The U.S. Senate Desk

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This article is from Issue 95 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Three tiers for the Senate. This depiction of president Andrew Johnson’s 1868 impeachment trial shows the triple-tiered Senate chamber of the time. The desks include their shelves, but lack the writing tops and ventilation grilles that were added later.

By David Heim

On August 24, 1814, the two year-old War of 1812 took a particularly ugly turn when British soldiers torched the U.S. Capitol Building. The conflagration turned marble columns to lime, reduced the new congressional library to ash, and decimated both the House and Senate chambers. As a result, Congress had to convene in temporary quarters for the next five years.

During that time, President Madison authorized a $500,000 loan for rebuilding and refurnishing the Capitol. Thomas Constantine, a young cabinetmaker in New York City, received the commissions to make the furniture for the restored House and Senate chambers. In 1818, House leaders awarded Constantine the work because he submitted a low bid. But in the Senate, Vice President Daniel Tomkins—described as “a victim of chronic alcoholism and distracting personal financial difficulties”—simply awarded Constantine the job without financial restrictions, but giving him just six weeks to construct 48 desks and chairs. Constantine delivered the goods on time, though only by subcontracting much of the work to other cabinetmakers. 

fastFACTS

  •  The desks still contain an inkwell and a container of fine sand used to blot ink.
  •  In the early 1900s, senators began signing their names in the drawers, creating a reliable record of who sat at each desk over the years.
  •  In 1995, Senator George Murphy began filling his desk 
  • drawer with candy for colleagues. The tradition continues today, with a candy-filled desk near a main chamber entrance. 
  •  The firm that Thomas Constantine founded is still in business, as a woodworking retailer in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

A stately desk. Every senator from every state is assigned a desk in the Senate chamber. It’s built of solid mahogany and mahogany-veneered secondary woods including poplar, pine, and ash. This desk includes ventilation grilles that once connected to under-floor vents.

House members had to share plain slant-front writing desks, and their chairs were upholstered with common black horsehair fabric. Constantine was obliged to make their furniture with “no superfluous ornament.” On the other hand, each senator received his own ornate desk veneered in figured mahogany and rosewood, along with an armchair upholstered in expensive red morocco leather. 

According to one historian, “The design of the desks and chairs tells a compelling story about popular perceptions of the Senate and House and about the distribution of power and prestige.” The senators “generally were considered the most learned and well-bred citizens of the country.” But House members were “seen as less refined, self-educated men who lacked the pedigree and edification of their upper-house counterparts. 

Constantine’s desks were originally arranged in semicircles on three tiers, with each desk made to suit a specific location. Those along the aisles were narrower and more trapezoidal, while others were wider and almost square. Regardless of its overall shape, each desk stands on elaborate trestle legs with a fixed, slanted writing surface atop a drawer. Sometime in the 1830s, an open shelf was added below the drawer. Later in the century, a “writing box” was installed on top, its sides extending saddle-style over the ends of the original desktop. Being foursquare and relatively unadorned, the boxes do not match the angles of the original desks, nor do they reflect their styling. 

The companion chair. Only three of Constantine’s original Senate chairs survive. This one has lost its arms and casters.

Over time, the desks underwent two more modifications: In 1896, the legs were outfitted with metal grilles that connected to an under-floor ventilation system. Although the grilles remain, they fell into disuse in 1929 when air-conditioning was installed in the chamber. In 1971, a microphone was fitted to the left side of each desk, with a low-power loudspeaker placed on the shelf to help overcome poor room acoustics. 

Although none of Constantine’s original House furniture survives, every one of his original Senate desks is still in use today in the now four-tiered Senate chamber. They sit alongside new, matching desks made by a variety of other cabinetmakers as states were added to the Union. 

Anatomy and evolution of a desk

To play with a cool interactive graphic showing how the Senate desk design evolved over time, visit https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/special/Desks/anatomy.cfm. While you’re there, click on the other tabs for a fascinating cornucopia of historical trivia about the desks and the legislators who have used them.

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