The Secret Solid Marble Bathtubs in the US Senate's Boiler Room

In 1869, the bathtubs in the basement of the US Capitol building looked something like the painting below.

This post was originally published on 99% Invisible's blog on Feb 26, 2012. Since then, reporter Andrea Seabrook has left NPR for DecodeDC and Scripps.

Below: The Bather: 1869, by Peter Waddell. "The Senate bathing facility, pictured here, boasted of tubs carved from single blocks of Carrara marble. Minton tiles covered the floor. In 1869 a city newspaper published a description of one of these luxurious bathing chambers, noting that 'when not in use, it is always open to the inspection of visitors.' Here a senator is surprised by two misinformed visitors."

The Secret Solid Marble Bathtubs in the US Senate's Boiler Room

Here they are today:

The Secret Solid Marble Bathtubs in the US Senate's Boiler Room

[Above: Andrea Seabrook showing us the baths today. Credit: Sam Greenspan]

The Senate bathing facility has since become a maintenance room—a maintenance room that happens to have a marble bathtub carved from a solid block of Italian marble. Sitting on the steps to one tub is our guide, NPR Congressional Correspondent Andrea Seabrook. In the eight years she's been reporting on Congress, Andrea has made it a point to get to know the whole Capitol building.

"The members of the House Republican Caucus—and sometimes the Democrats—meet in the basement for their closed door secret strategy sessions," Andrea says. "And it's really good place to get a tip from members that you know about what's going on."

One day, after getting the info she needed for her story, she decided to press further on into the depths of the Capitol. "I have this habit of walking into any door that's unlocked. You start poking around, going into doors... you find the coolest things…" she says. During one of these explorations, she found the marble bathtubs.

The Secret Solid Marble Bathtubs in the US Senate's Boiler Room

[Above: Andrea does some fact-checking in the tub. Credit: Sam Greenspan]

The bathtubs were installed around 1860 during the expansion of the Capitol. DC is known for its swampy summers, and legend has it that senators could be banished from the chamber if they were too smelly. But lawmakers—like most Americans at the time—didn't have indoor plumbing at home. They needed a place where they could wash up.

So, the Architect of the Capitol ordered six marble bath tubs, each three by seven feet and carved by hand in Italy, to be installed in the Capitol basement—three on the House side, three on the senate. Today, only two tubs remain on the Senate side, in a room which now stores the building's heating and cooling equipment. But evidence of room's former grandeur remains.

The Secret Solid Marble Bathtubs in the US Senate's Boiler Room

[Above: The Minton tile has been covered over with gray industrial paint. Credit: Sam Greenspan]

The Secret Solid Marble Bathtubs in the US Senate's Boiler Room

[Above: Look closely and you can still see the egg-and-dart molding through the tangle of duct work. Credit: Sam Greenspan]

The Secret Solid Marble Bathtubs in the US Senate's Boiler Room

Sam says: "After exploring the basement, Andrea took me to another hidden part of the Capitol—the attic. The attic has roof access, which means that it's been trafficked by decades-worth of Congressional Pages, who are charged with changing the flags that fly over Congress. And the Pages, like most teenagers, wanted to leave their mark."


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This post has been republished with permission from Roman Mars. It was originally published on 99% Invisible's blog, which accompanies each podcast.