So Many Memories: Russell Celebrates 100

Posted March 6, 2009 at 4:10pm

The Russell Senate Office Building is celebrating a birthday this year. The building’s centennial is being commemorated in a low-key way, much like its opening back in 1909, with a display of furniture and information about the history of the venerable building.

The focal point of the centennial is the Russell Rotunda and the exhibit “Enduring Beauty: Russell Furniture Turns 100,— which displays nine pieces of restored furniture.

To organize the celebration, a group from the Senate Curator’s Office, the Senate Historical Office, the Senate Library and the Senate’s Office of Web Technology came together to work on the exhibits and media, including two pamphlets that convey Russell history.

Several pylons in the building feature cards that highlight various historical rooms.

Melinda Smith, associate curator in the Senate Curator’s Office, said: “The purpose of the exhibit is, one, to make people aware of the original Russell furniture, and, two, inspire people to want to restore their furniture in a similar manner.—

According to a brochure distributed in honor of the centennial, the Russell Building was originally commissioned to relieve overcrowding in the Capitol. The architectural firm Carrère & Hastings managed the building and furniture construction, and architect Thomas Hastings sought inspiration from “old books of the furniture of our forefathers.—

After viewing the models, Hastings said: “So far as I am capable of judging, I think it is going to be the swellest set of furniture of the time that I have ever seen. It is the real thing, and has all the character and dignity which seems to me furniture for the United States Senators should have.— He imagined the idea for American neoclassic furniture that he thought would suit the Russell Building’s Beaux Arts style.

When three wings of the building were finished in 1909, the Senators received the new mahogany furniture. In 1933, a fourth wing was added and more than a thousand identical pieces were commissioned, although this time the furniture was walnut.

“We showcase furniture that was custom designed for the Senate’s first office building, both for Senators’ offices and joining secretary’s suites,— Smith said.

Above the furniture display, photographs show the pieces in use in Senators’ offices. Initially, a Senator’s suite had two rooms, one larger office connected to a smaller room for the secretary. The furniture set included a flat-top desk and a davenport, chairs and bookcases.

Smith said: “It’s an unwritten tradition for Senators to pass them down— to newly elected Senators from their home state. “On an average, every office continues to use these.—

When Smith was working on the exhibit, she said, a Senator stopped to admire the furniture and remarked on how they are still used every day. She added that the display is a good reminder for Senators and staffers of the furniture’s historical value.

Smith said: “The public doesn’t often get a glimpse of what it looks like in a Senate office. [The exhibit gives them a] window to the Senate building.—

“Enduring Beauty: Russell Furniture Turns 100— runs until Sept. 5.