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.
March nth, 1822.
In consequence of this last suggestion, orders were given to stretch a covering of canvass over the whole Hall; which was done, as speedily as possible, at the height of the blocking course above the columns. This ceiling, composed of an unelastic substance, checked the reverberation but too fully ; it not only put a stop to the echoes, but seemed to absorb the volume of sound; and rendering the Hall dark, by obstructing the sky light, it was removed after a few days.
Another experiment was tried, at a following session, of reducing the dimensions of the Hall, by framing a wooden partition between the columns of the prostyle ; but no good effects were experienced from this measure, to counterbalance the inconvenience from the loss of space and light, and the partition was removed after one week's trial.
No other attempt was made to remedy the evil complained of, until May 19, 1826; when the House resolved, " That the Clerk of this House be authorized to employ William Strickland, of Philadelphia, to act in conjunction with the architect now employed in completing the Capitol, in devising a plan for improving the Hall, so far as to render it better suited to the purposes of a deliberative assembly : That the Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General, be requested to act as a Board of Inspection, on the aforesaid contemplated improvement, during the recess of Congress; and that, if the said architects can devise any plan for accomplishing the object, that shall receive the sanction of the Board aforesaid, they be authorized to execute the same, under the direction of the said Board. Resolved, That the expense be defrayed out of the contingent fund".
In pursuance of this resolution, Mr. Strickland was invited to make the examination desired, and attended to this service in the Summer of 1826, after which the following statements were presented to the House in February, 1827.
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The undersigned, constituting the Board of Inspection appointed by the said resolution, have the honor to report: That, shortly after the termination of the last session of Congress, the Clerk of the House communicated to Mr. William Strickland the substance of the resolution, and requested his attendance at Washington, to co-operate in the accomplishment of its object: that it was not convenient to Mr. Strickland to attend until some time in July, when, in the absence of the undersigned and the Clerk, he visited the city, and examined the Hall of the House, in company with Mr. Bulfinch: That the Clerk, on the 28th August last, addressed a letter to Mr. Strickland, (of which a copy accompanies the report, marked A,) to which he received an answer, under date of the 12th September last, of which the paper marked B, is a copy : That the undersigned being desirous to be present in the Hall with Messrs. Strickland and Bulfinch, when they examined it, requested the Clerk to ask the attendance of the former again at Washington, and accordingly, he came here in October last, as early as he could consistently with other engagements : That the undersigned were present when those gentlemen inspected the Hall, and discussed various plans of improvement which were suggested: that Mr. Strickland's opinion as to the most effectual improvement will be seen in his report to the Board, under date the 31st of October last, hereto annexed, marked C, and that of Mr. Bulfinch in his report, under date the 1st November last, also hereto annexed, marked D : That, from the perusal of those reports it will appear that both the architects concur in opinion, that the only effectual remedies of the defects complained of in the Hall, are, 1st, to suspend a flat ceiling of lath and plaster over the whole arena of the Hall within the colums, and upon a level with the stone cornice or springing line of the same; or, 2dly, To break up the existing smooth surface of the dome, by deeply sunk caissons, in the manner of the ceiling of the Senate Chamber and the Rotundo. Both the architects agree that the first mentioned plan would materially impair the symmetry and proportions of the Hall, and Mr. Bulfinch thinks it might injuriously diminish the cubic volume of air in the Hall.
That it became altogether unnecessary for the undersigned to give their sanction to either of the two suggested plans, because the vacation between the last and the present session of the House was too short to admit of the execution of either, so as to have the Hall prepared in time for the accommodation of the House : that the long vacation which will ensue, after the termination of the present session of Congress, will be sufficient to allow of the execution of either of them to which the House may think proper to give its sanction.
That the undersigned suggested to the architects the propriety of testing the efficacy of the suspended ceiling, by stretching a covering of silk over the space which it was intended to occupy; but it was stated that the absorbent qualities of that, or of any cloth, are such as would prevent its being a fair experiment ; and that it was also mentioned, that, in the year 1814, such a test, (though not with silken cloth) was applied, and that the inconveniences which it occasioned induced the House quickly to direct its removal.
All which is respectfully submitted.
H. Clay, -James Barbour, Wm. Wirt.
Washington, 8th February, 1827.
Washington, 28M August, 1826.
Wm. Strickland Esq.
Sir : I was disappointed in not finding you in Washington when I arrived, on the 3d July, having heard, in Carlisle, of your intended visit to Washington. From the conversation I have had with Mr. Bulfinch, I am led to believe, that you think that no alteration can be made in the Hall, which would be beneficial, except a flat ceiling of plaster. I write now, to ascertain whether you have made up your mind definitively; or, if you could not come down again to Washington, immediately after the 6th September, as Mr. Clay will then be at home. I wish you, very much, to see the Committee, as several expedients have been suggested; such as a flat, plastered ceiling; a glass ceiling; a glass cover, at the height of say thirty feet, supported by brass pillars, and rather concave, (taking down the galleries, and having the auditory on a level with the Hall,) raising the floor to the level of the walk behind the speaker's chair, making it either level, or rising, in the usual form, from front to rear.