The tiny but grand old historic Senate chamber in the U.S. Capitol has been reopened to visitors for the first time since September 11.
The ornate chamber — with 64 mahogany lift-top desks for the 32 states in 1859 — has been locked for nearly two years because of security concerns. The main entrance to the room is just steps away from the current Senate chamber and across the hall of the majority leader’s office, occupied by Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee.
The crescent-shaped room is the scene of some of the greatest speeches in Senate history. It is where all the debate leading up to the Civil War was carried out, including the caning of a senator by a House member. And it is where one of the most valued portraits of George Washington hangs.
“It is the most historical room in the whole building,” Associate Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said. “When you walk in there, you can really feel all that history.”
Officials are comfortable with last week’s reopening of the room now that security has been stiffened throughout the Capitol complex. Still, tourists will only be allowed to quickly file through the room when the Senate is not in session, such as many Monday mornings and Friday afternoons. Two Capitol Police officers will be posted outside the room.
When the Senate first occupied the room in 1810, it was a body unsure of itself governing a fledgling nation of mostly wilderness.
“Charles Dickens came in to observe the Senate and all he saw were men standing around, chewing tobacco and spitting on the floor,” said Albert Caswell, a tour guide. “He said if he’d dropped his wallet, he wouldn’t have even bothered to pick it up.”
Across the Rotunda in what is today Statuary Hall, the House of Representatives met and was considered the primary governing body. But in time, the Senate took up the great issues of the age in its tiny chamber, and by 1859 had transformed from “a small advisory council” into “the primary forum for the great national debates,” according to a pamphlet on the room. This became known as the Senate’s “Golden Age.”
Above the throne-like vice president’s desk is the first reporters’ gallery, a pronounced and unusual symbol in those days of open government answerable to the people. Over the press gallery hangs an 1823 portrait of George Washington by Rembrandt Peale, which the Senate purchased for $2,000.
The chamber became a social gathering place, so a visitors’ gallery was built at the back of the chamber. “It was the only show in town,” Mr. Caswell said.
A red velvet “modesty drape” was installed along the railing of the gallery to shield women visitors wearing dresses. “They had to protect their virtue,” the tour guide added.
No debate dominated the Senate in those times like slavery. It was there that great orators such as Sens. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts cobbled together compromises after compromises that held the Union together for four decades before the Civil War finally broke out.
In 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina stormed into the chamber and denounced Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts for an antislavery speech he had delivered in which he personally criticized Mr. Brooks’ uncle. Wielding a cane, Mr. Brooks then bludgeoned Mr. Sumner on the Senate floor.
Three years later when the larger, current Senate chamber was completed, leaders from the North and South marched down the short hallway into their new home.
“It was the last time they marched in a procession together,” Mr. Ritchie said. “Shortly after that, it all fell apart.”
The old chamber then became the home of the Supreme Court, which met there from 1860 until the current Supreme Court building was completed in 1935.
It is used only rarely now for official purposes. One of the last such times was a joint meeting by Senate Democrats and Republicans in 1999 to figure out how to proceed with charges against former President Clinton during his impeachment trial.
“It’s an important room today,” Mr. Ritchie said. “Senators go in there and they tend to take the long view of things.”
During the impeachment proceedings, “They went in deeply divided,” Mr. Ritchie said, “and came out united, voting 100 to nothing on the procedures.”