July 13, 1956
The search for adequate office space proved to be a major theme in the institutional history of Congress during the 20th century. The first permanent Senate office building, later named to honor Georgia senator Richard Russell, opened in 1909. In 1941 congressional officials acknowledged that this facility—despite an addition built along its First Street side in the 1930s—had reached its capacity. Faced with the option of leasing expensive space in nearby private buildings, they began planning for a second building. World War II intervened, however, and delayed action until 1948. By that time, the demand for additional quarters had reached a critical point.
Until the 1940s, Senate staff positions had been mostly clerical and custodial. The shock of the wartime experience convinced congressional leaders of the need to expand Hill staffs to include experts on a growing list of complex policy issues.
Soon after the war ended, Congress passed the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946. This landmark statute allowed Congress to hire professional staffs in ranges of competence and salary equal to those employed within the executive branch. Each committee gained four professional and six clerical aides.
This surge of newly arriving staff intensified the need for a second building—one intended primarily to accommodate committees. In a departure from committee arrangements in the Russell Building, where members and witnesses sat around a common table, the new building would feature large hearing rooms with raised platforms for members and facilities suitable for the newly emerging medium of television.
In 1948 the Senate acquired land across from the Russell Building on First Street. The block—known as “Slum’s Row”—contained substandard housing considered to be an unsightly backdrop to the Capitol. When construction crews cleared the land, 500 people were left to find other homes.
As architects completed their drawings in 1949, a dispute among key senators over the building’s size and cost delayed the project for another five years. Finally, the Senate agreed to a scaled-back plan, and officials laid the cornerstone on July 13, 1956.
When the new facility, later named in memory of Illinois senator Everett Dirksen, opened in October 1958, few might have predicted that 14 years later a proposal for yet another building would begin its journey through the legislative pipeline. In 1982 this third structure—actually an addition to the second—opened as the Philip Hart Senate Office Building.