Old Senate Chamber, US Capitol, Washington, DC

The Old Senate Chamber at the U. S. Capitol, around 1902, during its time as the courtroom of the Supreme Court. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The United States Capitol was first used in 1800, the same year that the government moved to Washington D.C. from its temporary location in Philadelphia. Aside from a short interruption in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when the British burned much of Washington, the building has remained in use ever since, although it has undergone significant changes and expansions since then.

In its original form, the Capitol consisted of two wings, connected by a central rotunda that was topped by a low wooden dome. The south wing was occupied by the House of Representatives, which met in the chamber that is now known as Statuary Hall. Here on the north side of the building was the Senate wing, which had a chamber that was somewhat smaller than the House’s, given the smaller number of senators.

As with the House chamber, this Senate chamber was rebuilt after the War of 1812, and the work was completed in 1819. It was designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and it is semicircular in shape, reflecting the appearance of an ancient amphitheater. Other classically-inspired features include the marble Ionic columns, which are similar to the Corinthian ones found in the House chamber. The room was built with two visitor galleries, with one along the curved wall behind the senators, and the other above the front of the room, as shown in this scene.

This chamber was the home of the Senate for the next 40 years, from 1819 to 1859. It was the scene of many important events in the years leading up to the Civil War, and for much of this time the Senate was dominated by the Great Triumvirate, consisting of John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Representing the three major regions of the country at the time, these men were three of the most powerful American politicians of the Antebellum period, and they were involved in many debates in this room.

However, perhaps the single most noteworthy incident in this room occurred on May 22, 1856, when abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was nearly caned to death at his desk by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks. The attack was prompted by a speech that Sumner had given here two days before, in which he harshly criticized slavery in general and South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler in particular. Brooks, who was Butler’s cousin, then waited until Sumner was nearly alone here in the chamber, and began bludgeoning him with his cane while pinned Sumner under his desk.

The attack rendered Sumner unconscious, but Brooks continued to beat him until several other congressmen intervened. By this point, he had suffered serious trauma to his head and spinal cord, and it took three years before he had recovered enough to resume his duties in the Senate. In the meantime, the attack helped to further polarize the already divided nation, with southerners praising Brooks while northerners condemned his actions as an attack on free speech itself. Within less than five years, South Carolina would become the first state to secede from the Union, and it would begin the Civil War with its bombardment of Fort Sumter.

Even as the nation was dividing, though, the Capitol itself was growing. Westward expansion had led to the admission of many new states over the years, and the original congressional chambers were becoming crowded. This was particularly evident here in the Senate chamber, with the number of senators increasing by nearly 50 percent between 1819 and 1858, from 44 to 64. As a result, by the early 1850s work had begun on a massive expansion of the Capitol, creating two new, much larger wings beyond the original ones. The new House chamber was completed in 1857, followed by the new Senate chamber in 1859.

Both of these new chambers are still used today, and the old ones have since been repurposed. The former House chamber became the National Statuary Hall, and starting in 1860 the Senate chamber was occupied by the U. S. Supreme Court, which had previously met in the room directly underneath it. It would go on to be used as the courtroom of the Supreme Court for the next 75 years, before its current building opened across the street from the Capitol in 1935.

During this time, the Supreme Court heard a number of important cases here, perhaps the most notable of which was the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which ruled that segregation was legal under the “separate but equal” doctrine. This was followed by the Lochner era of the court’s history, from 1897 to 1937, when the court took a politically conservative approach to economic regulations. Using the due process clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the court struck down many state and federal laws, including those that limited weekly working hours, prohibited child labor, and established minimum wages.

Many prominent Supreme Court justices served on the bench here in this room. When the court first moved here in 1860, the chief justice was Roger B. Taney, who had served in that capacity since 1836. He remained on the court until his death in 1864, making him the second-longest tenured chief justice in history, but he is probably best known as the author of the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Other notable justices who served here included John Marshall Harlan, the sole dissenting vote in the Plessy case; Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who coined the phrase “shouting fire in a theatre” in a 1919 court opinion; Charles Evans Hughes, the chief justice who frequently clashed with Franklin D. Roosevelt over the president’s New Deal policies; and former President William Howard Taft, who served as chief justice from 1921 to 1930.

