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Old Supreme Court Chamber

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Chamber as viewed from southwest.

The Old Supreme Court Chamber is the room on the ground floor of the North Wing of the United States Capitol. From 1800 to 1806, the room was the lower half of the first United States Senate chamber, and from 1810 to 1860, the courtroom for the Supreme Court of the United States.

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • Segment 3: The Senate and Supreme Court Chambers
  • Segment 8: Rebuilding the House Chamber
  • Old Senate Chamber 360 Degree View (2012)
  • A Visual Timeline 220 Years of Growth on Capitol Hill
  • Segment 6: The House Chamber


Segment 3: The Senate and Supreme Court Chambers Historian William C. Allen describes the destruction The British arrived at the Capitol bearing rockets and bearing gunpowder paste. And they were to use both of these tools to help destroy the Capitol. They wanted to start fires and they used these to start really great bonfires on the interior. They were able to inflict a great deal of damage in, for instance, the Senate chamber, which was on the second floor of the North wing, and in the Supreme Court chamber which was in the room below, where it still is located. In the Senate chamber the ceiling was wood. So, that provided a great deal of combustible material. Even though the rest of the room was considered to be fireproof, the ceiling burnt so fiercely that, for instance, Latrobe tells us that the columns, the marble columns were reduced to lime. Everything sort of fell down. And the columns, they weren't just like the ones today where, sometimes, you can use columns non-structurally. Everything in the Capitol was structural. So, when the columns fell, of course, everything fell along with it toppled and made, as Latrobe said, a most magnificent ruin. And the room below, in the Supreme Court, there was not a wooden ceiling. That was a stone and brick ceiling covered in plaster. They mounted sort of in the middle, sort of a pyramid of furniture and slathered the furniture with the gunpowder paste and threw a torch in. And the room sort of exploded. Heavily damaged, but the vault did not fall. Really miraculous that it was so well built that it did not fall. However, in the rebuilding which occurred beginning later in 1815, it was determined that even though it stood it was probably prudent to take the vault down and to rebuild it. So, the Supreme Court that we see today is very similar to the one that the British saw when they came to destroy the building. Not exactly the same, but close enough that it's practically the same room. It was rebuilt pretty much the same way. The room above, the Senate chamber, was not rebuilt the same way. It was built on the same plan which was a semi-circle covered with a half dome, but it was enlarged 75 feet in diameter. The original had been 60 feet in diameter. So it was enlarged.

History and use

Construction on the North Wing began in 1793 with the laying of the cornerstone by President George Washington. Although interior work was unfinished, the Senate relocated from its 1791 Philadelphia location, Congress Hall, in November 1800. The chamber interior, including an upper-level public gallery, was finally completed early in 1805, just before the start of the Samuel Chase impeachment trial.[1] Its completion allowed the Federal government to move to Washington, D.C. The North Wing, as the only completed section of the Capitol, originally hosted both houses of the United States Congress, the Library of Congress, and the Supreme Court.[2] In addition to the Chase trial, the chamber was the location of President Thomas Jefferson's inauguration in 1801.[3]

Division into two levels

The North Wing upon completion in 1800

However, by 1806, the North Wing was already deteriorating from heavy use and required repairs. The Architect of the Capitol at the time, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, decided that the repairs would provide an opportunity to expand room space in the Capitol by dividing the chamber in half. The upper half would serve as a new chamber for the Senate (that area is now known as the Old Senate Chamber), and the lower half would be used for the Supreme Court.[3]

The size and structure of Latrobe's vaulted, semicircular ceiling were virtually unprecedented in the United States. The room is 50 feet (15 m) deep and 74 feet 8 inches (22.76 m) wide. Construction began in November 1806 with the gutting of the former two-story Senate Chamber and rooms above it and lasted until 1810. The process was not without tragedy, as an assistant to Latrobe, John Lenthall, Clerk of the Works, was killed upon removing a center wooden ceiling support prematurely, against Latrobe's advice. The unfinished masonry ceiling collapsed, crushing Lenthall in the process.[3] Lenthall's death was a setback not just to construction but to Latrobe's reputation as an architect, which he struggled to rebuild for the rest of his career.

Fire of 1814 and reconstruction

Chief Justice John Marshall

The Supreme Court barely had the opportunity to hear cases in the chamber before the justices were forced to leave Washington by the threat of British invasion during the War of 1812. On August 24, 1814, the British successfully took the city and set fire to many of the recently completed buildings of the fledgling capital, including the North and South wings of the Capitol building. Despite the disaster, which left much of the North Wing gutted, the chamber with its vaulted ceiling survived. With safety in mind, however, Latrobe ordered the ceiling to be broken down and rebuilt for the final time in 1815. Latrobe resigned two years later, under his successor, Charles Bulfinch, that the chamber was completed in 1819, in time for the next session of the Supreme Court.[3]

In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first Morse coded message—which read, "What hath God wrought?"—from the Supreme Court Chamber.[4]

The Supreme Court resided in the chamber for the next forty-one years, until 1860. During that time, the court heard arguments on such landmark cases as McCulloch v. Maryland, Gibbons v. Ogden, Dred Scott v. Sandford, and United States v. The Amistad. Two Chief Justices—John Marshall and Roger Taney—presided over the Supreme Court in the chamber.[3]

The Law Library of Congress occupied the chamber 1860–1941

Post-Supreme Court and restoration

Upon the departure of the Supreme Court to the Old Senate Chamber upstairs in 1860, the chamber was put to use as the Law Library of Congress until 1941. After the Supreme Court vacated the Capitol building itself for its present-day quarters in the Supreme Court Building, the room was used as a reference library and later as a committee room for the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy from 1955 to 1960. From 1960 to 1972, the chamber was a rather mundane storage room until Congress voted to restore it to its historic antebellum appearance, which everyday citizens can visit and see.

