Noteworthy

History in the US Capitol Visitors Center

Richard A. Baker, April 2009

US Capitol Visitors CenterAs a mother and her young children finished their July 2008 picnic on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., she pointed to the gleaming white U.S. Capitol Building and said, “Let’s go visit the White House.” In that statement, she confirmed a common lament of local tour guides. A distressingly large proportion of visitors believe the president works in the Capitol and, therefore, it must be the White House!

Let’s assume that mother reached the Capitol. Waiting in the summer’s heat and humidity, she would have been hard-pressed to find directional signs, water, and restrooms. Her wait in a long line would have been rewarded with a seasonally abbreviated guided tour that stopped briefly at the Rotunda, the Statuary Hall, the Crypt, and possibly the Old Supreme Court Chamber. Would this be the kind of educational experience her children might someday fondly recall to their own children?

Had she delayed the family’s visit until the end of last year, however, she would have discovered a decidedly more welcoming environment. On December 2, 2008, Congress opened the long-awaited U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. This 580,000-square-foot, $621-million, underground facility occupies three levels below the Capitol’s East Front plaza. Its floor space amounts to nearly three-quarters of that in the Capitol. According to the center’s mission statement, it is designed to help visitors learn about the “unique characteristics of the House and Senate and the legislative process as well as the history and development of the architecture and art of the U.S. Capitol.” The center includes two orientation theaters, a congressional auditorium, a 530-seat cafeteria, gift shops, 26 restrooms, and—most important from this historian’s perspective—a large exhibition gallery.

The need for such a facility became increasingly evident over the past half century. In response to swelling numbers of visitors, congressional officials in the 1960s planned a West Front extension that, in addition to office space, would include a restaurant, gift shop, and information center. By the mid-1970s, however, concerns over costs and possible damage to the building’s architectural integrity scrapped the West Front plan.

In the 1980s and 1990s, bicentennial anniversaries of the U.S. Constitution, the first federal Congress, and construction of the Capitol spawned ceremonial events, scholarly conferences, and historical publications. Those activities made the point that Congress should be doing more to support programs related to its history and constitutional prerogatives. As a significant step toward that goal, Congress in 1988 created the U.S. Capitol Preservation Commission, composed of its party leaders. The commission took responsibility for planning a visitor center.

On November 7, 1983, a terrorist group deposited sticks of dynamite in a window well across the hall from the Senate Chamber. They exploded after 11 p.m. Fortunately, the building was nearly empty and there were no casualties. Had the Senate followed its announced plan to remain in session that evening, the results would have been dire. Thus began the era of security-consciousness that ultimately provided the fuel to launch the visitor center.

In 1991, Congress directed the Architect of the Capitol to use existing security enhancement funds to design such a facility. The deadly 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building and the 1998 murder of two Capitol police officers by a deranged gunman elevated security as the visitor center’s primary planning objective. Responding to the September 11, 2001, attacks and the anthrax emergency that followed, Congress provided additional resources to guarantee completion of a secure, state-of-the-art facility.

Specific planning for the visitor center’s exhibition gallery began in 2001 when the interpretive museum design firm of Ralph Appelbaum Associates presented a preliminary concept. Appelbaum had previously designed exhibits for Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, Richmond’s Civil War Visitor Center, and Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. To implement the Appelbaum plan, the Architect of the Capitol assembled a “Content Working Group” of Washington-based federal historians and curators, along with outside subject specialists. That team worked for seven years to guide Appelbaum in producing exhibitions and supporting orientation films.

A January 11, 2009, New York Times Sunday travel section article identified the exhibition gallery as a “must see” on any trip to the nation’s capital. At the visitor center’s entrance stands a large 1/20th-scale replica of the Capitol Dome. Visitors are encouraged to touch its polyurethane-formed architectural features produced by laser scans of the dome’s exterior. Walking to the model’s reverse side, visitors can look down into the rotunda from the perspective of the inner dome’s upper-most circular walkway. Across from this display is a bronze-gated chamber housing the crepe-covered catafalque that has supported the remains of distinguished Americans from Abraham Lincoln to Gerald Ford.

