Speaker's Lobby and Members' Retiring Room
The creation of the airy, stately space known as the Speaker’s Lobby and Members' Retiring Room was motivated not by a need for mingling room, but for ventilation. The open rooms just outside the House Chamber that are now the Speaker's Lobby and the Members' Retiring Room were initially divided in three, housing a Post Office and individual offices for the Speaker and the Sergeant at Arms. 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 space with an east-facing balcony. With all the doors thrown open, a breeze could penetrate the House Chamber.
Designing for a Retiring Room
New sofas and chairs dotted the big room, providing a retreat for Members to chat privately, read the news, or, in earlier days, enjoy a cigar, all out of the reach of lobbyists and visitors. Although the walls were gone, many decorative elements remained, maintaining the original 1857 look of the space. Nothing escaped advances in technology, though. The sconces cast in the shape of cherubs that originally lit the room with gas fires stayed in place, but were wired for electricity in 1903, when a number of updates took place.
Flooring surfaces both before and after the mid–19th century construction tended toward simple stone pavers or black and white marble. The Minton used in these rooms, though, were the signature look for the period. These colorful encaustic tiles—for which the floral, abstract, and figurative patterns are inlaid rather than glazed to create a more durable surface—are arranged to form elaborate decorative patterns, resembling a glossy rendition of an oriental carpet.
The ceilings are mix of 1857 and 1903 decorative elements. The center of the Retiring Room—originally the Speaker’s Office—has its original ceiling, the most sculptural in the Capitol. Gilded pendants in the shape of acorns and pinecones project downward, framed with gilded cast iron frames. The end rooms have vaulted ceilings, with decorations crafted in 1903. The gilded background has a checkerboard pattern. Eagles with banners, floral garlands, and fasces decorate the main surfaces. Lunettes on the east and west sides have classically draped women with symbolic attributes and shields bearing stars and stripes.
Although the profusion of patterns and colors may appear excessive to modern tastes, an 1881 account deemed the space “one of the most beautiful . . . in the Capitol. Its ornaments are not as glaring as those of the President’s and Vice President’s rooms, while its mirrors . . . velvet carpets and chairs, give it a look of home comfort.”