By Jordy Yager - 07/19/10 11:39 PM EDT
Congressional committee rooms are most famously known for their venomous hearings, which have covered everything from the impeachment of a president to the berating of auto makers.
But hearing rooms also offer some of the most intricate and ornate architectural splendors of Capitol Hill, with years of history and hidden spaces reserved for lawmakers and their staffs.
House Ways and Means Committee
1100 Longworth House Office Building
This hearing room is the lower chamber’s largest. It resembles a small theater house with its vast open space. In fact, the House held its sessions in the room in 1949 and 1950 while its Capitol chamber was under reconstruction.
The room has 150 leather chairs for the public, two sculpted eagles sitting atop giant floor-to-ceiling pillars and the original 40-bulb cast bronze chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The sweeping gold curtains behind the hand-carved dais were designed by Barnet Phillips, a New York architect who also designed much of the building’s furniture.
The stately room has hosted many significant legislative reforms, including the drafting of the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Medicare Act of 1965.
It also has two anterooms. The South anteroom, known as “the library,” has 20 bookcases that run its length. They house bound volumes of the committee’s hearing records from the 47th Congress to present day. The chamber also features three chandeliers and a portrait of former committee Chairman William Green (R-Iowa), which hangs over a marble fireplace mantle.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
366 Dirksen Senate Office Building
The Dirksen building’s committee rooms were designed so that television reporters could have more room to film hearings. Committee members and witnesses used to sit together around a long table during hearings, but Dirksen’s hearing rooms introduced the dais, so that television cameras could film both the lawmakers and the witnesses without taking up the entire room.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s hearing room is a perfect example of the design. Its walls are a combination of wood paneling and green marble, mounted with eight golden electrical torches.
The anteroom features a large plaque honoring former committee Chairman Clinton Anderson (D-N.M.) (as ordered by current chairman and fellow New Mexican Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D). Dozens of bookshelves containing thick volumes of the committee’s records dating back to the 103rd Congress line one wall, while a series of bookshelves containing 50 volumes of the U.S. Code lines the other.
Senate Armed Services Committee
236 Russell Senate Office Building
Many of the oldest and most handsome areas of the Capitol are antiquated by modern architectural standards. The Architect of the Capitol (AoC) is in the middle of a multiyear project to renovate the Senate and House committee hearing rooms. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearing room is the latest to get the makeover.
Upgrades are set to include advanced audio and visual capabilities, an increase in dais seating capacity, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and an improvement in energy efficiency, all while “[restoring] the rooms to their original architectural intent for the purposes of historic preservation,” an AoC spokeswoman said.
Where once sat four-star generals, the Senate Armed Services Committee room is now covered in protective layers of plastic with giant industrial fans whirring in the open windows. Several series of scaffolding inch toward the ceiling as AoC workers lay dozens of feet of fiber-optic cable in the floor and walls.
(In the interim, the committee is using the Senate Rules and Administration Committee’s event room for its events.)
So far, the AoC’s Senate Superintendent office has renovated approximately 75 percent of the Senate’s committee hearing rooms, and over the next several years plans to renovate the remaining 25 percent.
Senate Rules and Administration Committee: event room
G-50 Dirksen Senate Office Building
This recently renovated room is the largest in the upper chamber, with seating for more than 200 members of the public in addition to its 29 black leather senators’ chairs situated behind the hand-carved wooden dais.
It was originally designed as an all-purpose room and has been home to many events, such as the celebration of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 100th birthday in 2002. (It was at that event that former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., made the racially charged comments regarding Thurmond’s presidential candidacy that led to Lott’s resignation as Senate majority leader.)
The room’s decor has “taken on a whole new look” with the renovations, Senate Historian Don Ritchie said. The walls are paneled with gray speckled marble, interspersed every four feet with eight large inset circular patterns made of cast iron. A series of 20 separate track lights illuminates the deep maroon carpet, while the six wall-mounted golden torches provide a flavor of its décor when it opened in 1958.