“The best ride in town may be on the Capitol Hill elevators,” the Washington Post reported in 1971. The story of elevators on the House side of the Capitol—involving money, death, and machinery—is a tale about the ups and downs of power.
Elevators have soared in the Capitol since the late 1800s. The first lift was placed in the Senate wing in 1873, but the House side didn’t raise the question of an elevator until 1880. As soon as the House started to consider a lift, the powerful House Appropriations Committee chair, Tennessee Representative John DeWitt Clinton Atkins, deemed it an unnecessary expenditure. Because the Capitol wasn’t designed for elevators, it would take significant structural changes and expense to retrofit the building.
Apart from the Appropriations chairman, all other committee members firmly upheld the necessity of the contraption. In fact, the Chicago Daily Tribune noted that some Members “have refused to serve on Committees upon the upper floors, for the reason that they are too infirm physically to continually climb the marble stairs.” Just when it seemed that the likelihood of a House lift had plummeted, the Tribune sneered that Atkins “will not need one, as he was defeated for the next Congress, but the House certainly needs an elevator as a means of conducting its public business.” As soon as Atkins was out as Appropriations chair in 1881, the committee assented to the elevator.
In short order, multiple elevators were installed around the Capitol and a strict etiquette emerged. Operators guaranteed that the cars not only arrived at the correct floor and the doors opened, but also ensured that Representatives took precedence over the public, senior Members over junior Members, Senators over Representatives, and the President over all. Representatives and Senators rang a specific number of times to indicate their position. When they called, operators had to make sure the elevator zoomed to the correct floor, even if a member of the public was already waiting. The public could wait as long as a half hour for a turn. And on Senate elevators, Representatives had to sit tight. In 1902, Kansas Representative Charles Curtis called for an elevator on the Senate side of the Capitol. But Senators, who took priority, kept calling it away. The Congressman’s temper elevated, and he snapped at the operator: “If you were over on the House side, I would have you fired in five minutes.”
When the doors opened, operators and other passengers quickly had to determine if a rider had priority, making split-second decisions based on appearance. Mistaken identity in the elevator gave clues to long-ingrained perceptions about who wielded clout in the Capitol. Many years after the first elevator was installed, Congresswoman Shirley Pettis chatted with a committee chairman during one ride in the 1970s. As they exited, the Congressman asked the California Representative, “So whose secretary did you say you were?”
Elevators reflected the hierarchy of power in the Capitol by showing who got recognition and preference, but they also showed the power of machines over people—sometimes with fatal results. Riders regularly threw cigars, cigarettes, and trash down the shaft through grills. In 1900, a new elevator in the House wing suddenly stopped between two floors, leaving passengers to climb down to the basement by ladder. The repair crew found a small pocketknife wedged between the safety clamp and the steel rail, which abruptly stopped the car’s descent. In 1906, a woman was killed when she tried to exit a moving elevator in the Senate wing.
The most gasp-inducing Capitol elevator near-miss occurred in 1933. In the basement, a dozen Representatives crowded into an elevator operated by Mario Pizzaro. It climbed to the second floor, where Wisconsin Representative James Frear started to get out. But the elevator suddenly dropped five feet, threatening to crush him. Pizzaro reacted instantaneously, grabbing Frear and pulling him back to safety. The operator maintained that overloading was the cause, rather than a mechanical issue.
If elevators exposed the structure of power in the Capitol, these norms occasionally turned upside down. In 1914, a woman strode over to the elevator, ignoring the sign that read, “Exclusively for Members and the Press.” Flummoxed, the operator put out a hand to stop her. “But,” he whimpered, “the rules—” However, Dr. Mary Walker, women’s rights advocate, abolitionist, and Civil War surgeon, would not be held back. “Young man,” she replied, fixing him with a glare, “I’m about as near a United States senator as you want to see.” Stepping in, she commanded, “Up, young man!” and the elevator immediately lifted her to the galleries, leaving the rules below.
Sources: Chicago Daily Tribune, December 11, 1880 and January 10, 1933; Courier-Journal, March 30, 1906; Hartford Courant, January 10, 1933; Washington Post, December 11, 1880, December 25, 1900, April 16, 1902, December 21, 1906, March 6, 1914, June 20, 1971, and March 3, 2010; Report of the Architect of the Capitol, 74th Cong., 1st sess., 1935, S. Doc. 42, and 74th Cong., 2nd Session, 1936, S. Doc. 142.Follow @USHouseHistory