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You can't drown the Government in the bathtub without a tub
April 16, 2012 8:57 PM   Subscribe

""Each bathtub 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. 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 Capitol are uncertain, but the Senate Bathing Room is known to have been in operation as of February 23rd, 1860."
Roman Mars's 99% Invisible design podcast [previously] explores the once-luxurious Senate bathtubs hidden among the boiler rooms in the basement of the U.S. Capitol.

As a further wrinkle to the story, according to legend, Henry Wilson, Vice President for Ulysses S. Grant's second term, died of pneumonia from using the tubs, and haunted them ever since.
posted by Mchelly (36 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
So....Meetup?
posted by schmod at 10:01 PM on April 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


To hell with it, someone should just FPP every episode of this podcast, because it is just that ridiculously good, every single time.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:05 PM on April 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


But, really, can somebody explain where the heck these things actually are? I've never been able to find them...the Capitol basement is basically a labyrinth of unmarked doors and passageways that loop back on themselves...

(And, yes, I work in that basement. It's got a weird sort of "You're a servant at Downton Abbey" vibe to it)
posted by schmod at 10:05 PM on April 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


neat!
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:20 PM on April 16, 2012


Clearly the lack of terrible capitol bathhouse related scandals means that those congressman just weren't as capable as our current bunch.
posted by Chekhovian at 10:22 PM on April 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Another view of one [Fllckr]
posted by blueberry at 11:42 PM on April 16, 2012


Clearly the lack of terrible capitol bathhouse related scandals means that those congressman just weren't as capable as our current bunch.

Perhaps because back in the day, congressmen could get their tensions relieved on-site with a happy ending in the massage parlour?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:59 PM on April 16, 2012


Perhaps because back in the day, congressmen could get their tensions relieved on-site with a happy ending in the massage parlour?

No, no silly, the "tension relief center" was where the National Museum of the American Indian is now. Seriously.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 6:07 AM on April 17, 2012 [6 favorites]


I hope the tubs came with matching luxurious bathroom stalls with plenty of space for a wide stance.
posted by exogenous at 6:19 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because of cracks that have developed over the years, they are no longer connected to the plumbing system.
Well, that's no fun.
posted by zamboni at 6:28 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


But, really, can somebody explain where the heck these things actually are? I've never been able to find them...the Capitol basement is basically a labyrinth of unmarked doors and passageways that loop back on themselves...

It's been five years since I last visited the baths as a Capitol Guide, but they aren't that inaccessible if you're polite. I cannot recall the exact path to them, but somewhere off one of the main corridors on the Senate side of the basement, where all the rooms start to be labeled, "S-1##" there is a door which is labeled, "Engineers" or something to that design. You knock on this door or open it and politely stick your head in, as politely as one can stick one's head in, and at this point, there should be someone from the Architect of The Capitol staff hanging out. You ask them, "Hi, I was wondering if I could get a peek at the Senate baths?"

For myself, it helped that I wore the uniform of the brave United States Capitol Guide Service (famous for safely guiding groups of intrigued visitors around the pitfalls of the Congressional staffer lead tours, being accurate, and knowing where all the gas masks are stored in the event someone decides to gas the Capitol - NOTE: The clue to run to such a cache was not an alert from some central dispatch, but if we saw the Capitol Police frantically pulling on their own masks), but if you're polite, hopefully the engineers/staff inside will say no problem and point you toward an inner door. That's right, a door behind a door leads you to this secret sanctum of sanitation. It's a locked door which is why it's essetial that someone be behind the first door to unlock the second.

Passing through the second door, you step through a narrow and short hallway (if my memory serves me correctly) and suddenly, you're there. Where decades ago some of our nation's leading politicians dropped their towels and went for a soak. The baths are an oasis of grandeur in a room otherwise relegated to the mundane and boring. More so, that elegance from another century is muted, even dimmed by the plain yellow light of a bulb or two that illuminate the room. You feel like you're in the bowels of a place, a space for which it was either to turn into a dungeon or a boiler room. But then again, the bottom most floor of the United States Capitol has had many different duties, be it a place to stable one's horse or as the failed resting place of the first president of the United States.

