A Gateway Fit for a Democracy
$621 Million Capitol Visitor Center, to Open Dec. 2, 'Is a Treasure in Itself'
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The hand of Freedom rests gently on the hilt of her sword. Her hair falls in long ringlets from beneath her eagle's head helmet. And her face bears a look of perpetual amazement.
Indeed, the 19-foot plaster statue at the center of the new Capitol Visitor Center is surrounded by things of wonder: giant twin skylights, precious artifacts from U.S. history and posh wood-paneled theaters.
Government officials previewed the long-awaited $621 million facility in all its polished bronze and marble grandeur. In a series of tours for reporters yesterday, they showed off the 580,000-square-foot complex, dug three levels underground beside the east front of the Capitol as a portal to the story of the U.S. Congress.
The complex opens to the public amid gala ceremonies Dec. 2. Its Web site, www.visitthecapitol.gov, is scheduled to be activated Friday.
The center is the largest single addition to the Capitol in its 215-year history and the biggest since completion of the dome in the 1860s.
The complex was designed as a place where visitors can assemble, out of the weather, for tours of the Capitol or experience the exhibitions and other amenities without taking a Capitol tour. It features a 530-seat restaurant, two orientation theaters and two gift shops. There also are 26 restrooms -- precious facilities for Washington tourists.
No tickets are required for entrance to the center. Free tickets, which can be obtained in person, online or over the phone, are required for the theaters and tours of the Capitol, which will begin in the center.
Officials said the center can be accessed on foot, by Metrorail or by bus. The main entrance is at First and East Capitol street, across from the Supreme Court.
The center is expected to more than double the number of visitors to the Capitol each year to about 3 million, officials said yesterday, making it one of the most visited buildings in the world.
The center has been controversial because of its cost -- boosted mainly by security concerns and congressional add-ons -- and delays. Many security worries stemmed from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and from a 1998 incident in which a deranged man burst into the Capitol with a revolver and killed two Capitol Police officers.
Construction began six years ago. The center includes extensive wings with offices and other spaces for the House and Senate.
Government officials said yesterday that the project was complex and was being built for the ages.
"Generations of Americans will greatly benefit from all it has to offer," said the acting architect of the Capitol, Stephen T. Ayers, who helped guide construction for the past 21 months. "The visitor center is a treasure in itself."
In addition to the 1856 statue of Freedom, the model for the one on the Capitol dome, there are 23 other statues from Congress's statuary collection scattered throughout the complex.
The Freedom statue, which had been in the basement rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building since 1993, was disassembled there and reassembled in Emancipation Hall, the center's main gathering place, over the past few months.
The center's polished maroon-and-white marble floors shone yesterday under the hall's 18 chandeliers and two 30-by-70-foot skylights, through which the blue sky and the Capitol dome could be seen.
Nearby was the dimly lit exhibition hall where some famous -- and seldom-seen -- artifacts of U.S. history were on display.
The most haunting is the black-shrouded pine catafalque, or platform, on which once lay the body of Abraham Lincoln and the bodies of other famous Americans, including President Gerald R. Ford after his death in 2006. It sits behind a sliding bronze grate, said center spokeswoman Sharon Gang, because it will probably be used again.
There are other objects: President John Quincy Adams's metal-tipped ivory walking stick. The tiny ceremonial trowel George Washington used to set the Capitol cornerstone in 1793. The crude penciled radar plot that traced the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
There are images of some of American history's great figures: the titanic congressional foes, South Carolina's John C. Calhoun and Massachusetts's Daniel Webster.
And there are famous words: Franklin D. Roosevelt's typed "Day of Infamy" speech, in which he noted "always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us." George Washington's signed letter to Congress reporting the British defeat at Yorktown, ending the Revolutionary War: "I have the Honor to inform Congress, that a Reduction of the British Army under the Command of Lord Cornwallis, is most happily effected."
The exhibition hall also features banks of interactive touch screen displays and an 11-foot cutaway model of the Capitol dome.
As the tours were ending yesterday, Terrie S. Rouse, the center's chief of visitor services, said she was anticipating the public's first day.
"I want to be watching the first person come through the door ... to see that look on their face," she said. "That's what I'm waiting for."
The Capitol Addition That Takes Too Much Away
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Over time, the U.S. Capitol has taken on two very different faces. What was once deemed the back side of the building -- facing the Mall -- became a grand, ceremonial front, with the addition of dramatic stairs, terraces and landscaping that emphasized its prominence on a hill. To the east, the old "front" of the Capitol became, by contrast, more modest, accessible and pastoral. Before ground was broken for the new Capitol Visitor Center in 2000, you could stand on the east side and imagine cows and sheep grazing, as if in the foreground of a romantic landscape painting.
This duality -- grandeur and authority vs. simplicity and openness -- also expressed an ideal of government. To survive, a republic must have authority, tradition and ceremonies. But it must also have its yeoman side, which allows the people to wander the halls of power as equals with their legislators.
The "truth to power" side of the Capitol, the East face, has been demolished by the new Visitor Center, a tragically misconceived and overscale addition, which opens today. The East face has become something entirely new, with a false and slick pomposity created by an impressive promenade over an imposing bridge, which seems to cross a kind of moat. It is a historical and aesthetic jumble, a nonsensical place and a gross disfigurement of one of this country's most important and iconic buildings.