An 1854 diagram of the chamber was used to establish the layout and positioning of furniture in the chamber, and a portrait of John Marshall provided clues towards a mahogany railing and the carpet pattern. Still existing furnishings in the possession of the United States Capitol were sent to the chamber, as well as donated items such as Roger Taney's chair. By 1975, the chamber was opened to the public and has served as a museum ever since.[3]

Artwork in the Old Supreme Court Chamber

View of the chamber from Justices' desks

There are several notable pieces of artwork in the Old Supreme Court Chamber. There are four marble busts of the first four Chief Justices of the Supreme Court: John Jay, John Rutledge, Oliver Ellsworth, and John Marshall. Until February 9, 2023, a bust of Roger Taney could be found in the adjacent robing room, which serves as the entrance for visitors into the chamber. Above one fireplace is a clock that is said apocryphally to be ordered by Roger Taney and set five minutes forward under his direction to promote promptness in the court proceedings.[5] Above the clock is a plaster relief of Lady Justice, notable for a lack of blindfold. She is accompanied by America, depicted as a winged youth, holding the United States Constitution as a star overhead shines light upon the document. Although never specified by the artist,[further explanation needed] Justice looks to the document with her unblinded eyes. An eagle seen protecting law books and an owl beneath Justice, two symbolic birds, are featured in the sculpture. The relief was the work of Carlo Franzoni in 1817.[3]

Taney controversy

Bust of Taney in the Old Supreme Court Chamber, source of the controversy.

On July 22, 2020, amid the George Floyd protests, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 305–113 to remove a bust of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (as well as statues honoring figures who were part of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War) from the U.S. Capitol and replace it with a bust of Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was a champion of civil rights. The bill called for removing Taney's bust within 30 days after the law's passage. The bust had been mounted in the old robing room adjacent to the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol Building. The bill (H.R. 7573[6]) also created a "process to obtain a bust of Marshall ... and place it there within a minimum of two years."[7] After the bill reached the Republican-led Senate on July 30, 2020 (S.4382), it was referred to the Committee on Rules and Administration, but no further action was taken.[8]

On June 29, 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution 285 to 120 with sixty-seven Republican Representatives to replace the bust with one of Thurgood Marshall and expel Confederate statues from the U.S. Capitol.[9]

On February 9, 2023, the bust of Roger Taney was officially removed from the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., thanks to an effort led by Maryland Democratic Senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, as well as Maryland Democratic Representative Steny Hoyer, to be replaced by a new work of art honoring Justice Thurgood Marshall.[10]



  1. ^ Herbert S. Parmet and Marie B. Hecht, Aaron Burr: Portrait of an Ambitious Man (1967), p.226
  2. ^ "Architect of the Capitol's Brief History of Construction". Retrieved 8 October 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Architect of the Capitol website on the Old Supreme Court". Retrieved 8 October 2014.
  4. ^ Samuel F.B. Morse Archived 2007-12-17 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Laura Sullivan (July 29, 2014). "Ghost Cats And Musket Balls: Stories Told By Capitol Interns".
  6. ^ "H.R.7573 - To direct the Joint Committee on the Library to replace the bust of Roger Brooke Taney in the Old Supreme Court Chamber of the United States Capitol with a bust of Thurgood Marshall to be obtained by the Joint Committee on the Library and to remove certain statues from areas of the United States Capitol which are accessible to the public, to remove all statues of individuals who voluntarily served the Confederate States of America from display in the United States Capitol, and for other purposes". 22 July 2020. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
  7. ^ Walsh, Deirdre (22 July 2020). "House Passes Bill Removing Confederate Statues, Other Figures From Capitol". NPR. Retrieved 23 July 2020.
  8. ^ "S. 4382: A bill to direct the Joint Committee on the Library to replace the bust of Roger Brooke Taney in the Old Supreme Court Chamber of the Capitol with a bust of Thurgood Marshall to be obtained by the Joint Committee on the Library and to remove certain statues from areas of the Capitol which are accessible to the public, to remove all statues of individuals who voluntarily served the Confederate States of America from display in the Capitol, and for other purposes". 30 July 2020. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
  9. ^ Alex Rogers (June 29, 2021). "House votes to remove Confederate statues". CNN. Archived from the original on June 30, 2021. Retrieved June 30, 2021.
  10. ^ State of Notorious Dred Scott Justice removed from Capitol

This page was last edited on 13 November 2023, at 22:00
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