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Old Supreme Court Chamber History

Old Supreme Court Chamber History

Until 1935, the Capitol housed the Supreme Court of the United States as well as the Congress. This room was used by the Court between 1810 and 1860.

Until 1935, the Capitol housed the Supreme Court of the United States as well as the Congress. This room was used by the Court between 1810 and 1860.

Until 1935, the Capitol housed the Supreme Court of the United States as well as the Congress. This semicircular, umbrella-vaulted room, located north of the Crypt, was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe and used by the Court between 1810 and 1860.

In November 1806 Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the Surveyor of the Public Buildings, prepared plans for rebuilding the interior of the U.S. Capitol's north wing. Although occupied for only six years, this wing suffered from falling plaster, rotting floors and a leaking roof. So poor was the original construction that, rather than making repairs, Latrobe wished to completely rebuild the interior within the existing brick and sandstone walls. An initial appropriation of $25,000 began the work, which was focused on the eastern half of the wing. Latrobe demolished the two-story Senate Chamber and the large, unfinished room above it as well as adjacent lobbies and offices. With the space cleared of all previous, inferior work, Latrobe began to rebuild it with solid, fireproof masonry vaulting.

A significant element of Latrobe's plan was a one-story room on the ground floor intended to be used by the Supreme Court. The accommodation of the court in the Capitol had always been considered a temporary arrangement. Since 1801 the court had met in a committee room (now numbered S-146 and S-146A), while a separate building for its use was believed to be forthcoming. Latrobe could not know that the Supreme Court would continue to share quarters with the legislative branch until 1935.

Latrobe's reconstruction of the north wing faced serious architectural and engineering challenges, especially the need to create a vaulted chamber that imposed no structural loads upon the existing walls. His solution to this problem was both effective and elegant. Parallel to the east wall he constructed a deep three-bay arcade carried on sandstone Doric columns modeled on those of the Temple of Poseidon (the shortest, and thus the strongest, columns that survive from classical Greece). He also built a semicircular arcade several feet away from the old western wall. These stout new supporting piers carried the room's most dramatic feature: a lobed, vaulted ceiling that has often been likened to an umbrella or a pumpkin. This construction technique, which is similar to medieval practice, reduced the old walls to mere screens.

Regrettably, this impressive engineering feat cost the life of Latrobe's chief assistant. During construction the vault was supported upon a wooden centering built by John Lenthall, the Clerk of the Works. When Lenthall attempted to remove the centering prematurely, the vault collapsed, crushing him under its weight.

Latrobe's reputation was severely damaged by this accident, but he persevered in his efforts to make the Old Supreme Court Chamber both beautiful and durable. Some measure of his success may be seen in the fact that the chamber survived the efforts of British troops to burn it on August 24, 1814. For the sake of safety, however, Latrobe dismantled the vault and built it for the third and last time as part of the repairs to the Capitol that he began in 1815.

After Latrobe's resignation in 1817, work on the chamber continued under architect Charles Bulfinch. Bulfinch was able to complete it in time for the court session that began in February 1819.

For the next 41 years, the Supreme Court met in this chamber. During that time numerous landmark decisions were handed down from the bench, including Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward, Gibbons v. Ogden, and Dred Scott v. Sandford. In 1860 the court moved upstairs into the room vacated by the Senate. The Old Supreme Court Chamber was then used as a law library. An 1898 gas explosion in the sub-basement southwest of the chamber, and the ensuing fire, inflicted some damage on the floors, furnishings, and books in the library. The Supreme Court vacated the Capitol in 1935, and the room was used for a reference library until the 1940s. From 1955 to 1960 the chamber was assigned to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. It was next converted to a storeroom, and it served this purpose until Congress voted for its restoration in 1972.

Extensive research and planning preceded the restoration. An 1854 diagram was discovered that proved invaluable in establishing the architectural layout and furniture arrangement of the room. A portrait depicting Chief Justice Marshall seated in the chamber provided visual documentation for the re-creation of the carpet and the mahogany rails. A descendant of the Clerk of the Court provided Chief Justice Taney's desk and the original marshal's desk. The Supreme Court and the Senate Sergeant at Arms transferred cabinets, chairs, desks, and other items formerly used by the Court. Original fixtures and furnishings that could not be located were replicated according to the best available historical evidence. After years of painstaking work, the restored chamber was opened to the public in May 1975. Today it is used primarily as a museum, recreating the scene of many significant moments in the evolution of the United States Supreme Court and the judicial history of the nation.