Sunday, December 7, 2008

The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center opened this week to offer plenty of amenities for crowds while they line up to tour the halls of Congress. Its best attraction — worth a visit on its own — is a 16,500-square-foot exhibition tucked behind the big waiting room, Emancipation Hall, which is named in tribute to the slaves who built the Capitol.

This document-rich show is simply titled “E Pluribus Unum,” Latin for “out of many, one,” the motto found on the seal of the United States. Its display of objects and accompanying films, well organized within a design by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, succeeds in educating viewers about the history and responsibilities of Congress without the gimmicks common to museums these days.

Original copies of speeches and bills, and historical artifacts previously stored away in the Library of Congress and other institutions are combined to reflect the ideas, personalities and physical settings involved in our nation’s lawmaking. Documents within the marble “Wall of Aspirations” at the beginning of the exhibit will be rotated every six months to refresh the content.

Behind this 186-foot-long partition, the main narrative of the show is told within six alcoves. Each section focuses on a separate period in the history of Congress, from the first federal session in 1789 to the present day. One side is devoted to the history of the House of Representatives and the other to the Senate.

This clearly told story is a refreshing change from the cramped exhibits previously shown in the crypt below the Capitol and the cluttered, thematic displays at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It supplies a valuable civics lesson in the importance of the legislative branch, which has suffered a bad rap in recent decades for its infighting and inaction.

A fascinating part of the timeline is devoted to the construction, destruction, remodeling and expansion of the Capitol. A series of detailed site models shows how the building and its hilltop environs evolved, from farmland to a neighborhood of boarding houses and government offices. Drawings and texts are displayed on panels around each model to explain both major and minor architectural changes to the Capitol over the centuries.

As the exhibit reveals, Congress first convened in New York’s Federal Hall before moving to the long tables in Philadelphia’s Congress Hall. In 1792, at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson, a design competition was held for a new building atop Jenkins Hill in the nation’s new capital of Washington.

One of most thrilling documents in the show is the winning entry for the Capitol by William Thornton, a physician from the British West Indies. Thornton’s drawing of the east facade established the basic symmetrical arrangement of the building that still holds up. Separate wings for the House and Senate flank a central bay topped by a dome inspired by the ancient Roman Pantheon. The trowel and gavel used by President Washington to lay the cornerstone in a Masonic ceremony are displayed nearby.

Construction of the Capitol was slow. As shown in the first site model, the building merely consisted of a north and a south wing connected by a gangplank after nearly two decades. That progress was destroyed when the British torched the building in 1814 and left it in ruins.

Another striking drawing in the exhibit shows the room eventually built to replace the burned House chamber. Its coffered dome and semicircular colonnade were designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, whose inventive corn-cob column capitals were some of the few elements to survive the fire.

The House occupied the remodeled chamber from 1819 to 1857, before moving into a bigger space and leaving Latrobe’s design to become Statuary Hall.

The exhibit includes some of the furnishings for these spaces, including a reproduction of the 1819 Senate desks made by cabinet maker Thomas Constantine for $34 each and still in use.

Large wings completed in the 1850s for the House and Senate led Congress to replace the wooden dome over the original 1820s rotunda. A new cast-iron design was conceived by Thomas U. Walters, the architect of the building extensions whose drafting tools are on display.

On view at the center of the exhibit is a detailed, 11-foot-tall model of Walters’ dome made of touchable polyurethane. The back of the model is cut away to reveal the old rotunda at its base, encircled by large paintings, including John Trumbull’s “Declaration of Independence.”

Even the Civil War didn’t deter the construction of Walter’s design. In 1863, the Statue of Freedom was placed atop the dome to signal its completion. (On their way to the exhibit, visitors have the opportunity to admire sculptor Thomas Crawford’s big plaster cast of the robed figure.) Three years later, the interior of the large structure was finished when Constantino Brumidi’s colorful fresco, “The Apotheosis of Washington,” reproduced next to the exhibit model, was unveiled.

The next major modification to the Capitol appears in the last alcove of the show. In the 1950s, a new East Front was joined to the old building, reproducing its sandstone facades in more permanent marble.

Of all these additions, the Visitor Center is the largest and most expensive, but was carried out without the benefit of a design competition or a grand plan. The exhibit allows this underground structure to be seen within the perspective of history, encouraging visitors to compare its bland rooms to the more ornate designs for the Capitol in the past.


WHAT: “Out of Many, One”

WHERE: U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, East Capitol and First streets N.E.

WHEN: Monday to Saturday 8:30 am to 4:30 pm


PHONE: 202/226-8000


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