25 Jul 2022


Lost Capitol Hill: The Bordello Chandelier in the Capitol

J. George Stewart

We’ve had a quiet summer here at The Hill is Home, so I took the time to look at an urban legend that has always intrigued me:

The tour of the Capitol was awesome and was one of my favorite parts of the trip. We saw scars from where the British burned the building during the War of 1812. We also saw a chandelier that began its life in a whorehouse before being moved to a Methodist church. Finally, it made its way full circle to our nation’s Capitol. It started in a place where they screw people for their money and ended up in the same type of place. “D.C. Road Trip – A Lot of Statues and One Chandelier.” SBI: A Thinning Crowd, July, 2014.

The Capitol is a remarkable building, filled as it is with history, decorations and art. It takes a trained professional to give a proper tour of the place, and many have been doing so since 1876, when the United States Capitol Guide Service was established. However, sometimes tours are also given by the staff of members of Congress. In this case, there is none of the rigorous training given to the wearers of the red coats, and the staffers will fill the tour with wild stories, often related to them by other staffers.

One of the most notorious of these stories is one concerning the chandelier that hangs in the Small Senate Rotunda. The story goes that this bronze and crystal ornament had originally graced one of the many bordellos that had operated in D.C. over the years.

The chandelier occupies a magnificent space, located just outside the old Senate Chamber. This was originally where the main stairs for the Senate wing were located. After the Capitol was burned by the British in 1814, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe re-imagined the space as a light shaft, adding 16 columns around the outside. Its ability to bring light into the building was thwarted in 1901, as the attic was rebuilt not only to make the building more fire-proof, but also to add more space. At that time, a series of sconces were added to make up for the lost light.

Work continued to be done on the rotunda over the years ––in some cases to make it more historic, in others just to improve on the decoration. In 1965, J. George Stewart, as Architect of the Capitol, oversaw another set of changes, most importantly in restoring the old Senate chamber to look like it did before the Senate moved out in 1859. During this time, it was decided that what the Rotunda needed was a chandelier.

The chandelier in question (AOC)

Fortunately, there was one to be had, used, from the ABC Demolition Corp. Founded just after the Second World War, and since then grown into one of the largest wrecking companies in the United States, they had razed a church on Capitol Hill, Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, just a half-mile southeast of the Capitol. The chandelier was not original to the church, however. It had been imported in from Europe in 1903 and was installed in the new Maryland Theater, a vaudeville house in Baltimore.

When the theater was demolished in 1951, a member of Trinity Church acquired it. Before being installed, it was expanded, with further glass arms, hurricane lamps, a brass crown and Czechoslovakian crystal chains added to give it a width of eight feet wide and a height of eleven feet.

The price paid by the architect at the time for this piece of salvage was an impressive $1,500. Given that, just a few years earlier, two smaller chandeliers had been purchased for the Capitol for $2,500, this must have felt like a bargain for Stewart. It was rewired and glass arms attached to the top ring were replaced with bronze arms to make it sturdier. It is connected to a winch which allows the chandelier to be lowered so that the estimated 14,500 crystals can be cleaned as needed.

Since then, the chandelier has hung in the Small Senate Rotunda, attracting admiring glances and scurrilous stories, stories that are all the better when they connect a place of ill repute with the symbol of United States democracy.

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