The Senate Baths are a neat side trip. If you have a Capitol Tour Guide, and if they're in a good mood, you might ask for them to show you the place right after a tour and they might oblige. I recall one fellow guide did such a thing, guided the visitors down to the bottom floor (through a stairwell not far from the marble staircase which leads up to the Rotunda - but this one built in pedestrian brick) and through the hallways made of painted white brick and with ceilings of exposed pipes and wiring. He took them through the engineers room and into the confines of the Senate bath, where to some surprise, he and the guests to the Capitol, discovered two Senate pages seated upon one of the marble baths and engrossed in a make out session. Stunned, the Guide and his party watched the two giggling and blushing girls flee the baths like birds flushed from a grassy field, leaving behind only perplexed stares and a fine story of the Senate baths to be taken back home and most likely shared at every cocktail party to be attended.
posted by Atreides at 6:45 AM on April 17, 2012 [109 favorites]


God Bless America.
posted by leotrotsky at 7:35 AM on April 17, 2012 [4 favorites]


Ooooooh, if you.... mmm... don't like the senates bathtubs!? We can't be FRIENDS ANYMORE. HMMMMMmmmm. 99% invisible.
posted by Napierzaza at 8:03 AM on April 17, 2012


But seriously, 99% Invisible is sometimes hard to listen as RM just gushes all over whatever subject matter he's talking about that week.

Though I think that "Risk!" gets the prize for making podcast listing uncomfortable for people who listen while in the subway. Just how he does the sex-toy ads like he is a phone-sex worker has put me in a back log of un-listened episodes.
posted by Napierzaza at 8:07 AM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


the bottom most floor of the United States Capitol

Uh huh. Right. That's what they want you to think!
posted by Big_B at 8:59 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


the bottom most floor of the United States Capitol

Consider this, my current office was supposed to be a super-secret secured bunker that got dropped from a program but only after the construction phase had started on a Federal project. It is 5 floors underground, under the parking garage of a pretty ordinary looking DC Federal office building.

Now consider this, on 9/11, my office was across the street from the Capitol. As the events unfolded the streets became an absolute parking lot, no one was moving, yet somehow there were Abrams tanks, that are wider than a single traffic lane and take a wide-load flatbed to transport over long distance, zipping arond the mall. Where did these tanks come from and how did they get to the Capitol so quickly when the streets were all blocked?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:30 AM on April 17, 2012 [14 favorites]


The 10th Regiment of Foot, are you saying what I think you're saying?

THE TANKS ARE IN THE BATHTUBS!
posted by rmless at 10:54 AM on April 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


THE TANKS ARE IN THE BATHTUBS!

I know W. H. Taft used to bathe there, but I don't think they're that big!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:17 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Probably why they cracked
posted by rmless at 11:37 AM on April 17, 2012


The 10th Regiment of Foot: "Where did these tanks come from and how did they get to the Capitol so quickly when the streets were all blocked?"

Presumably they came from Fort McNair? It wouldn't have been terribly difficult for them to clear a path going TOWARD the capitol on that day.

Owing to DC's topography, it's actually really difficult to build *anything* underground near the mall, especially on the west end. It's all reclaimed land, and Constitution Ave is actually built on top of an old canal.

As far as the Capitol's concerned, the Capitol Visitors Center is deeper than the baths, although that's a fairly recent addition. Sadly, your conspiracy theory is open to the public, and contains conference rooms and a gift shop.
posted by schmod at 12:38 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, the Capitol Visitors Center was built after 2001.
(I have no idea about tank routes, but it's interesting to think about there being tanks on the Mall that day)
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:43 PM on April 17, 2012


I mean.....nothing quite says "GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY" like a tank in your rearview mirror.
posted by schmod at 12:45 PM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Capital Visitor Center (or CVC in local parlance) was already under construction when I was hired in February 2007. At the time I was hired, I was told quite clearly that it would most likely be done by that summer. I grew excited and followed its progress on the Architect of the Capitol's website. Then it was summer and the forecast was for that fall. It finally, officially opened not that winter, or the next spring, but in December, 2008 at a price of half a billion dollars. Part of the delay, I was told, that it began initially just as a visitor center until someone in Congress said, "Wait, while we are digging down here, why don't we add just one more thing..." And now there are press rooms, offices, etc, in addition to the simple visitor center. It's one of those classic example of government expenditure I will always remember.

