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A Curator’s Tour of the U.S. House Chamber


>>FARAR ELLIOTT, HOUSE CURATOR:
When we look over the Chamber today– –take a bird’s-eye view, for example– –we see something that looks
. . . vaguely colonial. But, when it opened in 1857, although the space was very much
the same– –the architecture, the structure,
and the shell haven’t changed– –what was inside was very different. One of the biggest differences
that we would notice, if we were to be transported back in time, was that the Members sat at desks,
with chairs. Today, they are called benches. They are seats, essentially,
that people sit. But, since the Chamber itself was
the office for each Member at the time, they had desks where they
could keep stuff. The other big change that we see in the Chamber today, from as
it looked in 1857– –if a Member from 1857 had
come back to life and walked in here, he would be very surprised at the
change in the rostrum. The rostrum we see today is
beautifully carved wood. Laurel wreaths are carved
around the front of it, with some of the words of the
great aspirations of our nation and of the House
of Representatives– –words like “justice.” But, at the time, in 1857, the height of showing your architectural
respect for the institution would be to create something in marble. The Capitol itself–when you look
at the outside, it’s white and gleaming, and you think of it as entirely marble, because it shows a timelessness
to the endeavor there. We think of the Greek and Roman
temples as marble. So, the rostrum was made of marble. It was white marble, and it was
significantly smaller, as well. Today, we have so many people
doing so many jobs, to keep the Congress running, that there
are a lot more folks sitting there. So, when we turn on the television and look at what’s going on in the
House of Representatives Chamber, we see lots of people down there. Those are more
than there would have been in the 19th century. When you go into the Chamber
yourself and sit in the galleries, you’re up high–you have a perfect view.>>REP. ROGER F. WICKER: Right above
the Speaker’s podium is a profound quote from another of our distinguished founders,
Daniel Webster.>>ELLIOTT: When you look straight up– –along the wall from where
the Speaker sits– –you can see up along the cornice almost, there’s a quotation from Daniel Webster. It wasn’t said here in the
House of Representatives at all. It was an oration he gave,
actually not even in Washington, DC. But, it’s a wonderful reflection
on what’s important to us– –what we consider to be, in fact,
some of the reasons that we are here, as citizens, and the reasons
Members of Congress are here. And, it’s something that I think– –like many of the symbols in the Capitol– –Members can look at every day
and be reminded of the high purpose to which they are called. You can see The Lawgivers– –reliefs that ring the Chamber of the important people throughout
human history, who’ve created great laws and great advances in how laws are made and administered. The other thing that I notice most there are the portraits of Washington and Lafayette. The first one that came into
the House Collection was Lafayette. He had been such a young man
during the American Revolution that, as late as the 1820s, he was
still around and kicking, and he came over and did a triumphal
tour of the United States, before returning to France. And, at that time, in the early 1820s, that picture was presented to
the House of Representatives. He was the first foreign dignitary
to address the Congress, as well. And, because he had been such a great
and good friend of Washington’s, as well as one of his strongest allies, there’s also a portrait of Washington
there that was subsequently commissioned to match the portrait of Lafayette. And, I think those are examples of the way our history continues, as a thread through what we do. Those portraits have hung wherever the House has met, since they first arrived, here in the Congress, what, 180 years ago.

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