Running down the gallery’s central axis is a 12-foot-high wall, open at the top. Its western side accommodates six alcoves, arranged chronologically from 1787. Each alcove incorporates three interior display panels. The left and right panels offer emblematic stories, biographical profiles of key members, and photos and artifacts representing the history of the Senate and House during each period.

The gallery includes eye-catching artifacts. Notable among them from the early history of Congress is the payment ledger the Senate used between 1790 and 1881. Containing information not available elsewhere, this document was found several years ago in a basement storeroom that visitor center construction crews were preparing to demolish. Also displayed is architect Benjamin Latrobe’s sketch of the Capitol’s south wing. Latrobe used that sketch to convince President Thomas Jefferson that the proposed Doric system of classical architecture would be inappropriate for the House Chamber. (They later chose the more elaborate Corinthian order.) Display cases also include the silver trowel and marble gavel that President George Washington wielded in 1793 to set the building’s cornerstone. Nearby is the bronze inkstand that Henry Clay used as Speaker of the House; Daniel Webster’s gold pocket watch; an ivory cane presented to Representative John Quincy Adams in 1844 after he defeated the “gag resolution” against House debate on anti-slavery petitions; and the silver goblet that Representative Preston Brooks’s South Carolina constituents presented him in 1856 for his Senate Chamber beating of Massachusetts antislavery Senator Charles Sumner.

The central panel in each alcove features the architectural history of the Capitol and depictions of national events. An adjacent free-standing case displays a topographical reproduction of Capitol Hill in the featured era. Viewed serially, those six cases provide a stunning visual image of the congressional campus’s two-century evolution.

On the flat reverse side of the alcove wall are climate-controlled display cases containing rare historical documents. This wall of “national aspirations” is divided into six thematic sections: Freedom, Unity, Knowledge, Common Defense, Exploration, and General Welfare. “Treasure” documents from the National Archives and Library of Congress will be rotated through those cases twice yearly. The initial series included the 1787 Constitutional Convention’s “Virginia Plan”; Daniel Webster’s handwritten notes for his “Seventh of March” speech supporting the Compromise of 1850; Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s draft remarks for testimony in 1878 before a Senate committee; and the annotated reading copy of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech to the December 8, 1941, joint session of Congress.

Near the National Aspirations wall are touch-screen computer panels offering virtual tours of the Capitol and 10-question quizzes on Congress and the Capitol. (The average score by those who have recently taken the congressional quiz is 7.2 out of a perfect 10.) Nearby displays of historical photographs represent the Capitol as the “nation’s stage” and Congress “behind-the-scenes.”

House and Senate “virtual theaters,” with seating for 30, offer fast-paced, 13-minute continuous-loop films that take viewers inside the featured institution—from floor and committee proceedings to vignettes representing members’ varied daily activities. These high-definition films complement the 13-minute orientation film, Out of Many, One, and are the work of Donna Lawrence, acclaimed for her film introducing the National Constitution Center.

Following the visitor center’s December opening, news media accounts predictably focused on its costs and construction delays. Journalists who took the time to explore the exhibition gallery responded more positively. Chris Wallace, on a Fox News Sunday interview with center director Terrie Rouse, revealed unfettered delight as he toured the center. Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher pronounced it “a smash hit—the best addition to the District’s tourism portfolio since the FDR Memorial in 1997 and the Holocaust Museum in 1993.” He added that the center sends a message “that meaty content can still succeed, . . . that there are new and effective ways to educate citizens who grow up with only the slightest whiff of civics in their schooling.”

Needless to say, the team of resident congressional historians and curators witnessed opening day with a sense of pride and satisfaction. We are confident that the exhibition gallery will become the focal point for the center’s anticipated three million annual visitors. Perhaps among them, one day, will be the children whose mother struggled in the months before the center’s opening to make a visit to the “White House” on Capitol Hill an unforgettable educational experience.

—A 40-year-veteran of Capitol Hill, Richard A. Baker has directed the U.S. Senate Historical Office since its founding in 1975. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Maryland and master’s degrees from Columbia University and Michigan State University. Before joining the Senate’s staff, he served as a reference specialist in American history at the Library of Congress.