Speaking of 9/11 at the Capitol, not long after I started, a coworker told me of watching from the steps of the Capitol the black plumes of smoke rise from the Pentagon that she hadn't felt the same way since she had watched black plumes of smoke rise over Pearl Harbor. Incredibly, as a young girl, she had witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier. She was a wonderful story teller, like many of the professional guides, and it was poignant to meet someone who neatly bookended such traumatic events in American history. I can't recall if she's finally retired or not, but she would immediately leave work to go provide guided tours of the capital and if I recall correctly, had a rather large family of foster kids she had taken in.
posted by Atreides at 1:00 PM on April 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Which Dan Brown book has a bit set in the Capitol basement?
posted by smackfu at 1:04 PM on April 17, 2012


I always assumed that the tanks popped out from the parking garage that sits under Lower Senate Park, beside the Russel Building. There are also a lot of mystery garage doors on the various tunnels that run under the mall. Lord knows what is behind those!

It's all reclaimed land, and Constitution Ave is actually built on top of an old canal.

Tiber creek came down from the North East about where the tracks enter Union Station, skirted the Hill to the North West and then flattened out into a wetland. To drain the wetland, they first built the canal that is now Constitution, but in order to turn it into a road, they built a massive brick tunnel that you could drive a bus through, that still runs under the buildings along Louisiana and Constitution. In 2006, the creek flooded the tunnels and spilled into the IRS and Federal Triangle buildings. The water still flows out next to the old canal locks at, yes, the Watergate.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:09 PM on April 17, 2012 [7 favorites]


I just discovered this podcast last week and devoured the entire archive in two days.

My life is now a tragedy of No More 99% Invisible.

Although The Memory Palace is helping a little.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:06 PM on April 17, 2012


The 10th Regiment of Foot: " The water still flows out next to the old canal locks at, yes, the Watergate"

Now, that's great. As someone who isn't at all familiar with the area, I just figured that was a name someone came up with because it sounded nice.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 2:36 PM on April 17, 2012


Carrara Marble bathtubs : For all your Senate waterboarding needs.
posted by crunchland at 3:35 PM on April 17, 2012


I absolutely love this story. Too many people think of the architecture of the past in one of two ways -- as a preserved showpiece, or as a romantically derelict wreck. Here we have something grand underfoot, not hidden so much as built over and ignored, from a time when our daily lives were radically different. The malarial swamp of 19th century life in the South -- the elegance of the availability of an actual bath . . .

To me, these tubs are a reminder of the absolute otherness of these people who appear on our money and in our paintings and in our speeches. They were not simply people like us in period costume. They were short, ill-nourished and dirty, and even the wealthiest of them were used to a harder life than ours; so they valued this elegance a good deal more than we will again.

(I've always wondered how tub baths were ever really enjoyed back when people got into bathtubs more rarely, and before the invention of modern cleaning products at that. I cannot imagine wanting to linger in a tub before the invention of Scrubbing Bubbles.)
posted by Countess Elena at 5:39 PM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which Dan Brown book has a bit set in the Capitol basement?
I was going to write "One of the stinkers" but actually Lost Symbol was probably the least ridiculous Dan Brown novel I've read.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 6:37 PM on April 17, 2012


The C&O Canal Bicycling Guide from Bikewashington offers some photos and discussion of the old canal (as well as bike routess.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:02 PM on April 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


And here's the NPS page.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:05 PM on April 17, 2012



Meetup? No thanks! Scrolling down from the Henry Wilson, Vice President for Ulysses S. Grant's second term, died of pneumonia from using the tubs, and haunted them ever since link led to the story about the Demon Cat that also lives there. Dead old guys, Aaaaay. DEMON CAT, woah.
posted by peagood at 6:31 AM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Some say the impossible kitty paw print in stone found outside the original Supreme Court chamber belongs to the Demon Cat.

...

...


...

Mroaw! Demon Kitty haz ur sole!
posted by Atreides at 3:23 PM on April 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Countess Elena: "The malarial swamp of 19th century life in the South -- the elegance of the availability of an actual bath . . . "

"The city of Washington was built on a stagnant swamp some 200 years ago, and very little has changed. It stank then, and it stinks now."
posted by Chrysostom at 8:56 AM on April 25, 2012


It's a series of tubs.
posted by SteelyDuran at 8:04 PM on April 26, 2012


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