I had started to write the “Beneath the Scenes” post and realized that I had far too many stories to tell for my own attention span, much less than of my faithful readers. Perhaps that is an indication of just how much exploring I have done or else it demonstrates the power of the Senate staff badge to see so much of the Capitol. At any rate, this companion post focuses on some of the gems above ground in the Capitol that are not accessible to the general public.
The first floor of the Capitol on the Senate side is decorated in the grand style of Constantino Brumidi, the artist who also designed and painted the mural high around the Rotunda. The Brumidi Corridors, as they are known, have been damaged by age, smoke, and well-intentioned overpainting, and they are currently undergoing restoration. I enjoy wandering through and looking for one of the test areas where they have removed the upper layers of paint to reveal the original colors. The newly restored walls and ceilings are much brighter and less yellow and brown than the surfaces that still await attention.
In the back corridor, the Appropriations Committee is one of the few committees that have space in the Capitol; the majority of the committees meet in one of the Senate office buildings. From the corridor, there is a window that allows visitors to peek into the committee’s meeting room, which since it was also designed by Brumidi, is the most opulently decorated committee room I’ve seen. The room originally housed the Committee on the Navy, which explains the abundant use of blue and the various marine motifs on the walls.
Above each door in the corridors, Brumidi envisioned a scene representing an important person or event in the country’s history. Ben Franklin is depicted above the room originally used for the Standing Committee on Post Roads and Post Offices for example. Anticipating that there might be future events that should be added, Brumidi left a number of these lunettes blank to be filled in later. At this point two scenes have been painted in. A picture of the Apollo 11 moon landing on one side of the hall faces a portrait of the astronauts lost in the explosion of the shuttle Challenger.
Even the floors of the elaborate hallways are a riot of differently patterned Minton tiles. For the 1976 restoration, the Architect of the Capitol wanted to replace a number of the worn tiles, and he eventually found the company that had purchased the company that made the original tiles in Stoke on Trent, England. The new company was initially reluctant to revive the old process, but when they learned that both the Smithsonian and the Houses of Parliament were also interested in purchasing tiles, they decided that there was a pound to be made, and they cooperated. There are still some worn areas since the tiles were expensive to replace, but much of the floors are in excellent condition.
I recently had the opportunity to have lunch with my friend who was a Fellow from many years ago and thank him for nudging me into organizing the Smithsonian behind the scenes tours. I have no doubt that each class of Fellows takes advantage of numerous opportunities to explore and discover, but in my biased opinion, my class has been particularly active at seeking out opportunities and sharing them. Because I’ve organized a number of the outings, I also get included in the outings organized by other fellows, and we share what we’ve learned.
Most recently, I was able to share my recent discovery of the underground room where Washington’s remains were originally intended to be located. In exchange, my fellow Fellow shared the fruits of her explorations of the Press areas for the Senate. In her own office, the Fellow had befriended their press person and asked, “So what’s cool?” The press person took the Fellow around and the Fellow was enchanted. What is routine for the press teams is entirely novel for Fellows (and most staff.)
In the Senate chamber, the gallery immediately behind the Vice President’s seat belongs to the Press. Across the hall from that gallery there is additional space devoted to the Press Corps since often they need to submit stories based on what has just happened on the floor. There are desks for the print reporters and broadcast booths for the TV and radio reporters with each booth dedicated to a particular network. Even though it was recess, several reporters were in their booths, and we found one woman who seemed rather pleased to see some fellow humans. She was rather petite, and we asked if she had gotten her job based on her ability to fit into the booth, which was the size of a small broom closet. We learned from her that there is a definite camaraderie among the members of the Press, especially those who spend a lot of time covering the Senate. They will even help each other track down Senators who are being elusive about providing a quote.
Our next stop was the room where Senators hold Press conferences. The room was somewhat in disarray since recess is an opportunity to do major projects, but we still were able to take pictures of each other at the podium. My tall fellow Fellow laughed the first time that she stood at the microphones. The reason that Senators look reasonably tall during their interviews is that the podium is relatively short. There is still a box provided for the diminutive Senator Mikulski to stand on, but even I look rather tall and distinguished up front!