02 Nov 2020


Lost Capitol Hill: The Rotunda as Meeting-place

Thomas Davenport

Over the last two weeks, I have looked at how the old Hall of Representatives, which nowadays we know as Statuary Hall, was misused in the time after Congress moved out and before it became a museum. Today, a look at another room, just a few feet north of the former: The Rotunda.

Conceived as a meeting place, not just between the two chambers of Congress, but for all visitors to the nation’s capital, it soon found itself being used for more base reasons. A Washington Post article from 1984 sums up the situation before the Civil War: “In the early days of the Republic, vendors hawked their wares here, selling all manner souvenirs and food.”

Contemporary newspapers bear out this statement. An article from the Washington Madisonian in 1837 mentions that an invention of Thomas Davenport “for the application of electro-magnetic power to machinery” had been displayed to members of Congress in the Rotunda. (Davenport is generally credited as the first to receive a patent for an electric motor, and that’s his likeness above) While this at least seems rather high-minded, another article in the same newspaper four years later mentions that silk had been “exposed for exhibition and sale in the rotunda of the Capitol.” The following year, three ship models were displayed in order to be raffled off. There is no indication that this was a way of raising money for any cause other than the bank account of the builder of the models. Over the next years, numerous articles indicate that further scientific inventions and products were being displayed there.

An article in the Washington Southern Press in 1850 gives some indication of why this location was such a popular place of exhibition: “The rotunda of the Capitol and the Library of Congress are two favorite places of lounging during the day, at least, between twelve and three, whilst both Houses are sitting.”

A “Centennial Tea” held in the Rotunda on December 16, 1875 (LOC)

In the early 1850s, the number of times the rotunda is mentioned goes up considerably. While most are still because of something being displayed – such as a Foucault’s Pendulum shown in 1851 – the reasons are sometimes more problematic. The National Era describes how a “pernicious habit” has appeared, with members of Congress giving gratuities to clerks and other workers at the Capitol at the end of the session. Particularly problematical is the $1,000 spent on “champagne and other liquors,” an expense that has led to licentious behavior:

Whoever has witnessed the motley group, male and female, which gathers in the rotunda of the Capitol on the last night of the session, and the drunken revelry which prevails there at the time, can understand to what we refer. Those who have not seen it, can form no adequate idea of it.

But mainly, it was used for the display of inventions: Trains, bridges, gas lighting, silk, railway couplings, even a planetarium. In 1854, it got to be too much. The Alexandria Gazette reported,

The presiding offices of the two houses of Congress have directed the Commissioner of Public Buildings to have the objects exhibited on private account in the rotunda of the Capitol removed. Too frequently, miserable daubs are there set up for finished paintings, and even articles of machinery are sometimes in full operation, for the benefit of the several proprietors. The use of the rotunda for a common show-room, without proper discrimination, is an evil.

This seems to have done the trick. The number of mentions of this sort of behavior in the rotunda drops dramatically thereafter. While sellers of souvenirs managed to hang until the Civil War, thereafter only Samuel Wyeth had permission to ply his trade there, and the practice died with him in 1881.

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