Immediately off the Capitol Rotunda is the chamber that the House of Representatives occupied when they first got their own space. As you may recall, in the sprint to finish both the White House and some kind of Legislative/Judicial facility by January 1st, 1800, there was only time to complete a single space on what is now the Senate side of the Capitol. Like a kid leaving for college, I suspect that the Congressmen breathed a sigh of relief to escape from sharing quarters with the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress. Construction of the new House Chamber (which is of course now known as the Old House Chamber) began in 1803 and lasted until 1807, when the House moved in. Sadly, that occupation didn’t last long since the British arrived in 1814 to burn the White House and the Capitol. Rep. Louise Slaughter, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Rules, occupies a historic office in the Capitol through which the British rode their horses into the building. The hoof prints that damaged the floor have been carefully preserved, and she proudly pointed out these details to a fellow Fellow during a placement interview in September.
No surprise plot twist here. As we all know, the Americans turned the tide and won the war of 1812, and with great resilience and stubbornness, the government stayed in the District of Columbia and met wherever they could until the Capitol had been reconstructed and they were able to reoccupy their space. Thus it was in this House chamber that the inaugurations of Presidents James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Millard Fillmore took place. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette became the first foreign citizen to address Congress in this space as well.
The room itself is most impressive since it is designed as a Roman amphitheater with marble columns and elaborate draperies. Unfortunately the acoustics of the chamber turned out to be less than ideal. Sound bounced off the ceiling producing echoes, and unless you were right up front, it was very difficult to hear. They even experimented with reversing the seating so that the “front” of the chamber faced in the other direction, but that was unsuccessful.
The acoustics do, however, create one of the more charming stories that the guides like to tell. Commemorating some of the Members of Congress from that time, in the current space there are half a dozen brass plaques embedded in the floor. These show the positions of the desks of men who either subsequently became President or in the case of John Quincy Adams, became Representatives after their Executive Branch leadership. As the story was told to me, John Quincy Adams was a bit of a devious sort, and he used the acoustics to his advantage. He was elected to the House after he finished being President, and he played the role of weary politician to the hilt. He would pretend to go to sleep at his desk, but from that spot, the acoustics were perfect to hear what was happening at the leadership desks on the other side of the chamber. A vote would be called, he would rouse, and his colleagues could never understand how Adams could have been “asleep” on the other side of the chamber and have such detailed knowledge of their discussions. The eavesdropping effect can be replicated with one person standing on the floor plaque for Adams and the other person across the chamber approximately at the Wyoming statue I think where suddenly you can speak in normal tones and hear each other quite clearly. One extremely honest guide pointed out that the chamber had been extensively renovated after the House moved out, including the installation of the marble floor, all of which would have extensively altered the acoustics. I appreciated the honesty, but it’s still a fun story (and a very strange effect!)
Of all men, John Quincy Adams may have had the strongest ties to the old House chamber. It was in this room that he was elected President after no candidate received a majority of the votes. He also had a long and distinguished post-Presidential career in the House. Lastly, it was in this room that he suffered a fatal stroke in 1848; he was immediately taken to an adjacent chamber where he passed away two days later.
Eventually either the acoustics became unbearable or the constantly enlarging House outgrew its space, but in 1857, they moved into their new and present chamber in the House wing of the Capitol. After the House moved out, there were a number of suggestions for using the vacant chamber, and eventually it was agreed that it could become an art gallery. Each state was allowed to send two statues to the Capitol with the single stipulation that the statues must be made either of marble or of bronze. (Hawaii sent a rather unusual statue of Father Damian, but because it was made out of wood, it had to be shipped back, bronzed, and then returned before it was installed.) These statues began to collect in what became known as National Statuary Hall, but there were two issues that developed rapidly. The first was that the chamber became a forest of statues. The second was that the Architect of the Capitol had concerns that the floor was not built to stand up to so much weight. Thus after the passage of two separate resolutions by the House, the statues are now dispersed throughout the Capitol and visitors’ center complex. There are a few pieces that were commissioned specifically for the room; a statue of Rosa Parks is the most recent addition.
One of my favorite insider stories focuses on the lamps attached to the huge marble columns around the chamber. The lamps were originally constructed to burn whale oil, so each unit had its own reservoir of fuel. When electricity was developed, the quandary arose of how to electrify the lamps without marring the look of the columns with electrical wiring. The solution was a type of electrified tape to provide the power, but then the tape was painted to match the stone pattern of the columns. I like ducking behind the columns to see if I can spot the well-concealed tape.
In addition to being a regular stop on the Capitol tour, the space is sometimes used for fancy events. On Inauguration day after the outdoor events were done and my Beloved Husband and I had retreated to a warmer location, we continued to watch the TV coverage of the day. I quickly recognized that the luncheon for the President and all of the dignitaries was held in National Statuary Hall. A modern sound system probably helped everyone to hear the speeches, but I had to wonder who might be sitting in John Quincy Adams’ spot and what interesting information he or she might have heard.