March 05, 2009

Centennial of the Russell Senate Office Building

Floor Statement of Senator Charles E. Schumer

Mr. President, I rise today to pay tribute not to a person, or an agency, or an institution, but to a building. That building, the Russell Senate Office Building, turns 100 years old today.

The Russell Building has graced Capitol Hill for a century. Some of us have been fortunate to have our Senate office located in Russell. But all of us have had an occasion to attend a hearing, a meeting, or gathering in one of the building’s rooms. If we take the time to stop and consider what’s before us, we are struck by the beauty of an earlier era in American history. Step into the Russell Rotunda, the Caucus Room, the Rules Committee hearing room, or any of other committee hearing rooms or special function rooms in the building. You can’t help but feel that you are stepping back in time when you gaze at the high ceilings, the columns, the marble, the crystal chandeliers, and the mahogany and walnut furniture.

Architects refer to its style as Beaux Arts, a design popular in America in the early 20th century. Many government buildings constructed during the late 1800’s through the 1920’s were of this design, and the Russell Building stands today as an excellent example of this style of architecture.

To commemorate this centennial, the curatorial staff of the Secretary of the Senate’s office has created an outstanding exhibit in the Russell Building and a booklet about its history. I urge you to visit the display of original Russell furniture in the Russell Rotunda basement, or stop by the information kiosks in the Rotunda basement, the 2nd floor of the Rotunda area outside the Caucus Room (SR-318), the Rules Committee hearing room (SR-301), the Veterans Affairs’ Committee hearing room (SR-418), the basement visitors entrance on Delaware Avenue, and the 2nd floor visitors entrance on Constitution Avenue. Along the way, you’ll learn about the naming of the building, the old subway, and the hearings held in the committee rooms.

As a New Yorker, I am especially pleased that there are so many connections between the Russell Building and my home state. New York architects, Carrere & Hastings, designed the building; New York cabinet maker Thomas Wadelton manufactured full-scale models of “very American” furniture in his studio located in Tuckahoe, New York; New Yorker George W. Cobb, Jr. was awarded the furniture contract for the building; and much of the original mahogany furniture was manufactured by the Standard Furniture Company of Herkimer, New York. The New York association continued when in 1933 the last wing of the building opened, equipped with walnut furniture manufactured by three New York firms – the W.H. Gunlocke Chair Company, the Company of Master Craftsmen, Inc., and the Sikes-Cutler Desk Corporation.

New York is not alone in being represented in the design, construction and furnishing of the building. From the Vermont marble to the Indiana limestone, to the Pennsylvania steelwork, to the Kansas cement, and to the elevators manufactured in Ohio, many states contributed their natural resources and the industry of their people to this historic place. It’s a testament to the skills of these early 20th century architects and craftsmen that the building and its furniture and furnishings are still in use today.

The Russell Building was constructed because of the growing challenge in the early 1900’s to find suitable office space to accommodate the needs of Senators. Prior to the opening of the Russell Building in 1909, Senators and their staffs conducted the business of the nation in whatever space was available – the aisles of the Senate Chamber, the Capitol’s marble hallways, nearby hotel lobbies, and local boarding houses. Constituents waited in the corridors of the Capitol when they came to meet their Senators and Congressman. As more states joined the Union, the number of lawmakers working in Washington grew. By the turn of the century, the Capitol was literally overflowing with people. The need for space to house Senators and their growing staffs was finally recognized in 1903, when the sites for the first Congressional office buildings were acquired and construction of the buildings were authorized. One of these building so authorized would later become the Russell Senate Office Building. Once construction was complete, it was considered to be one of the grandest and most impressive buildings in all of Washington. It would later be named in honor of a former colleague from Georgia, the Honorable Richard Russell, who served in the Senate for 38 years.

There’s an old saying – there’s nothing new under the sun. And when it comes to the Senate and space, how true the saying is. As one of its areas of jurisdiction, the Rules Committee on which I have the honor of serving as Chairman, continues to search for space to meet the needs of Senators, committees, and support offices to this day – an administrative task not unlike the struggle to find space for the Senate in 1909.

Mr. President, during the past century, much has happened to us as a country. We added four states to the United States of America. We’ve experienced world wars, international conflicts, and tough economic times again and again. We’ve landed a man on the moon and saw the beginning of the information age. Through all this time, the American people have persevered and thrived.

Like its occupants and visitors over the past century, the building has adapted itself for the twenty-first century. The Russell Senate Office Building on its 100th birthday is a working building, alive with Senators and staff doing the business of our nation, well equipped and ready to face the challenges of the future.

Thank you, Mr. President.