Seats Minus Desks.
Plan Once Adopted by House of Representatives
First Tried in Year 1859
Project Abandoned by Vote of Members the Following Year
Memorable Scenes Recalled
Sessions Necessarily Held Outside the Capitol Building
Following the British Invasion.

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, February 4, 1911 [p. 7]

The pending measures affecting the numerical strength of the House of Representatives, as also the proposed change in the manner of seating the membership, recall much interesting history of the lower house. Although that body is now in but is second permanent hall, some sessions have been held elsewhere, and while in the first "permanent" chamber, now Statuary Hall, it had a series of experiences which has seldom fallen to the lot of a deliberative body. For here, under vaulted dome, flat ceiling of glass and plaster and canvas covering, such men as Henry Clay, James K. Polk, John C. Calhoun, William Wirt, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, John Randolph and others engaged in the stirring debates which made their names famous in history. And the propositions advanced by Sup. Woods of contracting the size of the hall and substituting benches for the desks of members, after the manner of the English house of lords, is not new.

When the Capitol building was under construction, the time set for the removal of the government offices to this city rolled around before the needful accommodations were provided. The work on the north or Senate wing of the old building was so far advanced that there was room for both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The first had thirty-two members under Thomas Jefferson and the latter 105, with Speaker Theodore Sedgwick. Both of these bodies assembled there in December 1800.

Ready for Tenth Congress
What is now Statuary Hall was then being erected as the House of Representatives, and it was ready at the opening of the Tenth Congress, which was called together on October 6, 1807, by President Jefferson because of the foreign interference with our commerce. Joseph B. Varnum of Massachusetts was their Speaker, and Patrick Magruder, who had been a representative of Maryland, was elected clerk. There were then 141 representatives. Within a few days after convening of Congress it was found that the hall was not a success acoustically and that the ventilation was imperfect, so that during the session there were many criticisms on these defects.

On this subject, J.H. Latrobe, the surveyor of the public building, wrote: "In every large room the great average distance of the speaker from the hearer is cause of difficulty of hearing and speaking which cannot be removed, but the effect of this cause bears no proportion to that indistinctness which arises from the innumerable echoes that are reverberated from the walls and arched ceiling of such a room as the Hall of Representatives. These surfaces give back to the ear echoes not only of the voice of the speaker, at a perceptible distance of time from the original sound, but also distinct echoes of every accidental noise and separate conversation in the House and lobbies, and renders debate very laborious to the speaker and almost useless to the hearers.

"This defect was foreseen, and in furnishing the house the curtains and draperies of the windows were made as ample as propriety would admit; draperies were hung in other proper situations, and a large curtain closed the opening of the columns behind the Speaker's chair. But all this draper bore a small proportion to the extent of uncovered surface, though it rendered those particular situations of the hearer, thus freed from echo, superior to all others."

New Place of Meeting Necessary
Various suggestions were made, and in the session of 1813-14 the experiment of suspending a canvas overhead was tried, but it was not a success, for, while it checked the echoes, it so deadened the sound as to render hearing difficult, besides darkening the House. A short time afterward, owing to the devastation by the British, the sessions were held first in the old post office building, on E between 7th and 8th streets, now the land office, but mostly, until December, 1819, in the old Capitol at 1st and A streets northeast.

In rebuilding under Mr. Latrobe the same general plan was followed as to the hall, but it was slightly larger, and in 1820 there were 192 seats provided, consecutively numbered to 96, on both the right and left of the Speaker.

There were still complaints as to the ventilation and heating and suggestions were made that the room be vacated and the library be occupied, the room last named affording a space of 92 by 34 feet and 38 feet high. During the session of 1822 the architect, Mr. Bulfinch, suggested a flat ceiling, and expert advice was sought to aid Mr. Bulfinch in making the hall better suited for deliberative purposes. In 1832 William Strickland of Philadelphia made a report stating that the difficulties arose from three errors. By the breaking of the circular line of wall by the colonnade above, by sinking the floor and raising the dome, and by the location of the chairs and the seats. He recommended that the wall be continued in the gallery, that the floor be raised and the position of the speaker be reversed. Various expedients were tried by hanging curtains, etc., with little or no result.

The revision plan was discussed in ensuing sessions, and a change of front was decided in 1836. In that year James K. Polk was elevated to the Speaker's chair, and it was then directly under the clock at the north entrance to the hall. This was occupied by him during that session. Of course, the desks were reversed to face the Speaker, but the arrangement was not a successful one, and later the House resumed the old custom, turning right about face.

Plans for New Chamber
In the extension of the Capitol a new House chamber was planned in the south wing, and in 1853 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis approved the plan. The House had continued to meet in the old hall, and at the first session of the Thirty-fifth Congress in 1857, the Speaker, James L. Orr of South Carolina, received a letter from John B. Floyd, Secretary of War, that the engineer officer, Gen. Meigs, had notified him that the House was ready for occupancy. Thereupon the committee visited the House, and Tuesday, December 15, that body adjourned to meet in the new hall the next morning. The public had, however, anticipated the meeting of the House there, for on the previous Sunday Rev. C.M. Cummins, rector of Trinity Church and chaplain of the House, held services there, and the capacity of the room and the galleries was taxed by a congregation which included many members of Congress and government officials.

Speaker Orr wrote as follows:
"It has been occupied from December until the middle of June--seasons of the lowest and highest temperature of cold and heat; it has been occupied with crowded galleries and empty benches, by day and by night; and under all circumstances, in its acoustics, its ventilation, its heating, its lighting and its conveniences for the comfort of members and the transaction of business, I consider it eminently successful. When order is preserved an ordinary voice can be heard distinctly in the remotest part of the hall or galleries. I presume there is no hall in the world having so large a number of square feet within its walls, where the speaker is heard with so little effort on his part.

"The ventilation is equally successful, The densest crowd in the galleries, during the most protracted sittings, breathed a fresh atmosphere, free from all heaviness or impurity.

"The heating apparatus is so perfect that the engineer had only to be notified what temperature was desired, when in a few minutes it was supplied.

"The arrangement for lighting the hall is admirable. Not a burner is seen, and yet such a flood of softened light is poured down through the stained glass ceiling of the hall that it was difficult to distinguish when the day ended and the night commenced."

Increase in Membership
The new House proved satisfactory to the members generally, but the increase of members suggested greater accommodations. December 23, 1858, Representative W.P. Miles of South Carolina moved for the appointment of a committee to consider the removal of the seats, and March 3,, 1859, the committee made a report recommending that the superintendent of the building remove the desks and arrange the seats in the smallest possible space before the meeting of the next Congress. It was adopted. Mr. Washburn of Maine, a member of the committee, remarking that it was the greatest reform made by that Congress.

The alteration was thereupon made, and at the session which opened in December 1859, the benches were occupied, the House being a compact body immediately in front of the Speaker, but taking up so little room as to leave a large space for promenade. The superintendent in his report stated that he had arranged the seats in concentric circles, with aisles radiating from the Speaker's desk. "The arms and supports," he said, "are of cast iron properly decorated; the backs and frames of American oak. The seats and backs are upholstered, so as to be as comfortable as possible. The backs are made rather lower than usual, in order to enable those in front to turn partly around, to attend, with as little discomfort as possible to a speaker whose position may be in the back part of the hall."

There was little business done in the early part of that session, for it required nearly two months to elect a Speaker, Mr. Pennington of New Jersey being finally chosen. By February most of the members had tired of the seat arrangement, and on the 21st adopted a resolution to have the desks restored. After the adjournment--June 18--the change was made, and under the seat arrangement that had previously existed, the memorable session of 1860-1 was held.