A Capitol Attraction

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Washington’s newest attraction proves that progress can come to the capital city. Last December, just in time for President Obama’s inauguration, Congressional leaders proudly dedicated the new Capitol Visitor Center with ceremonies in its grand hall, which covers 1.3 acres and looks bright as the day beneath huge skylights with walls clad in Virginia limestone.
This impressive space is to a waiting room what Air Force One is to the Wright Flyer. Sure, it has clerks processing tickets and the familiar loading chutes of velvet ropes to corral milling crowds waiting to see the orientation film. Yet there’s a sense of modern grandness and of American legacy.
Around the periphery stand as diverse a collection of heroic statues as ever peopled a pantheon—not the giants of history, but lesser-known Americans who were each something special: the Hawaiian warrior king Kamehameha I, draped in a gold cloak; John L. Swigert, an Apollo 13 astronaut, in his white spacesuit; Montana Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the lone dissenter in the vote to declare war in 1941; Sara Winnemucca, the first native woman to publish a book; Philo T. Farnsworth, the “father of television.” The statues reveal a harlequin array of styles and media: bronze, stone, and colored resins. They’re all about life-sized, the better to emphasize their humanity, as if to say: these honored people are like us, and each made a difference.
After seeing the film, visitors encounter a hands-on model that kids (and adults) can touch, an 11-foot-tall copy of the Capitol dome’s exterior. It stands at the entrance to the exhibition hall, a softly lit space punctuated by video stations that can access encyclopedic information files and by wall displays of precious historical documents. Notable architecture displays include a model of the dome’s other side, the dome’s inside in intriguing detail, and a series of models of this great building as it has appeared in its several configurations amid Capitol Hill’s changing surroundings.
Among many reminders that the Capitol has two “sides” (the Senate on the north and the House on the south), two video screens carry live feeds of the 
proceedings in both legislative chambers. This is also apt, since a prime purpose of the facility is to orient visitors to the Capitol, engaging them before they tour the edifice. Even this is a different experience than before. The old tours were led by interns and junior aides from your congressman’s office; now, better-informed guides in bright uniforms do the honors.
This corps of guides is one of the new features that was conceived during the evolution of the Visitor Center, a decades-long process that picked up speed in 1991, took years longer than expected, and cost three times as much. In this case there were better causes for overruns than inefficiency and greed. At first the center was intended to be merely a place where visitors could get out of the rain, with ample restrooms and a decent cafeteria—all of it underground to preserve the look of Capitol Hill and the stately grounds planned by Frederick Law Olmsted. Then in 1998 a mad gunman shot his way into the Capitol, killing two policemen, and Congress decided to add security components. Three years later, the attacks of 9/11 prompted further advanced layers of security and a complex set of new functions for the building, including a self-contained shipping/delivery facility, medical services, and suites of extra offices. In the end, the project added 580,000 square feet to the Capitol and cost $651 million.
It was a huge undertaking to build a three-level underground complex that displaced 650,000 cubic yards of dirt and increased the Capitol’s size by three-fourths. It is so big that pervasive scuttlebutt around Capitol Hill speaks of a “shadow” capitol hidden somewhere within, a supersafe, hyperprotected ghost chamber to accommodate joint sessions of the House and Senate in the event of a future terrorist attack.
A memorable feature of the first grand room in the Visitor Center is the towering Statue of Freedom, the plaster original that was cast in bronze to surmount the Capitol dome itself. Armed with a sword and swathed in stars, she wears a feathered American eagle helmet (Secretary of War Jefferson Davis objected to the liberty (Phrygian) cap that the sculptor had originally intended, because those had been worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome).
Here is another gentle reminder of how far our nation has come, perhaps because one purpose of Washington’s newest attraction is to celebrate our real history, not to sanitize it. After all, the Capitol itself was originally built by slave laborers when the nation still belied its founding premise that “all men are created equal” by letting some human beings own others. So this chamber is called Emancipation Hall, in a spirit of honor (not irony) to celebrate one of the greatest strides Americans as a people have taken.