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Tucked away on the tough-to-find “WA” level of the Rayburn House Office Building is a long hallway that to the uninformed passerby doesn’t look very different from countless other windowless routes that criss-cross beneath Capitol Hill.
But if you listen closely, a soft hum of activity can be heard just beyond the bare metal doors lining the hallway. And if you linger long enough, you might catch a House employee opening the door to a room filled with intricately designed antique furniture or stacked with spools of plush carpets and fabric that come in so many colors the shelves look like enormous boxes of crayons.
If so, you’ll have discovered the small city that is the House Chief Administrative Officer’s furnishing division.
Consisting of about 60 employees and five separate shops that specialize in cabinetry, refinishing, upholstery, carpentry and drapery, the furnishing division is a small but important part of House operations. In recent years, the House has trended toward contracting out more and more of its furnishing work in an effort to watch the bottom line, but the CAO shops and others like it across both sides of Capitol Hill are likely to remain a part of Congressional operations — not just because they pad the chairs, shade the windows and give new life to old furniture, but because they provide highly skilled, on-site services that, if needed, can be called upon any time of the day and night.
“It’s the immediate need that we provide,” said Carol Swan, who serves as the textile foreman for the House of Representatives and head of the CAO’s drapery shop. “You can’t get contractors to just drop everything. They’re in it to make money. I’m in it just to serve the Members.”
Having been in the drapery trade for more than 24 years, Swan has worked for others in privately owned drapery businesses and owned such businesses as well. She has participated in three Congressional transitions and is the House’s resident expert when it comes to sizing up fabrics, creating treatments for windows and gingerly guiding Members away from atrocious color choices when they pick new carpets and drapes for their offices.
Today, she’s in charge of some 4,800 windows on the House side, including 1,500 in Member offices.