Lessons learned from the old House Chamber led to a more deliberate approach to public space. A reorganized, more spacious gallery level completed the new Chamber, accommodating both practical concerns and social restrictions.
A Seating Structure for the Public
In the Old Hall of the House, women frequently visited to watch Congress at work. 19th century customs sometimes forced them to crowd onto sofas on the House floor, though, in order to maintain a socially acceptable distance from the unknown men in the galleries. To remedy this problem, the new Chamber included a designated Ladies’ Gallery, where visiting women and their escorts could attend sessions. Space for press and the diplomatic corps was also set aside in the new space.
During the Civil War and Reconstruction, previously barred African Americans could freely attend sessions. By 1865, the year the 13th Amendment passed, desegregated galleries had been a matter of fact in the House for over a year. After Reconstruction ended, however, unofficial segregation on the basis of both gender and race was practiced in the gallery from the 1870s into the 20th century.
Events of national interest led to further regulation of admittance to the galleries, and the advent of gallery passes. The contested 1876 presidential election between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel Tilden resulted in enormous crowds converging on the Chamber to witness the electoral counts the following year. To ease the chaos, gallery passes were introduced to control entry. The experiment was such a success that by the following year, every day was a pass day.
Decorating the Gallery
Much like the art on the floor level of the Chamber, plans for decorating the gallery happened in fits and starts. The space included niches for busts and sculptures from the beginning, but they remained unoccupied for 78 years. By 1935, the House acquired several portrait busts, donated in honor of an assortment of prominent Members. That year, six of these were moved into the gallery niches. Speaker Champ Clark, Democratic Leader Oscar Underwood, Speaker Nicholas Longworth, and Republican Leader James Mann adorned the Press Gallery, above the Speaker’s rostrum. Democratic Leader Claude Kitchin and Republican Appropriations Chairman Martin Madden were installed in the opposite side of the Chamber, in the Visitor’s Gallery. In 1943, these six were joined by a bust of Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed. The busts had just a brief time in the Chamber, though—the niches were removed in the upcoming renovation.