Art and Artifacts
The art and artifacts related to the Members’ Dining Room—both a busy restaurant and a historic space in the Capitol—run the gamut from personal souvenirs and dishware to large-scale works of art. Viewed together, these objects help us understand the grand as well as the quotidian aspects of the room’s institutional history.
The Bennett Room Mirror
The large mirror and console table in the Bennett dining room came to the Capitol in 1858, intended for the Speaker’s Office. At some point after 1879, when the Speaker’s Office relocated down the hall, the set was moved to the Members’ Dining Room.
Ebulliently decorated in the rococo revival style of the mid-19th century, the formidable gilded mirror frame is crowned with a dense tangle of carved acanthus leaves, exotic flowers, and grapevines, all surrounding a shield with stars and stripes topped with a bald eagle. Axe-headed fasces form the vertical sides of the frame. The mirror rests on a marble-topped console table, with similarly dense gilded botanical decoration, terminating in hefty claw feet.
A cheeky 1932 cartoon from Fortune magazine illustrating the Members' Dining Room remarked that the mirror, "in spite of its fasces, is pre-Mussolini," a comment on the extensive changes in visual symbolic vocabulary which had taken place between the Victorian era and the inter-war years in the U.S. Once a common symbol of unity and authority, modern times had freighted the Roman symbol with new baggage.
Brumidi's Fresco in the Dining Room
One of the most remarkable features of the main dining room is Constantino Brumidi’s 1857 fresco painting, Cornwallis Sues for Cessation of Hostilities, which depicts George Washington during this decisive point in the Revolutionary War. Brumidi painted many frescoes throughout the Capitol, but this work—initially painted on a wall in the House Chamber in 1857—had an unusual journey to its current home.
Anti-immigrant sentiment among Members created a stir about the presence of the work in the Chamber from the outset. Many objected to the employment of the Italian-born artist—rather than a native-born citizen—in the decoration of the Capitol, and further criticized his style as “flashy,” “snobbish,” and “gingerbread and tinsel.” Despite protests, the fresco stayed in place, although it was covered with a false wall years later in 1947.
In 1972, funds were appropriated for the delicate operation of removing the fresco and relocating it to a more hospitable space. Separating the one-inch layer of century-old plaster on which the fresco was painted from the brick wall behind it was a tricky task, but was completed with minimal damage. Once successfully detached and reinforced, the plaster slab was lowered by crane one floor outside the building, down the steps of the Capitol, and re-installed in the Members’ Dining Room, where it can be seen today. This new location was chosen at the request of several Congressmen, who felt that the fresco deserved more exposure. It is now a much-admired feature of the Members’ Dining Room.
Dining with Fine China
In the 20th century, evidence appears of the Dining Room’s social role in the House. Visitors often kept mementos of their meals. On one end of the spectrum, newspapers reported the cost of larceny from the Dining Room. Linens and custom cutlery and china, all decorated with an image of the Capitol, found their way out the door at an alarming rate, enough to become a budget concern. The vignette of the Capitol with a ribbon reading “House of Representatives” on this mid-20th century bowl from the Members’ Dining Room made this piece appealing to light-fingered visitors. It was also an innovation for the manufacturer, the Syracuse China Company. They were the first china company in the United States to have an in-house lithographer, which made for efficient production of custom decorated dishware.
Menus as Memorabilia
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