Putting American Democracy on a Pedestal: The Story of the 1975-1976 Old Supreme Court and Old Senate Chamber Restorations
Historic Preservation and Conservation
Examining how the restoration of the old Senate and old Supreme Court Chambers progressed reveals a connection to differing attitudes towards historic spaces that can occur following dips in a nation’s morale. At times of uncertainty and doubt, mementoes of a grander past can be used for reassurance in the midst of change. Attitudes towards the physical fabric of the U.S Capitol changed dramatically throughout the 20th century, as is reflected in the prolonged story of the old Senate and old Supreme Court restorations. The two historic chambers, used by the Senate until 1859 and the Court until 1935, watched the nation’s baby steps evolve into the confident strides of a growing democracy. Despite serving as a stage for presidential inaugurations and national debates, the chambers fell into neglect in the 20th century after the Supreme Court vacated the premises. A 1934 directive to preserve of the chambers was not adhered to until the spaces were restored and opened to the public during the Bicentennial years of the mid-1970s. The restoration of the old Senate and old Supreme Court Chambers to their respective 1859 and 1860 appearances was a remarkably thorough and academic undertaking. The cooperation and leadership of the Architect of the Capitol’s Office, the Senate Commission on Art and Antiquities, the Office of the Senate Curator, contracted architects, and skilled artisans resulted in a striking and symbolic recreation of what these historic chambers looked like during the last years they were both occupied by the Senate and Court.