Like a punch-card ballot, and with the same regularity, the floor of the Senate chamber gets new holes each election cycle. Senate desks are reshuffled after each election to fit the new party divisions. Each time, desks are bolted into their new locations.
“I’ve been told that the floor was beginning to look like Swiss cheese back there and that they were worried structurally about it so they were doing some reinforcement of the floors,” said Don Ritchie, Senate historian for the Senate Historical Office.
During the five-week congressional recess, the architect of the Capitol staff will upgrade the floors and replace the Senate chamber carpet in anticipation of November’s elections. The Senate’s sparse telephones, cameras, and audio system will also get minor upgrades, according the Senate Sergeant at Arms Office.
Since 1859, when the Senate moved into its current space, the chamber has consistently undergone imperceptible modifications, punctuated by the occasional dramatic structural and stylistic shift. Each tweak helps maintain the balance between preserving a living historical space and furnishing a modern working office and tourist attraction.
In the case of this recess restoration, the changes will ensure secure footing for rows of senators. According to Senate Curator Diane Skvarla, replacing the Senate’s threadbare carpet spurred the project, but ended up revealing a floor in worse shape than anticipated. The front portion of each level, where the rows of desks are bolted in, will be replaced.
Otherwise, Skvarla said, “We would start putting [desks] into holes that already existed and would start having problems."
With structural integrity secured, staff workers will install a new, identical carpet. It’s a royal blue carpet checkered with small gold crosslets and larger geometric patterns of curled red lines around concentric gold and white diamonds. The pattern dates back to the late 1980s. Before that, the Senate went through a run of more ornate, scattered patterns stretching back to the 1960s.
“It’s more elegant, more simple in its design,” Skvarla said. “It’s understated and not so overwhelming.”
The curator’s office keeps the physical proof of the unabashedly busy designs. Skvarla pulled out two large carpet swatches from the '60s and '70s. The earlier carpet was a dull pink, splashed with red, black, white, pink, and maroon curved patterns and stars. The latter carpet featured a lighter blue background dotted with swirls of yellow. Very “70s-ish,” Skvarla said, “really sort of ugly.”
(PICTURES: Congressional Carpets Through the Years)
But the point is that the carpet, much like the entire Senate chamber structure, in many ways reflects the tastes of the times. This Senate chamber’s original 1859 carpet was a lavish floral design, reflecting the Victorian style of the times. Similarly, the chamber featured an expansive glass ceiling until 1950.
“It looked beautiful, but it had to go,” Ritchie said. The ceiling was structurally weak and acoustically a mess. The Senate had to adjourn during thunder and lightening storms because members couldn’t hear each other. With the demise of the glass ceiling went much of the Victorian-era feel to the room — recessed panels, intricate scroll work — as the chamber took on a more modern look.
The recent shift to modernity is most readily apparent in the changes following the introduction of cameras in 1986. Blue panels behind the speaker’s pulpit and around the chamber went in as a better visual backdrop. A modest railing went up to hide the legs of senators caught in the back rows by unflattering camera angles. During the current recess, the Sergeant at Arms Office confirmed that maintenance work is being done to the the gallery cameras.
But the less noticeable changes in recent decades have been to a woefully outdated audio system, which, until 1971, consisted solely of shouting senators. During recess, the Senate staff is bolstering the floor’s audio system and replacing a few of the telephones in the chamber. From the late 19th century until the early 1970s, outside communication with the Senate floor was restricted to two telephones, one manned by each party’s secretary and a chief telephone page.
“They would literally sit in the Senate chamber and people would call in from the senators' offices, or even from the cloakrooms, and would say, “Who’s talking now, what’s going on?” Ritchie said.
But while anyone can get the Senate feed streamed live over an Internet connection these days, senators still can’t take any electronics, namely their cell phones, to the floor.
But, of course, “Sometimes you will see somebody furtively texting under the desk,” Ritchie said.