The Speaker of the Missouri House apparently has decided that one of the great architectural features of the Capitol should be trashed. He’s having a couple of offices built in the House Press Gallery, badly squeezing the reporters who work there and making it especially difficult for those times when the press corps swells for special events such as State of the State messages.
And who is going to use those offices? That seems to be a deep, dark secret. One of Speaker Tim Jones’ staffers told us , “We don’t know who goes there.”
Great. They’re throwing up offices right below the magnificent stained-glass window of the “Glory of Missouri in Peace” and they don’t know what they’re going to be used for.
Our colleague, Phill Brooks, who runs the University of Missouri reporting program, went up to the press gallery earlier this week and took a bunch of pictures.
The brilliant mind(s) that conceived of this idea leave little room for people to move around. They’re taking up space that the education department producers use for their satellite feeds of the State of the State message and any other special events that draw special attention. They’re eliminating the area where a white board has been used to keep track of bills, an important thing as the days dwindle down in each session and a lot of stuff is happening. We’ve been told some areas have been left on each end for television cameras, but not much area because equipment used to distribute sound, copy machines, and staff assistance operates in that area.
If you look at the pictures you’ll also see that these offices are being constructed in front of the maroon felt curtains that hang on the back wall of the chamber. They’re not there just as a color accent for the chamber. The curtains were installed when the capitol was new on the advice of the founder of the field of architectural acoustics, Wallace Sabine, who was brought to Jefferson City by the Capitol Commission Board to tell the builders of the House chamber how to dampen the sound that otherwise would bounce off the marble walls of the chamber, rendering debate unintelligible.
But that’s okay. Just cram everybody into reduced space in the gallery so the House can build two ugly offices in front of the acoustical curtain for what so far is no apparent reason.
Oh, well, have you heard about the table for the press we’re adding in the side gallery downstairs? we were asked. Yes, we’ve heard about that. Not content to screw up the press gallery, the House is trying to screw up its own side gallery down on the floor. Reporters can sit at the table but of course they won’t be able to see around the large columns that separate the floor from the gallery. And if the House Information Office or some television stations want to shoot video from the area between the columns that they usually use, the people at the table won’t be able to see a thing.
So why is the Speaker doing this all of the sudden? It seems that some Representatives don’t have enough room in their present offices (we are told) and are moving into places where the staff has been housed so it’s necessary for the staff to have new space and that means one of the great architectural features of the Capitol is expendable. That’s all we could learn from the Speaker’s staff. Nothing more specific than that.
The number of representatives has not changed. Of course the majority party has more members than any majority in modern history and you can’t expect a member of the majority party to have a tiny office. Of course, the minority party has the smallest numbers ever but it apparently hasn’t occurred to the majority that it can take over some now-empty minority party space. But that’s far too simple. Better to screw up part of the architecture of one of the nation’s great state capitols.
Now, it would be easy to see this post as whining by the press corps or, at least, one of its members, and a tantrum about a few square feet of supposedly unused space in an area that is the House’s to do with what it wishes to do. We’ve already questioned the “unused space” error. But this entry is about more than that.
The press is known as the fourth estate, a designation attributed to comments from the great British statesman Edmund Burke during debate in Parliament in 1787 when the press began reporting on the actions of the House of Commons. Thomas Carlyle quoted him in his book, “On Heroes and Hero Worship,” when he noted that “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all.”
We appreciate the compliment, Ed, but we are not more important than the other three–the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. It can be argued that the press is as integral to a free nation as the independent branches of government because it is the link to the people who consent to be governed. We do have an important place in the system and that’s why state capitols and the national capitol provide facilities for reporters so they can tell the public to the best of their ability what their elected government is doing to, for, and with them.
So we do get a little territorial when it comes to efforts to restrict access or space where we can do our jobs. But more important is that the House is insulting the Missouri Capitol itself and that goes beyond encroaching on the fourth estate’s work area in importance.
At a time when the Capitol needs so many things in the line of repairs and restorations, the House leadership has decided to screw up one of its great architectural features.
The House might control its area but the Capitol belongs to the people of Missouri and the House is abusing the greatest symbol the people of Missouri have. Citizens who appreciate such abuse should send their thank-you notes to Speaker of the House Tim Jones.