RALEIGH — Beneath ornate Corinthian columns and a portrait of George Washington, in a chamber shaped like a Greek amphitheater, House lawmakers convened a session Thursday in the State Capitol where lawmakers first met 220 years ago.
The House approved a resolution commemorating the anniversary of the first session in the Capitol on Dec. 30, 1794. The General Assembly met there until 1831 when the Capitol burned down. It resumed sessions in the reconstructed building in 1841, where it met until 1961.
“As we sit in this old chamber and these desks, it would be almost appropriate to be wearing ... cutaway coats and powdered whigs,” said Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican, “because this is a fitting place to remember the early days of the republic, which established a new standard of liberty for the entire world.”
The chamber is restored to its 1840s look, with pearl-gray walls and white trim, when a lawmaker’s office was their simple, hand-made wooden desk on the floor and when visitors (not so much lobbyists) sat in the cantilevered balcony, which now smells like mothballs.
For the session, the lawmakers crammed into the small wooden chairs and without the aid of a microphone spoke in booming tones. Rep. Chris Millis, a 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound Hampstead Republican, said he didn’t mind the elbow-to-elbow semi-circle rows. “At least we have air conditioning,” he said.
The resolution – H.R. 1175 – honored the locating of the capital near Isaac Hunter’s plantation in Wake County, even though historical records suggest it was his tavern, which served an entrancing cherry bounce liqueur, that served as the landmark.
House lawmakers approved the resolution with a simple voice vote. But another bill on the calendar gave lawmakers a glimpse of what legislating was like in decades past.
A measure to impose an occupancy tax on private residences rented through broker’s, a pressing issue ahead of the U.S. Open in Pinehurst, required a roll call vote.
The clerk called all 120 names individually and the lawmakers responded in turn, a far cry from the practice now, in which they push the green or red buttons on their roomy desks and check the vote on a scoreboard-like screen above the chamber on Jones Street.
As he waited for the clerk to hand-count the 109-0 vote, House Speaker Thom Tillis said the process “may be the best indication of how things have change over the years – it takes 15 seconds now.”
The Senate didn’t join the House at the Capitol, instead meeting in its current confines to consider contentious measures to allow fracking and reduce government regulations.