Since the killing of two Capitol policemen in 1998, when long-standing plans for some kind of visitor facility were jump-started by new security concerns, the Visitor Center has ballooned in size and cost. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led to major revisions in the plans, as did demands from Congress for new office space and other add-ons (a theater, media studios, a tunnel to the Library of Congress). A construction budget pegged at $265 million in 2000 grew to $621 million, and the building swelled to a colossal 580,000 square feet.
In an unsuccessful effort to limit the visual impact of the new space, it was placed underground. Entry for most visitors is down two sloping walkways on either side of the old East Capitol Street alignment, which is now elevated on a bridgelike structure . Elevators for handicap access have been placed on either side of the bridge, rather like guard towers. The power of the old landscaping -- an 1874 masterpiece of design by Frederick Law Olmsted -- is lost amid the visual clutter.
The lesson that Washington never seems to learn -- and alas, will confront once again if ill-conceived plans for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial visitor center proceed on the Mall -- is that there is no such thing as an underground building. The need for access, and egress, elevators and skylights means that even below-grade buildings intrude on the landscape.
The intrusion of the new Visitor Center is extreme, and creates a cacophony of historical suggestions. Where Olmsted once had a loosely aligned allee of tulip poplars, there are now formal lines of spindly trees leading to the underground entrance. Where Olmsted's allee both framed and obscured the view of the East front -- an elaborate peekaboo with the Capitol that made it seem farther away -- the new bridge makes the entrance rigid and formal.
The effect is French, more Versailles than Washington: a tightly controlled procession down a linear axis, now framed by the elevator-guard towers. The "moat," the below-grade well where visitors enter, adds to the weird historical cacophony. Is this a grand baroque avenue? Or a medieval defense device?
For those who don't remember the old landscaping, this grandiloquent new view of the Capitol might not seem so bad. And anyone who has visited the Capitol during the dog days of summer, or the cold of winter, will be grateful for the chance to wait indoors for a tour. But the loss of green space, the loss of old trees, the loss of the gentle, democratic approach to the Capitol is huge. The East front feels as if it has been chewed up by ramps and walkways and bridges, like the entrance to a badly designed airport.
The building itself, designed by RTKL architects (a huge international design firm that has, among other things, designed many of this area's shopping malls), is a perfect exemplar of bureaucratically conceived and executed architecture. It grew by fits and starts, reflecting the two prevailing political impulses of the past decade: fear of terrorism and growth of government. Eventually, the dog (the visitor center) was being wagged by the tail (everything else).
Although an effort was made to match materials from the old Capitol, including the rusty-colored sandstone from the Rotunda (with which the underground center connects), the resulting aesthetic has all the sterility and polish that people expect from hospitals and airports. Initial fears that the subterranean space would be dark haven't proved true. Skylights allow light to flood in, and frame dramatic views of the Capitol dome.
But unless you're lucky enough to break out of the well-designed visitor holding tanks, your experience of the Capitol will be almost indistinguishable from a trip to the Newseum, Mount Vernon or many other of our increasingly homogenized historical sites. The Rolodex of contractors for these kinds of facilities has grown far too small. Ralph Appelbaum Associates has designed the exhibitions -- "they're considered the rock stars of the museum world," said Visitor Center spokesman Tom Fontana -- which includes interactive touch screens and a "Wall of Aspirations," by now a familiar and kitschy tic from this New York-based firm, which also did similar exhibitions for the Newseum.
For many visitors, the shopping-mall-like familiarity of the interior finish, the new bathrooms, oversize signage, elevators and the generic, smooth polished surfaces, will be comforting. Like visiting the old Capitol, but better. And perhaps that's a good thing. Defenders of this addition, the ninth and by far the largest in the history of the building, can point to the obvious fact that the Capitol has always been a work in progress. The original, masonry wings of the first Capitol were as appropriate to the late 18th century as the iron-supported dome was to increasingly industrialized 19th century, when it was finished in 1866. Just as we've gone from an agrarian country to an industrial one, now we're a service economy, and the Capitol is defined by a huge new service wing: clean and efficient, with a huge cafeteria.
And one might argue that the old duality of the building, the grandeur on one side, the rural approachability on the other, has been replaced by a new duality, more appropriate to the Internet-television-virtual reality age. We now have a Capitol, and a HyperCapitol, where everything is better presented, cleaner, more dramatically framed. Like the world seen on television, things that were once far away -- the dome, the statue on top of the dome -- have been brought up close, through models, or interactive screens. The skylights don't just frame views of the building, but exaggerate them, by increasing the distance between the viewer and the dome's top from 287 feet (from the old plaza elevation) to 323 feet (from the floor of Emancipation Hall). Even buildings near the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress Jefferson Building (both built after Olmsted's landscaping), have been given new drama when viewed from the below-ground entrance to the Visitor Center.
Popular enthusiasm for the new HyperCapitol migt well dispel the long years of grumbling about its cost and delays. Changes to the Capitol have always been controversial. Even the dome, which is now its iconic feature, was deemed by some critics as too overbearing when it was designed in the mid-19th century. A country that for more than two centuries has swung between left and right, radical and reactionary, has always been fundamentally -- and properly -- conservative in relation to this enduring symbol of its government.
But, despite years of delay, you can't help but think that a grand and essential building was changed too quickly, too radically, without sufficient thought and planning, and with little real understanding of how much was at stake. The loss is enormous. Who knows whether the United States will ever again be rich enough, or smart enough, to undo the damage.