floor of Statuary Hall are bronze plaques that mark the desk locations of U.S. Presidents who served in the House prior to 1857, including Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams.
An otherwise inconspicuous doorway in Statuary Hall leads to a suite away from the usual tour route. Once used as the Speaker’s Office, this narrow set of rooms has also been occupied by House committees and the Clerk of the House. John Quincy Adams, the only President to serve in the House of Representatives following his time in the White House, was carried into this suite when he collapsed at his desk in 1848; he died on the sofa still located in the sitting room. In the mid-twentieth century, Representatives Edith Green of Oregon and Frances Bolton of Ohio led the effort to acquire a space reserved for women Representatives in the Capitol, and since 1962 the suite has belonged to the Congresswomen of the House. The space was renamed for Representative Lindy Claiborne Boggs of Louisiana in 1991, in honor of her long association with the House.
Another historic room off the main tour route became famous as both a hideaway for House Speakers and a place for “communicating views and lubricating the legislative machinery.” The brainchild of Congressional leaders Nicholas Longworth, an Ohio Republican, and John Nance Garner, a Texas Democrat, the drinking club once known as “the Bureau of Education” occupied many offices before finding a home in the 1930s. Originally the meeting place of the Committee on Territories, it became a space where select Members could gather and learn a thing or two while enjoying a choice beverage. The room’s most famous resident, Speaker Sam Rayburn, had the seal of Texas painted on one of its walls and outfitted the room comfortably to facilitate the more informal work required for passing legislation. Today, the portrait of abolitionist Ohio Congressman Joshua Giddings adorns this working space alongside the many reminders of its previous Texan occupants.
This airy space outside the House Chamber was initially split into three rooms, with offices for the Speaker, Sergeant at Arms, and the House post office. In 1879, though, Members’ complaints about the lack of fresh air in the House Chamber prompted a remodeling. Walls were removed, opening up the three offices into a contiguous retiring room with an east-facing balcony. With all the doors thrown open, a breeze could penetrate the House Chamber. Today, this exclusive space continues to provide Members a place to congregate outside the chamber, under the watchful eyes of Speakers past.
Before C-SPAN started broadcasting the daily proceedings of the House of Representatives on live television, the only way to witness debate and votes as they happened was to be present in the House galleries which ring the Chamber on the second floor and are accessed with a gallery pass. The galleries immediately above and behind the Speaker’s Rostrum have traditionally been set aside for the press while the rest of the seating has been for the public. For much of Congress’s history, the visitor’s galleries were divided by race and gender.
The modern Chamber where Members of Congress debate and vote has been the legislative center of the House of Representatives since 1857. The space has changed significantly over the last 163 years. Before the first House Office Building opened in 1908, each Member had a desk on the floor. With large new office space, however, the desks were removed in 1913 and replaced with rows of theater-style seating. At the heart of the House Chamber is the Speaker’s rostrum—once made of marble, and now walnut—where the presiding officer oversees the daily process of legislation and debate. Behind the rostrum hangs the American flag, flanked on either side by fasces—an ancient Roman symbol of unity—as well as portraits of George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette. Congress gradually adopted new technology—including electronic voting in 1973—to make the legislative process more efficient and transparent. Votes are tallied electronically on screens on the wall above the rostrum so that Members and visitors can track individual votes as they happen. The House Chamber is also where both Representatives and Senators gather to witness speeches by dignitaries and foreign leaders as well as the annual State of the Union address.
Interested readers can find many more posts about the Capitol campus and its rich history in our featured blogs. Digital versions of our recent exhibits across the Capitol are also available through our site.Follow @USHouseHistory