Visitor Center Inches Along

During a recent tour, Tom Fontana, spokesman for the Capitol Visitor Center project, holds a drawing of what the completed center will look like.
During a recent tour, Tom Fontana, spokesman for the Capitol Visitor Center project, holds a drawing of what the completed center will look like. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 7, 2006

The bullet hole in the right leg of John Calhoun's marble trousers is the perfect starting point for a tour of the Capitol Visitor Center.

"It's really because of this that the project got started," said Tom Fontana, standing inside the Capitol and running his finger over the chip in the statue's leg and the ricochet mark in the senator's flowing marble cape.

Fontana is the spokesman for a project that began as a $71 million anteroom and rest stop for visitors. It has turned into an approximately $550 million extension of the U.S. Capitol that looks like an underground football stadium.

The project is so plagued by delays, a ballooning budget and growing scope that the Senate appropriations subcommittee took the unusual step in the spring of requiring monthly reports and hearings to try to rein it in.

In November, in the last hearing of 2005, the monthly report estimated that workers would have to labor nine days a week for the next 10 months to stick to the project's proposed timeline. It is the third time in as many years that the cost of the project has escalated and its opening been pushed back.

"On keeping to a schedule, the track record hasn't been very good," said Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), the committee chairman, who is trying to bring the project under control.

The visitor center was an idea languishing in Congress until July 24, 1998, when Capitol Police Officer Jacob J. Chestnut and Detective John M. Gibson were killed by the gunfire that also struck Calhoun's statue. After the shooting, Congress began to rethink security in the building.

"And here we are today," said Fontana, sweeping his arms over the underground, 580,000-square-foot project, which was blocked seven years before the shooting by former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who said: "The American people should be able to come in the front door of Congress, not the basement."

But the architects emphasize that the facility won't feel like a basement. Massive skylights will allow visitors to look up at the Capitol dome once they descend into the East Capitol Street entrance. And the stonework throughout the center -- Pennsylvania sandstone, Tennessee granite, Wisconsin limestone -- echoes the color and look of the Capitol, to make it seem like part of the original building and not an annex.

The center will include an expansive dining area, dozens of restrooms, two gift shops, two 250-seat movie theaters and a high-tech, interactive museum.

Many of those details were part of the original project. But the biggest "budget buster," according to Allard, was a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The attacks prompted designers to think about emergencies and gave lawmakers justification for approving additions that have inflated the project's cost.

First came the air-filtration system to prevent a biochemical attack. Then tanks were ordered for the secret network of tunnels and passageways more than 50 feet below ground to hold 15,000 gallons of water for use in decontaminating people, if necessary. Next, some in Congress said it would be a good time to expand the office space for members.

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