99% Invisible Podcast – 48 – The Bathtubs or the Boiler Room

“I have this habit of walking into any door that’s unlocked…You start poking around, going into doors…you find the coolest things…” -Andrea Seabrook, NPR Congressional Correspondent

Capitol building

In the eight years Andrea Seabrook has been reporting on Congress, she 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.

That’s when she found the marble bathtubs.

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.