To conform to the scale of the Capitol, the Senate Office Building rises only three stories above ground on its Constitution Avenue side. Due to the steep slope of its side streets, it is five stories above ground facing C Street. The architects similarly kept the design of the office building simple, to avoid any detraction from the Capitol. The exterior of the building is lined with a colonnade of Doric columns and faced with white marble and limestone. The new office building was equipped with all of the modern conveniences of its era, including a forced-air ventilation system, steam heat, electricity, telephones, elevators, a post office, and telegraph office.
A Functional Building
The cornerstone of the first Senate Office Building was laid without fanfare on July 31, 1906, and the building admitted its first occupants on March 5, 1909. Originally, each senator received a suite of two rooms, one for the senator and the other for the senator’s personal staff – a secretary and a messenger. Each senator’s office contained a fireplace and a large window that faced onto the street or the inner courtyard. The vice president also occupied a small suite of rooms. Most of the committees moved to the office building, and a spacious chamber on the third floor – the Senate Caucus Room – was set aside for party meetings and larger public hearings. The Caucus Rooms soon became the site of some dramatic Senate investigations, including the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the Teapot Dome investigation in 1923, the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954, and the Watergate investigation in 1973. The Senate Office Building also provided a dining room for senators and staff on the second floor, at the current location of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
At the building’s southwest entrance, closest to the Capitol, is a three-story rotunda surrounded by Corinthian columns and topped by a coffered dome. Twin marble staircases lead from the rotunda floor to the Caucus Room.
Since senators needed to travel frequently between their offices and committee rooms and the Senate floor, a tunnel connected the office building to the Capitol Building. Initially, small electric buses shuttled people through the tunnel. In 1912 the first electric monorail subway was installed. In 1960 a new tunnel was constructed and the current subway began operating.
Honoring Senator Richard B. Russell
The growth of the Senate staff following the Second World War put considerable strain on the Senate Office Building. Temporary partitions created office space at the ends of corridors, and some staff worked out of closets, bathrooms and basement storage areas. To relieve these crowded conditions, a New Senate Office Building opened in 1958, after which the original building became commonly known as the “Old Senate Office Building.”
In 1972 the Senate named the Old Senate Office Building after Senator Richard Brevard Russell, Jr., a Democrat from Georgia who had served from 1933 to 1971. Respected as a “senator’s senator,” Russell had chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee, and served as president pro tempore. A statue of Senator Russell stands in the Russell Building rotunda.
With the addition of a third building in 1982, suites in the Russell Building could be combined to accommodate the increased staff of individual senators. Modern suites string together what had once been several separate offices, and the rooms have been renumbered accordingly. Today 36 senators and 5 committees occupy space in the Russell Building, which in 1958 housed 96 senators and 10 committees.
Among the senators who had offices in the Russell Building were five who went on to serve as President of the United States: Warren G. Harding, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon. Kennedy announced his presidential candidacy in the Russell Caucus Room.
The Russell Building also became familiar to moviegoers as the setting for such classic Hollywood films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Advise and Consent (1962).