Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Notes from Underground, Part II: The Rayburn Subway

As architects planned the first House and Senate Office Buildings in the early 1900s, newspapers crowed about one exciting amenity. Senators and Representatives would hop on underground trains and ride from their new buildings to the Capitol. But when the dust settled after construction, only the Senate had a subway line. Representatives had to wait—and walk—until the Rayburn House Office Building opened in 1965.

Take the A Train

The House’s first office building, now known as the Cannon Building, was constructed shortly after the turn of the 20th century. The House Office Building provided office space for Members, most of whom previously worked from their desks in the overcrowded House Chamber. The Senate Office Building, now known as the Russell Building, appeared nearly identical to the House Office Building, and both were constructed at the same time. The new offices sat only a few blocks from the Capitol. However, even that short distance meant that Senators and Representatives would need to speed back and forth between their offices and the Capitol for votes.

Senate Subway Train/tiles/non-collection/6/6-16-rayburn_subway_Senate-Monorail_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress The Senate’s first subway train, a monorail, opened in 1909. During cherry blossom season, tourists often hitched a ride.

Early plans for the House and Senate Office Buildings included tunnels from the new buildings to the Capitol and subway trains for both. Newspapers reported fanciful designs, including looping tracks, freight and passenger trains, separate tunnels for expresses and locals, and cars designed like roller coasters and scenic railroads, but with nicer upholstery. “All aboard for the ‘Roll-call Limited!’ Train leaves in two minutes!” the Baltimore American, in 1904, imagined a conductor would call from the swanky new subway.

Resolution to Study a Transportation System in the House/tiles/non-collection/6/6-16-rayburn_subway_H_Res_461_81st_Cong_1950-1_nara.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In 1950, Representative Herman Eberharter asked colleagues to consider a transportation system, such as a moving walkway, between the House Office Buildings and the Capitol.

Off the Rails

Despite early dreams of a luxurious railroad mirrored for the House and Senate, when the office buildings opened, both included a tunnel to the Capitol yet only the Senate’s had a train.

Reporters gave various reasons for the asymmetry. With nearly 400 Representatives in the 60th Congress, “a whole flock of cars would be required to transport them,” the San Francisco Chronicle ventured. Some suggested that Representatives were, overall, younger than Senators, and presumably more amenable to walking.

However, the explanation was more about economics than exercise. The House Building Commission, which consisted of Speaker Joe Cannon, William Hepburn of Iowa, and William Richardson of Alabama, oversaw choices about the office building. Known at the time for frugality, the commission opted to save money on construction.

Mind the Gap

Although the House Building Commission considered a train unnecessary, other Members felt pangs of envy. Senators used their subway as anticipated (to quickly hop a ride to their chamber for votes) but also for unintended practices (such as going for a spin to cool off in the heat of summer). Reporters spotted jealous Representatives heading over to the Senate just to take a ride.

Over the next few decades, Members periodically suggested installing a railway between the Capitol and the two House Office Buildings, the second of which opened in 1933. In a 1937 article entitled “House Envies Senate Its Subway,” the New York Times reported about a monorail under consideration to connect the two House Office Buildings with the Capitol. The monorail was never constructed. Thirteen years later, Pennsylvania Representative Herman Eberharter introduced a resolution to study a conveyor belt, or moving walkway, between the House Office Buildings and the Capitol. Around the same time, Members also considered a “belt line,” a subway loop that would have connected the House, Senate, Capitol, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress by rail. But neither the conveyor belt nor the belt line left the station.

Construction of the Rayburn Tunnel/tiles/non-collection/6/6-16-rayburn_subway_PA2019_12_0008.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Taken from the roof of the brand-new Rayburn House Office Building, this photograph shows the tunnel to the Capitol under construction.

On Board

With its third office building, the Rayburn House Office Building, the House’s transportation to the Capitol finally got on track. Completed in 1965, the Rayburn Building provided office space, a parking garage, gym, and a two-track railway to the Capitol. A photograph shows the tunnel, still under construction, taken from the roof of the new building.

On January 15, 1965, a crane lifted a gray train car from a flatbed truck and carefully maneuvered it into the tunnel. Maryland Representative Clarence Long sat in the 30-foot train as workers lowered it. The first person to ride the Rayburn subway—although vertically, rather than horizontally—Long called it “probably the most unusual subway car ride” he’d ever taken.

The Baltimore Sun admired the subway’s “elegant” 24 seats and high windows, which kept Members’ hair from blowing around. In the waiting area, chairs manufactured by Designcraft Metal Manufacturing Corporation showcased mid-1960s design, with boxy orange and blue vinyl cushions poised over skinny chrome-plated steel legs.

Rayburn Subway Chairs/tiles/non-collection/6/6-16-rayburn_subway_2002_038_001_002-1.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About the blue chair; about the orange chair
Starting in 1965, two trains shuttled Members between the Capitol and the Rayburn House Office Building. Representatives and staff sat in these chairs while waiting for the next ride.

Metro Alert

With the Rayburn subway, Members finally had the ability to hop on a train when the legislative signal bells rang and zoom to the Capitol just in time to vote. But only if they could locate it.

Representatives quickly found the Rayburn Building, shaped like a “modified H,” to be a labyrinth. Peter Frelinghuysen of New Jersey admitted to getting lost twice in one day while attempting to find the subway. “Each time I was trying to reach the House floor for a vote,” he explained. “Despite a few signs, the elevators I happened to use did not take me to the subway leading to the Capitol, even though I went to the right floor.” Lost in the Rayburn garage, Frelinghuysen somehow ended up outside in a snowstorm. “To compound my embarrassment I happened to be showing one of my constituents the new building—and how to reach the Capitol!”

After decades of jealousy, whimsical proposals, and lost Representatives wandering the Rayburn garage, Members of Congress could board their own train to the Capitol at last.

For more about Capitol Hill tunnels, read Notes from Underground, Part I: The Book Tunnel.

Filmstrip of Bud Shuster and Jack Schenendorf Riding the Rayburn Subway/tiles/non-collection/6/6-16-rayburn_subway_Shuster_Transportation_Rayburnsubway_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In these images from 1999, Bud Shuster, at right, chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, rides the Rayburn subway to the Capitol with staff member Jack Schenendorf.

Sources: H. Res. 461, 81st Cong. (1950); Atlanta Constitution, 21 March 1965; Baltimore American, 18 July 1904; Baltimore Sun, 16 January 1965; Boston Globe, 28 December 1930; Christian Science Monitor, 11 February 1918, 16 January 1975; Emporia Gazette, 8 May 1905; Evening Star, 3 December 1911; Los Angeles Times, 16 January 1965; New York Times, 25 April 1937, 12 April 1965; San Francisco Chronicle, 16 November 1919; Washington Post, 18 August 1908, 6 April 1950, 16 January 1965; “Cannon House Office Building,” Architect of the Capitol, accessed 15 April 2020, https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/cannon-house-office-building; “Capitol Subway System,” Architect of the Capitol, accessed 26 March 2020, https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/capitol-subway-system; “Longworth House Office Building,” Architect of the Capitol, accessed 20 April 2020, https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/longworth-house-office-building; “Rayburn House Office Building,” Architect of the Capitol, accessed 26 March 2020, https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/rayburn-house-office-building; “Russell Senate Office Building,” Architect of the Capitol, accessed 15 April 2020, https://www.aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/russell-senate-office-building.