Senate Office Building (Russell Senate Office Building)

Built to relieve the overcrowded Capitol without distracting from its beauty, the Russell Senate Office Building remains a dignified exemplar of Beaux-Arts architecture.

Along with its counterpart, the Cannon House Office Building, the Russell Senate Office Building was one of the first office buildings constructed to house Congress outside of the U.S. Capitol.

As new states joined the Union and Congressmen added new staff to serve their growing constituencies, the Capitol was becoming overcrowded. Senators worked at their desks in the Senate chamber, which offered little quiet or privacy, and many opted to rent or borrow office space elsewhere. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, Congress began working towards the construction of separate office buildings for the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In 1904, Congress retained the services of the prominent New York architectural firm Carrère and Hastings for the construction of the two new buildings. Known for designing the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, the firm had previously designed the Richard H. Townsend House (now known as the Cosmos Club) in DC. John Carrère took the lead on the Senate Office Building, while Thomas Hastings led work on the House Office Building. Elliott Woods, the Architect of the Capitol from 1902 to 1923, served as the planner and overseer for both projects.

The cornerstone for the Senate Office Building was laid on July 31, 1906, and construction lasted under three years. The building officially opened on March 5, 1909, the day after President William H. Taft’s inauguration and just in time for the Senate of the 61st Congress to move in. Some senators, however, had begun occupying the building before it was finished, ignoring the sawdust and commotion to seize the open space as it became available.

Carrère and Hastings had both trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and they built the House and Senate Office Buildings in line with the French neoclassical sensibilities that informed the Beaux-Arts style. Unlike the ornately decorated Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, another Beaux-Arts building in DC that had been finished a decade earlier, the House and Senate Office Buildings were designed more simply so as not to distract from the Capitol building they flanked. Ensuring that the buildings would not be in competition with the Capitol was a major influence on their design. To avoid making the Senate Office Building taller than the Capitol, for instance, Carrère designed it to be only three stories tall on its Constitution Avenue side, although it rises five stories above the ground on the C Street side due to the steeply-sloped streets of Capitol Hill.

Senators enjoyed all the amenities of a modern office building in their new home. At the time, “modern” meant that the building featured forced-air ventilation and steam heat, electricity, elevators, telephones, and telegraph and post offices. An underground passageway connected the building to the Capitol, allowing senators to travel the ⅕-mile distance multiple times per day by bus and, after 1912, by monorail. Most importantly, compared to the cramped Capitol, the Senate Office Building was spacious. Each of 92 senators from the 46 states had an office for himself and one for his staff, in addition to the building’s cafeterias, gymnasium, and other common spaces. The New York Times commented deprecatingly on the building’s massive size at the time of its completion: "When in the course of human events it became necessary for these ninety-two business gentlemen to have business offices, they erected a building that a thousand men would feel lonesome in." 

This statement was quickly proved wrong, however, as senators continued to hire more and more new staff to accommodate their states’ increasing populations. Within 20 years, the Senate had outgrown the building. Carrère’s original design had had only three sides, arranged in a U shape around a central courtyard; to increase the amount of office space, a new wing was added in 1933 on the originally open First Street side. The prominent architect Nathan C. Wyeth, whose many designs in DC include the expansion of the West Wing of the White House, designed the addition in partnership with Francis P. Sullivan.

However, even this addition could not solve the Senate’s space problem for good. By 1949, senators were once again renting office space to accommodate the expansion of their staffs, and by 1954, the number of Senate staff had doubled from what it had been when the Senate Office Building opened 45 years earlier. Construction began on a new building, now known as the Dirksen Senate Office Building, in 1955 and finished in 1958.

Known as the Old Senate Office Building since the 1950s, the original building was officially named for longtime Georgia Senator Richard Brevard Russell, Jr. after his death in 1972. Nearly 40 senators still work in the Russell Senate Office Building. Many important hearings have taken place in the building’s Caucus Room—now known as the Kennedy Caucus Room, as both John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy announced their presidential candidacies there in 1960 and 1968, respectively—including the 1912 hearings on the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the Watergate hearings in 1974, the Iran–Contra hearings of the 1980s, and the 1991 confirmation hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas.

DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
Exempt from National Register listing (per Section 107 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966)



1st Street & Constitution Avenue, NE