Only a small percentage of visitors to Missouri’s Capitol get to go up to the Whispering Gallery, a place where a person can stand facing the wall and whisper something that is clearly heard by someone facing the wall on the other side of the gallery. It is unlikely that those who have been there or those who have noticed from their position far below the railing high up in the dome that is the gallery’s home have ever heard that the Missouri Capitol Whispering Gallery was unique in the history of architecture when it was designed.
Deep in the files of the Capitol Commission Board at the Missouri State Archives is a letter written September 29, 1924 by Egerton Swartwout, the architect whose firm designed our capitol, a few days before the building’s dedication in 1924. This letter, as is the case with so many of his letters, is an incredibly human document these ninety-plus years after that event. In it, he recalls his company getting the bid to design the building, the struggles with the contractor over the stone to be used, and other issues that had to be dealt with. Toward the end of the fourth-page of the five-page letter, he writes of his partner, Evarts Tracy, who had left the firm to help create the Army’s Camouflage Corps during World War I and who had died in Paris in 1921 while helping the French with their postwar reconstruction effort, “Poor Tracy, he was extremely interested in the Capitol and very proud of it and one of the things that appealed to him particularly was the whispering gallery, the only one, by the way, that has ever been made artificially, or rather made on purpose, and that was done by Professor Sabine. Poor chap, he is dead now but he talked to me about it often and mentions it in his Memoires…”
That mention sent us off in search of Wallace Sabine and his memoirs. Wallace Sabine was a physics professor at Harvard when Tracy and Swartwout were students there. When Harvard built the Fogg Auditorium, the school quickly learned the audience could not hear what was being said on the stage and asked Sabine to find out why. Sabine’s research made him the father of architectural acoustics. The measurement of sound absorption today is the Sabin. When Tracy and Swartwout were designing the capitol in 1913, they sought Sabine’s advice for ways to make sure members of the House and Senate could hear the speakers in their cavernous, stone-lined chambers. The sound-absorbing curtains and fabrics in both chambers, including in the ceilings, are the result of Sabine’s study of the original plans. Some old timers your reporter talked to a long time ago recalled that debate could be heard in the pre-public address system days quite well.
Sabine was only fifty when he died in 1919. His successor at Harvard as the Hollis Chair of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, Theodore Lyman, edited a volume of Sabine’s papers and speeches and even some unpublished presentation, one of which was about whispering galleries.”
Sabine began that paper, “It is probable that all existing whispering galleries, it is certain that the six most famous ones, are accidents; it is equally certain that all could have been predetermined without difficulty and like most accidents could have been improved upon.” There six he wrote about in his paper were the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, The vases in the Salle Des Cariatides in the Louvre in Paris, St. John Lateran in Rome, the Ear of Dionysius at Syracuse, and the Cathedral of Girgenti. Statuary Hall in our nation’s capitol was the original chamber of the United States House of Representatives until it was outgrown.
Eighteen pages into his discussion of whispering galleries, the father of architectural acoustics wrote that the whispering gallery at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London could have been more efficient had the walls been “slightly, indeed almost imperceptibly curved.” And then he continues, “Such a gallery will be in the dome of the Missouri State Capitol, a gallery unique in this respect that will have been planned intentionally by the architects.”
By the time this paper was published in 1921, editor Lyman added, “The building is now complete. One of the architects, Mr. Edgerton [sic] Swartwout, reports that the whispering gallery in the dome exactly fulfills Professor Sabine’s prediction and has been the cause of much curiosity and astonishment.”
There was some technical stuff in the paper that explained why our whispering gallery works so well and was better than any of the “accidental” ones in previous world history that we won’t get into. But the fact remains—-
The Missouri Capitol’s whispering gallery was the first one in the entire history of world architecture that was designed specifically to be a whispering gallery.
We just dug that story out in the last ten days or so to put in the next capitol book (don’t ask us when it will be out—maybe 2019 if things work out but look for it when you see it). But we couldn’t wait that long to tell it. We’ve known our capitol is an extraordinary place. But this feature puts it on a whole new scale.
There have been several intentional whispering galleries built in this country and internationally since then. But the Swartwout/Sabine Whispering Gallery in the Missouri Capitol was the first of its kind.
Next time you’re in the rotunda. Look up. Climb up, if you have permission. And step through a door to world architectural history.
(The photo is from the blog, “Opulent Opossum,” by Julianna Schroeder, who said some nice things about the Capitol art book back in 2011. She was a great editor to work with.)