- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 2, 2008

After six years of construction and $621 million - more than twice the original price tag - the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is finally ready for its close-up.

The 580,000-square-foot underground building opens Tuesday to provide a more dignified, comfortable place to assemble than the long outdoor lines previously required for touring the halls of Congress.

This two-level structure certainly is more than just a holding pen for the 3 million people who visit each year. The ninth major expansion of the Capitol, it is the largest and most expensive addition to the historic building in its 215-year history.

Part theater and part museum, the subterranean facility is designed by RTKL Associates, an architecture firm headquartered in Baltimore. In addition to offering films and exhibits on the House of Representatives and the Senate, it houses a 500-seat, cherry-paneled cafeteria; two gift shops; and 26 public restrooms - 21 more than in the Capitol itself.

Tourists enter the granite-faced building from the east side of the Capitol by walking down tree-lined staircases or sloping pathways on both sides of a raised central promenade. The new landscaping replaces a parking lot and reinstates some parklike features envisioned for the grounds in the 1870s by designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who is famous for New York’s Central Park.

Among the least successful elements of the new building are twin elevator towers extending above the promenade. Meant to be contemporary versions of Olmsted’s lanterns, their clunky, boxy shapes detract from the view of the Capitol.

Once inside the center, visitors pass through security and descend to the main waiting area. Called Emancipation Hall, the 100-by-200-foot room resembles a hotel ballroom, with rows of pendant lamps hanging from shallow ceiling vaults.

Finishes in the cavernous space relate to those in the Capitol: The walls are lined in Pennsylvania sandstone, similar to the Rotunda, and floors are made of pink Tennessee marble, a material found in the 1850s wings of the House and Senate.

The vast hall is surprisingly light-filled, given that it’s sunken 35 feet below ground. Huge skylights, each measuring 30 by 70 feet, at the room’s north and south ends supply daylight and impressive views of the Capitol dome. Their sandwiches of glass and steel supports are the most contemporary design elements in the otherwise traditional building.

The space serves as both waiting room and gallery, accommodating overflow from Statuary Hall’s crowded sculpture collection. Arranged around the perimeter are statues of lawmakers and public figures, including astronaut Jack Swigert Jr. and the father of television, Philo T. Farnsworth.

The centerpiece is the snowy-white plaster model for the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome. It was cast in sections from a clay figure sculpted by artist Thomas Crawford in Rome and shipped to this country in 1858. The final bronze version was hoisted in place on Dec. 2, 1863. (The visitor center’s opening date was chosen to mark the anniversary.)

Behind the sculpture is the exhibition hall, a fascinating destination in itself. Its dense displays, devoted to the legislative branch, are designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the New York firm responsible for the exhibits at the Newseum. They are divided by 93-foot-long marble walls housing historic documents, including James Madison’s notes for the Constitution and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Day of Infamy speech.

Six dimly lit alcoves relate the history of the House and Senate and the construction of the Capitol through artifacts, photographs and building models. Visitors are invited to touch an 11-foot-tall polyurethane replica of the Capitol dome and the interactive computer screens to test their knowledge of Congress.

Just outside the exhibit hall, staircases lead to a hallway connecting the visitor center to the crypt inside the Capitol where guided tours commence. Most tourists, however, will reach the space from the top of the auditoriums to either side of the staircases. Shown every 10 minutes inside these theaters is a 13-minute introductory film about Congress that is mandatory for visitors. The sequence enables 1,500 people to pass through the Capitol every hour, according to spokesman Tom Fontana.

Visitor halls and amenities inside the new building account for just about a third of its size. Off-limits to the public are new hearing rooms, broadcast facilities and a 450-seat auditorium for the House and Senate, linked by tunnels to congressional office buildings and the Library of Congress.

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