A Grand Entrance

A $621 million visitor center is the new gateway for tours of the U.S. Capitol

November 30, 2008|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,ed.gunts@baltsun.com

We have built no national temple but the Capitol," U.S. Rep. Rufus Choate of Massachusetts said in 1833. "We consult no common oracle but the Constitution."

Now America's "temple" has a new front door, just in time for the millions of visitors expected to descend on Washington for the presidential inauguration and related festivities.

The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center will open Tuesday as the starting point for guests touring the Capitol, the seat of the legislative branch of federal government and the place where Barack Obama will take the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States.

Planners say they expect more than 3 million visitors a year to visit the Capitol, up from 1.5 million in recent years.

The visitor center's opening comes at a time when people are "riveted on government" because of the recent elections, said Terrie Rouse, the center's CEO for Visitor Services. "Interest is very strong."

"The visitor center is a treasure in itself," said Stephen Ayers, acting architect of the Capitol and chief operating officer. "We have built a modern, 21st-century facility, while at the same time preserving and enhancing the historic features of the Capitol and its grounds."

Located on the east side of the Capitol, with its main entrance near First Street and East Capitol Street Northeast, the underground visitor center is one of three recently completed attractions all within easy walking distance of each other. The others are the refurbished National Museum of American History on the Mall, which reopened Nov. 21 after an $85 million transformation, and the relocated Newseum at 555 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.

The new Capitol attraction is also part of a national trend in which many historic buildings and places are opening new visitor or interpretive centers, including Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, in Virginia, and Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

The new visitor center is not meant to be a destination unto itself but a supplement to and extension of the Capitol, which was built beginning in 1793.

Constructed over six years at a cost of $621 million, the center is the largest single addition to the Capitol since its dome was completed in the 1860s. It was placed underground, planners say, to preserve historic views to and from the Capitol.

As designed by the Washington office of RTKL, with Rod Henderer as project architect, the 580,000-square-foot building in many ways has the look and feel of a museum, complete with scale models, films and an exhibition hall highlighting historic documents and other artifacts.

Among the highlights are the ceremonial trowel and gavel George Washington used to lay the building's cornerstone in 1793, John Quincy Adams' cane and the drafting tools used by Thomas Walter to design the Capitol dome.

Documents include Thomas Jefferson's letter detailing the funds for Lewis and Clark Expedition; John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech vowing to put a man on the moon in 10 years; Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech; and a copy of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Also on display is the Lincoln catafalque, a pine platform built to support President Abraham Lincoln's casket after he was assassinated in 1865, and used since then when presidents and military leaders have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Also notable is an 11-foot-high cutaway scale model of the Capitol dome and Rotunda, depicting details such as Constantino Brumidi's painting on the dome's ceiling, the Apotheosis of Washington.

According to Ayers, the center was built to enhance the visitor experience by showing educational exhibits that prepare guests to see the Capitol, and also to provide amenities that guests need during their visit, starting with a place to wait under cover before their tours begin. Visitors now line up outside in the heat, rain and snow to sign up for tours.

The visitor center was also constructed to provide better security for occupants of the Capitol, including members of Congress and those who come to meet with them. All visitors must pass through sensitive electronic scanners before they can enter.

Now that construction is complete, "I believe we succeeded in meeting all our goals," Ayers said. "Generations of Americans will benefit from all [the center] has to offer."

The visitor center has many components, including a large, light-filled hall where visitors can gather before tours begin; two theaters where they can see an orientation film; a 530-seat restaurant; two gift shops; 26 restrooms; meeting rooms; and the exhibition hall containing educational displays.

The large front space was named Emancipation Hall to remind people of the contributions of enslaved laborers who helped build the Capitol. Lined with statues from different states, it evokes a Beaux-Arts train station's grand waiting room.

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