A Historical Guide to the Capitol and New Visitor’s Center

The Capitol's newest addition says much about our times, Jamie Stiehm writes.

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We the people have always written the story of our journey on the walls of the United States Capitol. This week's opening of the massive new Capitol Visitor Center is no different: the latest chapter of historical handwriting on the marble masterpiece of American democracy.

Now our writing is clearly all over the East front of the Capitol complex and under the grounds. Less clear is whether future generations will be grateful for a bunkerlike structure that tells a story of our post-September 11 times.

For $621 million, the plush three-story underground facility is meant to make you feel at home in the hall of a great house. A sense of the republic's nooks, crannies, heroes, and proud moments sets the scene while you wait for a tour of the Capitol, connected directly above. For hungry and weary tourists, a hefty restaurant and 26 restrooms are part of the new deal.

First among the symbols you can't miss is a plaster model of the towering Statue of Freedom, which sits atop the dome. Another statuesque figure in the vast, skylit Emancipation Hall portrays the Shoshone American Indian woman Sacagawea—she who helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their expedition exploring the West for President Thomas Jefferson 200 years ago. Also standing sentry in stone are some 20 other great Americans (including several members of Congress, a Confederate general, and an astronaut) moved from the Capitol's formal halls to be kind of a democratic greeting committee.

One striking item is an old Masonic trowel in the exhibition, dating from the first pages of the American story. George Washington used it when he laid the Capitol's cornerstone in 1793, holding that instrument in his hand. He helped give the United States an unbroken story line, rare in this world even among western democracies. Neither Germany nor France, with their bloody pasts, can proudly call one single building home of their governments.

Not all of the Capitol's history is so proud. Uncounted, unnamed people, many seized from African villages, shipped over the middle passage and sold on these shores, left their mark on the marble, too. They worked their trades under "masters" in Washington's summer sun and winter cold. Soaring words in the Declaration and Constitution were blind to them—then. All the same, their labor literally helped build democracy from the ground up. Their writing is on the walls from early in our journey.

To their credit, the Visitor Center designers named Emancipation Hall to honor the slaves who worked and toiled on the Capitol's construction.

When the Civil War broke out, the Capitol's majestic dome, started in 1855, was only half-finished. Abraham Lincoln never mentioned this fact in his inaugural address. But then, he didn't need to; it was there clear as day, as a haunting backdrop, while the nation tore itself apart. Whether the work in progress would be completed was an open question. The Capitol was a perfect reflection of the uncertain and divided state of the Union. (To underscore history's cycles, the bier that held Lincoln's casket in 1865, before his body made a railroad voyage back to Springfield, Ill., will be on permanent display at the center.)

Under the dome today, the Capitol Rotunda is filled with images of great Americans: the Founding Fathers whose classically cleft faces and dashing deeds adorn the wall murals in the Rotunda, other presidents, and notable figures as statues. The most recent addition to the lineup depicts in marble three women's rights leaders: Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. The statue was donated to Congress in 1921, a year after women won the right to vote after a struggle so long that none of the trio lived to see it happen. But it dwelt in the obscurity of the congressional "Crypt" until achieving its current exalted place in 1997. They are the only three women in the company of all the great men.

The Rotunda, arguably the most uplifting indoor space in America, is also a deeply solemn place. It has seen its share of tears over the years. Twelve dead presidents have lain in state there, keeping time and company with the portraits of their early forebears. The slain John F. Kennedy caused the most shocked outpouring of grief in living memory. For sad goodbyes, it is hard to measure the comfort of a stately place to gather. But it is palpable, the difference that majestic marble makes in dignifying our rituals of loss.