Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly indicated that President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor referred to a "day of infamy." Roosevelt called Dec. 7, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy."

A Gateway Fit for a Democracy

The new visitor's center is underground, but its skylights offer views of the Capitol dome.
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,, 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.

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