It was during Taft’s time as chief justice that he began lobbying for a separate building for the Supreme Court. This would not only relieve the overcrowding here in its Capitol quarters, but it would also reflect the court’s role as a separate, independent branch of the federal government. After Taft’s retirement and death in 1930, his successor Hughes continued these efforts, and two years later construction began on the present-day Supreme Court building. The site was directly across First Street NE from the Capitol, on the spot where the Old Capitol Prison had previously stood. The building was completed in 1935, and the court subsequently vacated this space here in the old Senate chamber.

The first photo was taken around 1902, and it shows the room’s appearance when it was used by the Supreme Court. At the time, the layout of the room bore little resemblance to its time as the Senate chamber. The senators had taken their desks with them when they moved in 1859, and the vice president’s dais at the front of the room was replaced by a long bench for the justices, as shown in the first photo. Probably the only object left from the Senate in that photo is the gilded wood eagle, located in the center above the chief justice’s chair. It was installed here as early as 1838, and it originally sat atop a wood shield. After the Supreme Court moved into here, the shield was placed above the door on the outside of the chamber, although the eagle remained at its perch the front.

After the Supreme Court left in 1935, this room was used intermittently for meetings, committee hearings, and even by the Senate itself on several different occasions during the mid-20th century, while its current chamber was undergoing renovations. Then, in 1976 the room underwent a major restoration in order to return it to its Senate-era appearance. This included the installation of 64 replica mahogany desks, which are arranged in four semicircular rows, reflecting the arrangement of the room in 1859.

Several original furnishings were returned to the room, including the vice president’s desk at the front, although the table in front of it is a reproduction. The eagle and shield were also reunited as part of this restoration, and they once again hang at the front of the room. Another original object here is the portrait of George Washington, visible directly above the eagle in the present-day photo. It was painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1823, and the Senate purchased it in 1832 and hung it here above the gallery. The painting was removed when the Senate left in 1859, but it was returned here in 1976.

Today, the room remains in its restored appearance, and it is periodically used by the Senate for special events, such as mock swearing-in ceremonies. Photography is not allowed in the Senate chamber, where the senators typically take their oaths of office, so the mock ceremonies here allow the press to take photographs of the occasion. Aside from these types of events, the room is also open for some public tours, although visitor access is limited to just the central aisle, as shown in the present-day photo.

The Apotheosis of Washington, US Capitol, Washington, DC

The Apotheosis of Washington, seen looking up from the center of the U. S. Capitol rotunda, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The 288-foot dome on the U. S. Capitol is one of the iconic symbols of both Washington, DC and the federal government. As discussed in an earlier post, though, this was not the original dome on the building. The first was completed in 1826, and it was made of wood that was covered in copper. However, as the Capitol was expanded in the mid-19th century, this low dome became disproportionately small compared to the rest of the building, and a new one was constructed starting in 1855. It took nearly a decade to finish, though, and the incomplete dome featured prominently in Civil War-era photographs of the Capitol, inadvertently serving as a metaphor for the unfinished work of uniting the country.

The structure of the dome was ultimately completed in 1863. It is made of cast iron, and it consists of both an interior and exterior dome. At the top of the lower interior dome is a 65-foot-wide oculus, which is shown here in this scene. Above the oculus, and directly beneath the exterior dome, is a nearly hemispherical canopy where, starting in 1865, artist Constantino Brumidi painted The Apotheosis of Washington, a 4,664-square-foot fresco showing George Washington ascending into heaven. It was painted over the course of 11 months, and it was completed in 1866, marking the formal end of the Capitol’s reconstruction.

The fresco features George Washington seated between the goddess Victoria on his left, and the goddess Liberty on his right. Above these figures, a group of 13 maidens form a circle, representing the 13 original colonies. Directly above Washington, several of them hold a banner that reads “E Pluribus Unum.” Around the outer part of the fresco is a second circle, with figures arranged into six scenes, each of which represents a particular attribute of the country. Starting at the scene beneath Washington and moving clockwise, they are: War, Science, Marine, Commerce, Mechanics, and Agriculture.

