Friday, April 4, 2014

A Living Shrine, The OSC in the Nineteenth-Century

The life of the Old Senate Chamber did not stop on December 23, 1783 when George Washington resigned his commission. In fact, while seeking to restore the room to how it appeared in the months that Congress was in session at the Maryland State House, researchers have had to look at the entire history of the room - stretching all the way through the nineteenth-century and into the present day. Though the Old Senate Chamber would change dramatically over the years, its status as the room where Washington appeared before Congress was never completely forgotten. Even as early as 1823, Maryland politicians were discussing placing a bronze statue of Washington in the Old Senate Chamber “upon the very spot where he resigned.”[1]

A detail of one of the earliest known stereocards of the Old Senate Chamber, c.1868, before renovations in the 1870s, taken by William M. Chase. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5907-1-1.

Before the renovations between 1876-1878 that considerably altered the appearance of the room (known to some historians today as “the desecration”), the Old Senate Chamber had already dramatically changed since 1783. New, fashionable Empire-style desks were added in 1838 to replace the John Shaw desks supplied in the 1790s. Portraits of the four signers decorated the room, and a carpet was added in 1856. In 1858, the fireplace was taken out to make way for Edwin White’s Washington Resigning, the massive size of which inevitably made it a focal point of the room, consistently earning a mention in nearly every account until its move to the grand staircase in 1904.

The gallery, too, already looked different. As early as 1792, John Shaw had been ordered to create a vestibule and tiered-risers with benches underneath the gallery. These additions were captured in the 1868 stereoviews of the Old Senate Chamber by William M. Chase.

A detail of a stereoview by William M. Chase in 1868, showing the 1790s seating and vestibule. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 182-02-0501. 

The art and vestibule were not the only new additions. In 1837, a new chandelier provided by Cornelius & Son was brought into the room and garnered much excitement in the press. The Niles’ Weekly Register described it as, “A splendid, chandelier, intended for the Senate Chamber of Maryland, has just been finished by Messrs Cornelius & Son, of Philadelphia….The splendid appearance within their store always presents in the evening when lighted is greatly increased by the addition now made of the above chandelier, one of the most beautiful things of the kind we have ever seen.”[2] When gas lighting had come to the State House in the 1850s, the 1830s chandelier was refitted and remained in the Old Senate Chamber until 1878. This chandelier is the first we have an image of in the room and can be seen in the 1868 stereocard detail above.

While we are lucky enough to have some pictures of the Old Senate Chamber before the 1870s remodeling, we still must primarily rely on state receipts and eyewitness descriptions to get a fuller idea of the appearance of the room. While most visitors remarked upon the elegance of the room, Stephen Minot Weld had a rather different impression when he visited the State House in 1861, and wrote in his diary, “On entering the State House, I was saluted by a young boy about ten years old, who was smoking a cigar, and who seemed to think himself the owner of the place. Accepting his services as an escort, we were showing into the Senate and House of Representatives. They were both of them ordinary-looking rooms with very common-looking pine chairs and desks.”[3]

Portrait of Stephen Minot Weld, who visited the Old Senate Chamber in 1861. War Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld, 1861-1865, p.4.

Throughout all of these changes, and many more, however, early tourists still flocked to the Old Senate Chamber. Visitors to the room all recalled similar historic facts and impressions - oftentimes seeking to relate any piece of furniture to the resignation. Civil war nurse Nellie Noye misidentified the nineteenth-century desk as a piece original to the room. “We next visited the Senate Chamber,” she wrote, “which is by far the more interesting room in the building. Where Washington offered his resignation; and I had the privilege of standing on the very spot where he stood at the time. The very identical desk from which he delivered his farewell address, still remains; the only change being the upholstery.”[4] Though it would remain an active legislative room until the construction of the current Senate Chamber in 1904, its purpose as a shrine remained so important that in 1860, members of the legislature even placed a bronze statue of Washington in the room while the piece was on its way to St. Louis![5]

While these descriptions and alterations to the room may seem like obstacles to discovering its original appearance, they actually provide valuable insights into the room’s evolution. By tracking the Old Senate Chamber’s life beyond 1783-1784, we can follow the provenance of some of the furnishings, separate truth from folklore, and pick-up valuable stories along the way.

[1] Maryland House of Delegates Proceedings, 1823, MSA SCM 12329, p.917.
[2] Niles’ Weekly Register, 24 June 1837.
[3] War Diary and Letters of Stephen Minot Weld, 1861-1865. Riverside Press, 1912, p.27.
[4] Mumford, Will trans, Helen “Nellie” Noye, 4 September 1863. Letter owned by The Clements Library at the University of Michigan.
[5] “The Legislature,” Annapolis Gazette, 9 February 1860.

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