This section is from the book "The National Capitol. Its Architecture Art And History", by George C. Hazelton, Jr. Also available from Amazon: The National Capitol Its Architecture Art and History.
The proposals fully agree with the opinion of the Architect, as expressed in former reports. Any thing would be of use that would check the tendency of the smooth surface of the dome to return sounds, either by reflecting or conducting them too suddenly, and thereby prevent the present resonnances. In this way a beneficial effect may be expected from sinking deep coffers or caissons ; but it is much to be feared that it would not be so material an assistance as to afford a complete remedy of the difficulty of hearing and speaking.
* Particularly the communication of Mr. Mills, with his reasoning on the subject, and diagrams of proposed alterations.
Respectfully presented, by your obedient servant,
Washington, Nov. I, 1826.
This report of Mr. Strickland, seemed to put the subject at rest: for no further notice was taken of it, until late in the long session of 1828; when, from the warmth of the season, complaints were made of the want of ventilation in the Hall, and this, with the former difficulty of hearing, caused a short debate; but no order was taken thereon. The architect, however, conceiving it to be his duty to meet every suggestion for the improvement of the building under his care, applied himself, in the recess, to prepare drawings, which he laid before the Committee, in 1829; but they did not think proper to make any report thereon to the House.
These drawings make part of the present communication. By this design, it is proposed to bring the galleries down nearly to the floor of the Hall, of the extent of four intercolumniations on the East and West; by which means, two large windows on each side would be opened to view, and would afford a more equal diffusion of light, and secure complete ventilation. Should this plan be adopted, the objection to removing the dome would lose its force, on the score of reducing the cubic volume of air, and a flat ceiling might be substituted. I present two drawings of ceilings, one of glass, and another composed of glass and plaster ; should either of them be approved by the Committee, estimates can be furnished of the expense, previous to presenting the report to the House. The whole alteration of both the galleries and ceiling, might be made during the recess of Congress.
Report of the Select Committee by Mr. Jarvis to the House, June 30, 1832.
That they have had the subject under consideration, and have agreed to recommend the following alterations:
The floor to be raised to the level of the foot of the columns which surround the Hall.
The chair of the Speaker to be placed near where the principal entrance now is, and the seats of the members to be turned so as to preserve their relative position to the chair.
A circular wall to be built back of the third seat in the gallery.
The committee offer, as a part of their report, a communication to the Committee on Public Buildings, from Robert Mills, an ingenious architect now in this city ; and refer to it for the reasons of the alterations recommended, as well as for an explanation of the details of these and of other minor alterations therein proposed ; and, for the purpose of carrying the same into effect, they offer the following resolution :
Resolved, That the Commissioner on Public Buildings cause the Hall of Representatives to be altered during the recess of Congress, according to the plan of Robert Mills herewith submitted, and under the superintendence of said Mills ; and that the expense be paid out of the contingent fund of the House.
City of Washington, February 4, 1832.
Gentlemen : The present plan of the Hall is manifestly defective as a hearing and speaking room for forensic or popular debate. The defect was discovered at an early day after its occupancy, and, with a view to remedying it, the draperies suspended between the columns (which now decorate the room) were introduced. These curtains had some effect in lessening the reverberations of sound, but the inconvenience complained of still existed.
In the session of 1821, so important was the subject considered, that a committee of 24 members was appointed to " inquire into the practicability of making suck alterations in the present structure of the Hall of the House of Representatives as shall better adapt it to the purposes of a deliberative assembly." The result of the investigation of this committee is contained in a report submitted by the architect of the Capitol, Mr. Bulfinch, who recommended the suspension of a glass ceiling at the foot of the dome ; but nothing was done towards testing the merits of this plan ; and the evil still being complained of at the following session, the Committee on the Public Buildings was instructed to investigate the subject anew, when the architect again reported his views ; and, at his suggestion, a cloth covering was stretched across the Hall at the foot of the dome. The effect of this covering was not only to check completely the reflections or echoes from the ceiling, but to darken the Hall so seriously as to induce its immediate removal.
Another experiment was tried at the following session, which went to reduce the dimensions of the Hall. A partition was made between the columns, back of the Speaker's chair, so as to exclude the prostyle, but no good effect was experienced from this measure, "and the partition was removed after a week's trial".
In 1826, the subject of grievance in the Hall was renewed, and " the Secretaries of State and War, and Attorney General" were requested to act as a board of inspection on the contemplated improvement during the recess of Congress ; and should any plan be approved, that the same should be carried into execution. A professional gentleman of Philadelphia (Mr. Strickland,) was called in to the aid of the architect of the Capitol, to devise plans of improvement, who, after a consultation, recommended " the suspension of a flat ceiling of lath and plaster over the whole area of the Hall, "within the columns, and upon a level with the stone cornice." Nothing, however, was done towards carrying this plan into execution, and it was not until 1828 that the subject was again agitated ; but no satisfactory solution of the difficulty in question being given to warrant the committee to recommend the construction of a flat ceiling, and thereby destroy the beauty of the Hall, no report was made to the House.