Congress now has a $621 million welcome mat in the form of a new, grand visitor center that makes its public debut December 2. The visitor center, the largest addition ever to the 215-year-old U.S. Capitol, is meant to inform, involve, and inspire, officials said Monday at a media preview.
It didn't take long for a reporter to fire back: "How inspired will taxpayers be when you inform them of the cost?"
It was an inevitable question because controversy has clouded the Capitol Visitor Center since its groundbreaking in 2000. It was to be open in four years, but it has taken eight. It was to cost $265 million, but its price tag has skyrocketed because of enlargements and, after 9/11, security enhancements.
The delays and cost overruns led the center to be regarded as a bloated, behind-schedule Taj Mahal—a public project symbolic of Washington waste and inefficiency. It's no coincidence that the media tour was put off until after the elections. "A beautiful disaster," is what one Democrat had dubbed it.
There was much beauty—and no wreckage—in evidence on Monday as reporters toured parts of the 580,000-square-foot expanse, which is about three quarters as big as the Capitol itself. Much of the new addition gives the House and Senate more space for official business, including offices, hearing rooms, and broadcasting facilities. But no, it doesn't have a built-in bunker, Stephen Ayers, acting architect of the Capitol, told reporters. "There is no bunker—that's urban legend," Ayers said.
Built underground on three levels, the center is awash in autumn sunlight thanks to its six skylights, some with views of the Capitol dome.
Its treasures include an 11-foot model of the dome, the plaster model used to create the Statue of Freedom that rests atop the dome, and the Lincoln catafalque that has supported the remains of Abraham Lincoln and other presidents.
For history buffs, there are more artifacts, such as George Washington's letter to Congress announcing victory at Yorktown at the end of the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson's letter to lawmakers asking them to fund the Lewis and Clark expedition, and John F. Kennedy's speech vowing that the country would put a man on the moon.
For political junkies, there are touch-screen quizzes to test your knowledge of Congress—and two small theaters to watch floor proceedings, courtesy of C-SPAN. People can identify their elected representative by typing in their home address. There's also a stirring 13-minute orientation film that captures the beauty and diversity of the country's landscapes and cityscapes and details the role of Congress as the second of three equal branches of government.
The center's largest space is called Emancipation Hall in honor of the slaves who built the Capitol by clearing the grounds, quarrying stone, sawing timber, and performing other tasks. The hall contains 23 statues meticulously moved in from the Capitol's Statuary Hall. A 24th, a likeness of Helen Keller, the blind author and educator from Alabama, is due to arrive this spring.
The center, known by its abbreviation, CVC, features amenities including a 530-seat restaurant, 26 restrooms, and two gift shops. It's the first stop before tours of the Capitol. Beginning Friday, a website at visitthecapitol.gov will be available for reserving free tickets for appointed times.
Visitors also have the option of calling the Office of Visitor Services at (202) 226-8000 or contacting their member of Congress for a ticket.
The center will be open Mondays through Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It will be closed on Sundays as well as Christmas, New Year's Day, Inauguration Day, and Thanksgiving. The entrances are near East Capitol and First streets.
One postscript: To visit the Senate or House Gallery, and see Congress in action, call your lawmaker for a pass—although the Capitol Visitor Center remains your first stop.