Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Andrea Seabrook (AS): I have this habit of walking into any door that’s unlocked. And it actually does me well here in the capital because you start poking around and going into doors and you find the coolest things.
RM: You have to appreciate the moxie of someone who can wander around a federal building, open up a random door, and announce to whoever’s on the other side.
AS: Hi I’m Andrea Seabrook with NPR.
RM: If you didn’t catch that, that’s NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook.
AS: I’m a reporter. We’re poking around looking at secret things in the capital.
RM: I am so in love with Andrea Seabrook right now.
Sam Greenspan (SG): The woman on the other side of the door tells Andrea that she needs to leave, and walking into random doors in the basement of the US capital building is not what she’s supposed to be doing.
RM: And that’s 99% Invisible’s own Sam Greenspan. He went with Andrea to the capital building. I am so jealous of him right now.
AS: That’s not what we’re supposed to be doing.
SG: That doesn’t deter you though.
AS: No! Are you kidding? I don’t care what they think I’m supposed to be doing. I’m here to cover the United States Capitol. And frankly, I see this as part of it.
RM: Even if you try to set aside its role as the hub of Western Democracy, the Capitol building its self- just the building- is an overwhelming structure.
AS: There are six thousand people who work in this complex. That’s including the staffers though. Not, including the politicians. I mean, it’s a huge city. And it has one function if you can call it a function, and that is running the legislative branch of the government. Both, you know, writing the bills and cleaning the toilets.
RM: As if we could tell the difference! Am I right?!
SG: The Capitol is known for its grandeur. The rotunda, statuary hall
RM: The crypt, the marble staircases,
AS: This place is unbelievably ornamental. The walls upstairs have gorgeous friezes, you know, with birds and squirrels and gorgeous, gorgeous lilting, beautiful paintwork.
RM: And that’s all the stuff we’re supposed to see. But when you’re an inveterate doorknob turner and snoop like Andrea Seabrook, you also get to know the Capitol below the surface.
SG: Literally. The basement.
AS: Down here there’s a whole bunch of engineers, like HVAC engineers in blue uniforms that say like, you know, “Joe” on them.
RM: The purpose of the building, the business of government, trickles down to these lower levels.
AS: The members of the house, Republican caucus and sometimes the Democrats, meet in the basement for their sort of closed-door, secret strategy sessions. And it’s a really good place to get a tip from members that you know about what’s going on.
RM: But the main reason we’re here is to see a little bit of the architectural grandeur that has trickled down here too.
AS: Oh it says “please check in with the engineers,” which I think I’ll do… yoo-hoo!
AS: One thing that’s cool is… I’ll just show it to you.
SG: Andrea is leading me through the serpentine route of alleys and doorways and…
SG: Wha…oh my gosh. Here we are!
AS: I know! It’s amazing!
SG: And then there are these bathtubs.
AS: It’s amazing. They’re these beautiful marble bathtubs with marble steps that lead up to them and brass fittings and they’re deep beautiful bathtubs. Just to describe it a little bit, it’s sort of white ivory marble that has this luster. It reminds me of the Venus de Milo or something. It shines, it glows a little bit. And it’s got very faint black veins in it. And it’s just gorgeous! The curves in it are so gentle and continuous.
RM: But for all the grandeur the tubs possess the room its self is the exact opposite. This place was supposed to cool off senators. Now it cools, and heats, the entire Capitol building.
SG: There’s big HVAC equipment and computer servers and large steel cabinets containing god knows what.
RM: Even though the bathtubs, along with the sink and toilet, were here first, they’re the ones that seem out of place.
SG: The bathtubs were installed around 1860, during the expansion of the Capitol. D.C. is known for its swampy summers and legend has it that senators could be banished from the chamber if they were too smelly.
AS: It still reeks, but yeah, back then it was less figurative!
SG: And most people at the time, even politicians, they didn’t have indoor plumbing at home, so Congress needed a place where the politicians could go and wash up.
RM: Andrea reads from an informational card beside the tub.
AS: Okay, here we go. Each bathtub and I am standing in one right now, was carved in Italy from a single block of Carrara marble. Three bathtubs were shipped from Genoa, Italy in July 1859 and reached Baltimore in November of that year. July to November! The other three were shipped from Leghorn, Italy in September of 1859 and arrived in New York in January of 1860. The precise dates of the bathtubs’ arrival and installation at the capital at uncertain but the Senate bathing room is known to have been in operation as of February 23rd, 1860.
SG: Each of the six tubs cost ninety bucks in 1860. Which is around $2,500 a piece today. And that was just to buy the tubs! You got to figure it was still more to ship them from Italy, receive them at the port of Baltimore, transport them to Capitol Hill, and then you had to build a bathing facility suitable to a senator. It had oak wood paneling.
AS: Plaster cornices
SG: Minton tile
AS: Egg and Dart Molding
SG: Of the six original tubs, only two are left. And one has a piece of plywood over it that props up some padlocked steel mystery box. The other was decommissioned years ago.
RM: This place is a total collision of eras. Not just old versus new, and I know that just a little bit ago we were considering the Capitol building as just a building, it’s impossible to look at this room and not see a metaphorical debate right here in the basement.
AS: We’re having this great debate in our country, whether you’re in the Tea Party or Occupy Movement, both share the same concern about who the government is for. And I think the politicians have tried really hard to make it look as if the government is for the people and not for the gorgeously-appointed bathers of the world. For example, when Newt Gingrich took over the house speakership in 1995, after you know, a giant sweep of the ’94 elections he found that there were buckets of ice still being delivered to every single member of Congress’ office. Even though they all had refrigerators with ice makers. It was back from the time when you had to buy ice separately. They sort of shut down all that stuff. At the same time, they got rid of the house historian. They de-funded all of these things that they thought of as “luxuries” and they got rid of a lot of the funding for saving things like this.
RM: As Andrea puts it, the spending vs. austerity question is really just the modern form of the quintessential American question of government.
AS: Which is how much government should exist? What is it there to do? And at one point, about 140 some-odd years ago, there was this idea of the government being an important institution, one that would have gorgeously appointed baths. And now we’re sitting in a boiler room and the beautiful Minton tile has been painted over with industrial gray paint and the walls are kind of dirty and it’s loud and there’s no way to pay homage to it anymore. It’s tucked in a corner and it’s dirty. And there’s a roach trap on the floor.
AS: Look at how gorgeous. See how the marble just sparkles a little bit? If it’s a little bit clean? Look close here. You see this sort of luster?
RM: I don’t think there’s any modern political persuasion that would advocate for the installation of luxurious $3,000 marble bathtubs for senators. As lovely as they may be. The bathtubs, not the senators. But if the ornate marble bathtubs are already there, if they were installed 150 years ago, what do you do with them? What represents the people now?
SG: I mean, it’s interesting that it’s still preserved but it’s likely not going to be restored.
AS: No. Not unless we had some resurgence in respect for our government. Can you imagine the people wanting to pay, even if it was only, give it $500,000, just to be crazy, just to restore this area? It may be a lot more than that actually, come to think of how much you’d have to move! But I don’t know. You wanna go open some doors?
Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.