Old Hall of the House: 1819–1857

Interior of the House of Representatives, Washington/tiles/non-collection/2/2005_041_000-3_cropped.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This 1830s print of the Old House Chamber illustrates its elaborate decoration, including the windowed dome, green marble columns, red drapes, and semi-circular rows facing the Speaker's rostrum.

Design and Structure

The Old Hall of the House, where Congress met from 1819 to 1857, was redesigned by Benjamin Henry Latrobe after the first hall was destroyed in the fire set by British troops in 1814. Charles Bulfinch completed the work, between 1815 and 1819. It is an early example of Greek revival architecture in America. Latrobe adopted the concept of an ancient amphitheater for the new legislative chamber. The coffered wooden ceiling was topped by a lantern—a windowed cupola topping a dome—to admit light. Most building materials were chosen primarily based on availability and transport considerations, but the green variegated Potomac marble used for the columns was both available and added to the beauty of the space. Members sat at desks arranged in tiered, semi-circular rows, facing the Speaker’s rostrum. The Speaker’s rostrum, a tiered wooden structure, occupied the flat side of the semi-circular room. A red draped baldacchino—traditionally, a ceremonial canopy signifying the authority of the person stationed beneath it, often over an altar or throne—hung over the rostrum. Coordinating red drapes hung between the columns that wrap around the room, to both dampen sound and provide contrast to the color of the marble columns.

Problems with Acoustics

The room, however, had one infamous flaw. The shape worked well to project sound when it emanated from where a stage would be placed in an amphitheater, but in the House, voices rang and echoed from all parts of the Chamber as Members seated throughout the room addressed the House. Every noise reverberated, and conversations occurring across the room could be heard with alarming clarity, hampering the orderly conduct of business. The draperies hung in the colonnade enriched the décor, but failed to solve the sound problems. Desks were temporarily rearranged, moving the Speaker’s rostrum to the rounded end of the room, but to no avail. This, along with the need for additional space, helped motivate the construction of a new Chamber in the 1857 Capital renovation. Later additions, including a marble floor (1864–1865) and a fireproof ceiling (1901), eliminated most echoes, but the strangest acoustical effects can still be demonstrated today.

Exciting Scene in the House of Representatives, Washington, on the Announcement of N.P. Banks, As Speaker/tiles/non-collection/2/2009_129_6.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Exciting events such as Nathaniel Banks' election as Speaker of the House, depicted in this newspaper from 1856, created a cacophony in the Old House Chamber.

An Historic Painting of the House of Representatives

Samuel F.B. Morse’s 1822 painting, The House of Representatives, depicts Members gathered for an evening session lit by an oil-burning chandelier. Completed nearly two decades before the invention of photography, this painting is regarded as the most reliable and detailed view of the old Chamber. In 1976, it helped guide the re-creation of the chandelier, sconces, and draperies for the partial restoration of the old Chamber.

The House of Representatives, Samuel F.B. Morse, oil on canvas, 1822/tiles/non-collection/s/sh_design_of_the_hall_house_of_representatives_morse_nga.xml Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. The House of Representatives, Samuel F.B. Morse, oil on canvas, 1822
Morse shows an unusually peaceful moment in the Chamber, emphasizing the harmonious, classical architecture and the soft golden light of the chandelier. The artist used portrait studies for each individual shown in the work, including 6 Supreme Court justices, 68 legislators, President James Monroe, and the Pawnee chief. This mixture of the branches of government and a Native American leader furthers Morse’s optimistic vision of national harmony. After Morse tried unsuccessfully to sell the painting to Congress for $1,000, he abandoned his pursuit of an artistic career and focused on his interest in science. Twenty-two years later, in 1844, Morse demonstrated his new invention, the telegraph, at the Capitol.

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