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Sunday Spin: Haunting the Capitol

The Apotheois of Washington, a fresco on the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (Jim Camden)
The Apotheois of Washington, a fresco on the ceiling of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (Jim Camden)

The U.S. Capitol, arguably the greatest building in the other Washington, sometimes seems at though it is America’s answer to the Vatican, where the business at hand is conducted in surroundings adorned with art and replete with history.

The hallways and staircases of both are rich with artists’ renditions of their particular dogma – biblical scenes in one, historical tableaus in the other. God stretches out a finger to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; George Washington ascends to godlike status with female figures of Liberty and Victory on the ceiling of the Rotunda. . .


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. . . On the walls, Columbus, somewhat nattily dressed for having just crossed the Atlantic, places the banner of Spain on the new land; Pocahontas gets baptized; DeSoto stumbles upon the Mississippi River; the Founding Fathers dutifully line up to sign the Declaration of Independence. (For more on Capitol art, click here.)

The D.C. service for the late Tom Foley was held in this milieu in nearby Statuary Hall, a circular room with marble pillars and larger-than-life chiselings and carvings of men and women the states want to honor. But before it became a repository for statues, it was the House of Representatives chamber from 1807 to 1857. It was in this location that Speaker Henry Clay led the War Hawks to vote for the War of 1812 ( the British responded by burning much of Washington and which destroyed the room but it was rebuilt in the same location). Presidents from Madison to Fillmore were inaugurated here. The Missouri Compromise was approved here. Davy Crockett regaled his fellow representatives with stories of the wild frontier before being voted out of office and heading for the Alamo. John Quincy Adams, who was elected to the House after losing re-election to Andrew Jackson, suffered a heart attack at his desk and died in a nearby room.

The chamber had bad acoustics, and eventually became too small for the growing House of a growing nation. The new chamber, which one sees when a president addresses the Congress for the State of the Union or when tuning in to C-Span, was built. In the 1860s, a congressman got the bright idea of filling it up by asking each state to send two statues to the Capitol. In keeping with how well the states respond to federal requests, each state had sent at least one by 1971.

To observe proceedings in the old chamber, the public could stand in a narrow balcony, reached by spiraling stone steps concealed, as many staircases in the Capitol are, behind an unobtrusive and normally locked door. Reporters and photographers were ensconced in the balcony for the Foley memorial, allowing a birds-eye view of the two presidents, two vice presidents, three House speakers and other dignitaries who came to pay their respects.

Of all the testimonials to Eastern Washington’s long-serving congressman, perhaps the most appropriate to the historic room was given by former Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois, who was Republican leader while Foley was speaker. The room is full of statues of great men providing inspiration for the current representatives, Michel observed. It would be good to think that Foley’s spirit, too, “will dwell here forever” and influence legislators for generations to come, he said.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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