It is difficult to see from this angle, but there is actually a balcony with a railing that encircles the oculus, below the fresco. The railing is 152 feet above the floor of the rotunda, and the center of the fresco is another 28 feet further up. There are stairs that reach up to this balcony, although access is extremely limited. From here, another set of stairs climbs above the fresco, up to the top of the exterior dome to the base of the Statue of Freedom.

Today, more than 150 years after the dome was completed, The Apotheosis of Washington continues to adorn the top of the rotunda. The fresco underwent significant cleaning and restoration in 1987-1988, in order to remove years of accumulated grime, and more recently the dome itself was the subject of a major restoration from 2014 to 2016. The project involved repainting the dome, along with repairing structural and water damage, and it was completed about two years before the second photo was taken. As a result, this scene now looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken more than a century ago.

Great Hall, Library of Congress, Washington, DC (2)

The Great Hall at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, around 1897. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The Great Hall at the Library of Congress was previously featured in an earlier blog post, although these photos here show a different angle, facing east toward the entrance to the Main Reading Room. As with the rest of the building, the Great Hall features ornate Beaux-Arts architecture, and it is decorated with symbolic carvings and paintings.

Starting at the bottom of this scene are three arches, which lead to the Main Reading Room. The central arch was designed by sculptor Olin L. Warner, and it features two male figures: one young, representing the search for knowledge, and the other old, representing wisdom and reflection. Above these figures is a tablet inscribed with the names of the people involved in the construction of this building, and the tablet is flanked by a pair of eagles.

On the second floor, the ceiling is supported by pairs of Corinthian columns, connected by more arches. Above each pair of columns in the foreground is a small tablet with the name of a prominent author. From left to right in this scene, they are Cervantes, Hugo, Scott, and Cooper. Further in the distance is another row of columns, and above these are painted figures of women, personifying the different genres of literature. In this scene, from left to right, they are Lyrica, Tragedy, Comedy, and History, and they were all painted by artist George Randolph Barse Jr. Beyond these, at the top of the stairs in the center of the scene, is a mosaic of Minerva, representing learning and wisdom. At 15.5 feet in height, the mosaic is more than double life size, and it was the work of artist Elihu Vedder.

The first photo was taken around 1897, the same year that this building opened. More than 120 years later, hardly anything has changed in this scene, and the Library of Congress remains one of the capital’s great architectural masterpieces, in addition to its role as one of the world’s largest libraries. Most of its collections are only accessible through the Main Reading Room, which requires a Reader Identification Card to enter. However, some of its most important items are on display here in the public parts of the building, including its copy of the Gutenberg Bible, which the library acquired in 1930. It is one of only five complete Gutenberg Bibles in the United States, and one of only 21 worldwide, and it is currently on display here in the Great Hall, just beyond the arch in the lower right corner of the present-day photo.

Main Reading Room, Library of Congress, Washington, DC

The Main Reading Room at the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, around 1904. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

As discussed in an earlier post on the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building, the Library of Congress is one of the largest libraries in the world, with over 167 million items located in four different buildings in and around Washington, D.C. The original building, which is now named the Thomas Jefferson Building, is here on Capitol Hill, directly opposite the Capitol and adjacent to the Supreme Court Building. The building was completed in 1897, and today it stands as both an important research library and also a significant architectural landmark, with a highly ornate Beaux-Arts design on both the interior and exterior.

The centerpiece of the building is the Main Reading Room, shown here in these two photos. The room is octagonal, with desks arranged in concentric circles and the circulation desk in the center of the room. It is 125 feet in height from the floor to the top of the dome, and the room is surrounded by eight large columns that support the arches beneath the dome.

Above each of these columns is a 10 1/2-foot-tall plaster statue, with each representing a different branch of knowledge. These eight allegorical female figures are Art, Commerce, History, Law, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, and Science. Just below the tops of the columns is a balustrade that encircles the room, featuring sixteen bronze statues of men who were recognized for their accomplishments in one of these eight fields. They are arranged so that the statues on each side of every column correspond to the representative figure atop the column.

