By Michael E. Ruane and Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 9, 2007
When it's finished, the new Capitol Visitor Center will have nearly five acres of Pennsylvania sandstone on the walls, pink Tennessee marble on the floors and gray Virginia granite on the facade out front.
There will be handrails of cast bronze, wood paneling of rich, dark cherry and ceilings of fine plaster.
There will be skylights, fountains, granite columns, spiral staircases and a stone niche for the funeral platform that bore the body of Abraham Lincoln.
It will be grand, its creators say.
When it's finished.
Last month, the center's probable opening, already three years delayed, was pushed back again -- to summer 2008. And last week, a project official told Congress the schedule was undergoing further evaluation.
"Sadly," Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) said, "unless they get their act together, [I] expect that we will hear about yet another delay."
Decades in the making, the three-level, underground complex, adjacent to the Capitol's east front, will be the biggest expansion in the Capitol's history. It will also be one of the most striking, and controversial, tourist attractions in the country and much more than just a visitor center.
It probably will wind up costing about $600 million, government auditors believe -- more than double the initial $265 million budget projection from 1999 and just shy of the cost of Washington's new $611 million baseball stadium. Post-Sept. 11, 2001, security worries, as well as changes in design and content, have driven up the cost.
It will also be famous, at least at first, for the chronic delays that pushed its debut from 2005 to 2006 to 2007 to 2008, as the added work and hundreds of changes slowed the pace and clogged construction.
"A monument to government inefficiency, ineptitude and excessiveness," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a longtime critic.
"I've never seen a bigger boondoggle in my life," said Wasserman-Schultz, who chaired a House subcommittee hearing on the center last month. "It's like they're playing with Monopoly money."
But the project has had staunch supporters in Congress and draws more as it nears completion.
Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), after touring the site for the first time recently, remarked last week: "It's really a magnificent space. . . . I was more than impressed."
The idea for such a facility goes back decades, based mainly on a wish to accommodate visitors who had to wait outside in all kinds of weather for tours, officials said.
In 1998, when a deranged Illinois man burst into the Capitol with a revolver and killed Capitol Police officer Jacob J. Chestnut and Detective John M. Gibson, Congress decided it also needed a secure place where visitors could be screened.
With the Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings and the still-unsolved anthrax attacks soon after, government officials knew the visitor center would need even more security.
Ceremonial groundbreaking was held in June 2000, and excavation began in July 2002. Already, the project had expanded. From the beginning, more than a quarter of the complex was set aside as "shell space" to be used someday by the House and Senate. But officials realized that it would be cheaper to fill in the shell space right away rather than go back later.
Congress appropriated funding to outfit the space in 2001. The designs were completed in 2003, and work began in 2005.
The House got, among other things, a regal two-story hearing room in its wing, said D. Rodman Henderer, a senior vice president with the Baltimore architectural firm RTKL, which designed the center.
The Senate wanted a series of small hearing rooms on its side, along with a huge TV-radio studio, complete with makeup facilities, for senators to create messages they could send to constituents, Henderer said.
Both efforts added substantially to the project's growing workload and at least $85 million to its cost.
The public sector of the center already was large.
"Most people . . . think that a visitor center is going to be some kiosks with some pamphlets on it, some restrooms and maybe some vending machines," said project executive Robert C. Hixon Jr.
Not this one.
Capable of holding 8,000 people, the center includes a Great Hall in which will stand the 19-foot, 150-year-old plaster statue of Freedom that was the model for the bronze atop the Capitol dome. The model has been in the basement rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building since 1993.
The hall, now almost finished, is rimmed by balconies and has a 30-foot ceiling and two mammoth skylights through which the Capitol dome can be seen from the underground space.
From the Great Hall, visitors will be able to enter a 450-seat dining area, two orientation theaters -- one each for the House and Senate -- a 450-seat congressional auditorium and a historical exhibition hall.
The high-tech exhibition hall, designed by New York museum designer Ralph Applebaum, will feature displays of artifacts and documents, a 12-foot-tall cutaway model of the rotunda and dome and an amber-color glass floor.
The auditorium, originally designed for screenings of the Library of Congress's film collection, evolved into a state-of-the-art venue for Congress, officials said.
Building materials have been impressive, too.
"The facility's designed for 100 years," Henderer said during a recent tour of the site. "So we picked materials, and designed things, that will endure for a long period. Materials that are appropriate to the Capitol, materials you find in the Capitol."
Even the historical artifacts will be top shelf: the original typescript of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor "Day of Infamy" speech, George Washington's letter to Congress announcing his victory at Yorktown during the Revolutionary War, writings by legendary 19th-century senators Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun.
In the end, the center will be "a magnificent structure," said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who has pushed for the facility for years. "It's going to be around and complement the Capitol for ages."
Landrieu said at a subcommittee hearing Friday that she, too, has been struck by the grandeur of the facility. "I have no doubt that once this building opens, it will be a tremendous source of pride to all who visit here," she said.
But critics, including Democratic and Republican lawmakers, say the center is overpriced and unnecessary: Costs have skyrocketed with the hundreds of add-ons, some of the most elegant of which are for Congress. The work pace has seemed plodding.
And project managers, citing security concerns, have declined to make public details of government contracts with builders.
Supporters in Congress on both sides of the aisle, as well as the Capitol's architect and former police chief, blame much of the delay and extra expense on expanding security concerns, which added about $150 million to the cost.
"The design morphed" with the evolving threats, said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer, who was chief of the Capitol Police for four years during the project. He said security experts worried about an array of threats.
"What will someone want to do 10 years from now, and how will we be prepared for that?" he asked. How would an enemy penetrate? What would he bring in? How would he attack? "We played each one of those scenarios out," he said.
"We were unmerciful in our demands and requests. . . . Any threat that was coming up, we wanted to make sure that we could counter. . . . I think we added to the time and cost, much to the chagrin of the architect," Gainer added.
The Architect of the Capitol -- and the man ultimately responsible for the center -- was Alan M. Hantman. Much criticized over the project's delays and problems, Hantman retired from the post Feb. 4 at the end of his 10-year term.
"I wanted to serve every last possible minute," Hantman said in a recent interview. "I'm really very proud of it. . . . It's been a learning curve for everybody. When we originally did the project, at $265 million, it was pre-9/11."
The Sept. 11 attacks came just as the center's original design was being finished.
Hantman said the choices were to halt work and reassess the security picture or forge ahead and add enhancements while the project continued. He said the latter course was taken, largely to save money in the face of the rising cost of building materials.
Earlier that year, the project had hired Gilbane Building Co. of Providence, R.I., to manage construction. The architect's office has declined to release details of the Gilbane contract or any other project contract.
"There are a number of security components. . . . Almost every contractor that works on the project interfaces to some extent with a security element," spokesman Tom Fontana said in a statement.
Wasserman-Schultz said she understood how security concerns influenced and slowed the work.
"For back then, those arguments hold water," she said. "But, you know, we're at 2007 now. Nine-eleven was six years ago. Those problems were accounted for and the scheduling adjustments were made."
"They're out of excuses in my book," she said.
Damned and praised, construction on the Capitol Visitor Center is about 91 percent complete, officials said last week.
After the work is finished, the building's complex fire, security, heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems must undergo months of testing, officials have said. Employees and a visitor center director must be hired. Exhibits must be readied, artifacts installed.
More time and money will probably be required, critics have said.
"Fifty years from now," said Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), who chaired numerous hearings on the project, "the citizens of this country . . . [will] be proud" of the center.
"They'll be proud of it now," he said. "But the cost of it won't look so horrendous 50 years from now."