From 1807 to 1857, the House met in an echo-riddled but beautiful chamber called the Hall of the House. When a major Capitol expansion project began in 1850, House members were delighted by the prospect of moving to a room with better acoustics. Once the move was made, however, questions continued to reverberate in the Hall–what to do with an august but empty large room?
Various proposals surfaced over the years, but Congress eventually settled on “art gallery” as the answer. The space had already hosted displays of art when, in 1864, Congress passed an act allowing each state to donate two statues of prominent (deceased) state residents to the Capitol–for display in the Old Hall of the House. The change in purpose brought a change in the room’s name; because Congress intended to house a national collection of statuary there, it was renamed National Statuary Hall.
In 1933, Congress had to authorize the extension of the collection’s display throughout the Capitol–National Statuary Hall had become far too crowded, which also raised concerns about the weight of all that marble and bronze. Now pieces from the collection appear in the Hall, in the Capitol Visitor Center, and elsewhere in the Capitol.
The history of this space actually includes two rooms: the first, designed by Henry Latrobe, was burned in 1814 when the British came to Washington near the end of the War of 1812. Latrobe and Charles Bullfinch rebuilt the chamber as they rebuilt finished sections of the burned Capitol and added previously unfinished portions. The chamber to which the House moved in 1857 is the one it currently occupies. You’ve seen it on TV, and not just on C-SPAN: the president delivers the State of the Union in the House Chamber.
Some of the most momentous debates in US history occurred in the Old Hall, as the young nation confronted the realities of part slave/part free country. Several future (and past) presidents served in the Hall, included Abraham Lincoln (1847-49) and John Quincy Adams, who was elected in 1830 after his time as president and suffered a fatal stroke while at his desk in the chamber.
Today, the ornate space is one of the main stops on a Capitol tour. If you have the chance to take the tour, be sure to ask your guide about the “whisper spot.” All kinds of (not necessarily true) stories abound about this acoustic trick, by which a person standing near one side of the room can hear a whisperer near the other side of the room. While the stories about eavesdropping may not be true, the actual phenomenon is–don’t miss your chance for a demonstration!