In this particular view, the two allegorical statues are Philosophy on the left, created by sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt; and Art on the right, by Francois M. L. Tonetti-Dozzi. The bronze statues on either side of Philosophy are Plato on the left and Bacon on the right, both by John J. Boyle. On the left side of Art is Michelangelo by Paul Wayland Bartlett, and on the right is Beethoven by Theodore Baur.

The first photo was taken around 1904, less than a decade after this building opened. Since then, the library has significantly expanded, with three additional buildings to house its growing collections, but the Thomas Jefferson Building has remained essentially the same. There have been hardly any changes here in the Main Reading Room in more than a century, and the room remains one of the most impressive interior spaces in Washington.

Today, the Main Reading Room is open only to those who have a Reader Identification Card, which are available for free to researchers over the age of 16. These researchers can only use the materials here in the reading room, though, as only high-ranking government officials are permitted to check out books. Other parts of the building, including the Great Hall, are open to the public, and visitors can also view the Main Reading Room from the gallery where these two photos were taken.

Lafayette Statue, Washington, DC

The Major General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette statue in Lafayette Square, opposite the White House in Washington, D.C., around 1900-1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The statue in 2018:

Lafayette Square has been parkland since Washington, D.C. was laid out in the 1790s, but it did not receive its current name until 1824, when it was dedicated in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette. It is located directly to the north of the White House, on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, and during the 19th century the other streets around the square became one of Washington’s most desirable residential areas.

The first statue in the square was, ironically, not of Lafayette. Instead, it was an equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, which was dedicated in 1853 in the center of the park. This statue of Lafayette, located in the southeast corner of the square, was not added until 1891. Officially titled Major General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette, the 36-foot statue was the work of French sculptor Alexandre Falguière. Lafayette stands atop the pedestal, but the monument also includes figures of four other French military leaders of the American Revolution: Comte d’Estaing and Comte de Grasse on the right, and Comte de Rochambeau and the Chevalier Duportail on the left side. In the center, looking up at Lafayette, is a female figure representing America.

The first photo was taken within about 10 to 15 years after the Lafayette statue was dedicated. Around this time, it was joined by three more statues, with one on each of the other three corners of the square. Like the Lafayette statue, these all honored prominent foreign leaders of the American Revolution, starting with Rochambeau in 1902 and followed by statues of Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben in 1910.

In more than a century since the first photo was taken, the area surrounding Lafayette Square has undergone significant changes. Many early 19th century townhouses are still standing, but they are no longer used as private residences, and they are now joined by more recent government buildings. However, the square itself is not much different from its early 20th century appearance, and all five statues still stand here, including the Lafayette one that is shown here. These statues are now part of the Lafayette Square Historic District, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, on April 12, 1943. Image taken by Ann Rosener, courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2018:

The Jefferson Memorial is, along with the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, one of the three major monuments to prominent United States presidents here in Washington, D.C. It was built on the south side of the Tidal Basin, nearly in line with the White House and the Washington Monument, and its construction was championed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who admired Jefferson.

The design of the memorial was the work of noted architect John Russell Pope, who was also responsible for the National Archives building and the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. Like these other two buildings, Pope’s designs for the Jefferson Memorial drew heavily from classical architecture, and it features a large columned portico on the front. It bears a particularly strong resemblance to the Pantheon, with its domed rotunda behind the portico.

However, Pope never lived to see the project completed; he died in 1937, two years before the cornerstone was laid. The construction took four years, but it was completed in 1943, in the midst of World War II. The memorial was formally dedicated on April 13, 1943, just one day after the first photo was taken. This was the 200th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth, and the ceremony was attended by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who gave the dedication address.

Today, more than 75 years after the first photo was taken, essentially nothing has changed in this scene except for the size of the trees on either side of the memorial. During this time, the only significant change to the memorial has been the 19-foot statue of Jefferson in the center of the rotunda. This statue, which is not visible from this particular angle, was delayed because of wartime shortages of bronze, but it was installed in 1947, and it has stood here ever since, facing across the Tidal Basin in the direction of the White House.