By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 1, 2008
What began six years ago as a huge, muddy cavity next to the U.S. Capitol and has since consumed thousands of tons of concrete, 400,000 carefully selected hunks of stone, and a million and one other bits of metal, marble and history, at a cost of $621 million, will be officially christened tomorrow.
The only thing missing will be the people it was built to serve. There will be no visitors allowed at the grand opening of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. No couples from Kansas or kids from Kentucky, no seniors from Schenectady or tourists from Tokyo.
Not to worry.
Their moment will come later in the day, and it should last for generations. As many as 20,000 people are expected to pass through the ornate 580,000-square-foot center each day.
The basic belief that tourists needed safe, secure shelter from the elements as they waited to be guided through the Capitol grew, as with so many simple notions left in the hands of Congress, into something far grander: a subterranean edifice so magnificent that it alone is worth a visit.
The unveiling that will be marked with one Capitol Hill staple -- speechifying by politicians in an invitation-only morning ceremony -- already has achieved much else for which Congress is noted.
Take, for example, spending. What was proposed as a $71 million project in the early 1990s became a $265 million endeavor a decade later. By the time work got underway in 2002, the price tag was up to $368 million. Tomorrow, the ribbon will be cut on a $621 million project.
Then there was the congressional penchant for thinking big. The center's architects were ordered to include 150,000 square feet of "shell space" for some future day when Congress might need more office area. The finished center is about two-thirds the size of the entire Capitol.
Then there have been delays, a malady common to many federal endeavors. The project once was expected to be finished in time for the presidential inauguration -- in January 2005. As that date neared, the center was about half done, so the completion date was bumped ahead to spring 2006.
Six months after President Bush was sworn in for a second term, the Government Accountability Office reported that the architects and contractors were making so many mistakes and facing so many unexpected problems that March 2007 was probably more realistic. When that target rolled around without a ribbon-cutting, project officials were summoned before a House subcommittee to explain why, and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) scolded them for overseeing "a monument to government inefficiency, ineptitude and excessiveness."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.) said, "I've never seen a bigger boondoggle in my life. It's like they're playing with Monopoly money."
The center will be finished by summer 2008, lawmakers were told, and it will be spectacular.
It will open tomorrow, and it is spectacular.
Behind a low profile of Virginia granite wrapped around nearly five acres of Pennsylvania sandstone walls and graced by floors of pink marble from Tennessee lie the history and heroes of Congress and the American people.
There are fountains, a spiral staircase, six skylights and statues of 24 people, ranging from former members of Congress, as might be expected, to notables including Helen Keller, Hawaiian King Kamehameha and Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton, and Sakakawea (also spelled "Sacagawea"), a Native American woman who helped guide Lewis and Clark on the northwest expedition.
The exhibition hall is dominated by a pair of curving, 93-foot marble walls lined with telling artifacts from U.S. history and banks of interactive touch-screen displays. Included are an 11-foot cutaway model of the Capitol and the ceremonial trowel President George Washington used to place the cornerstone in 1793. Among the displayed documents: President John F. Kennedy's speech in which he vowed to put a man on the moon; President Franklin D. Roosevelt's call to Congress for a declaration of war after the attack on Pearl Harbor; and Washington's letter informing Congress of "a reduction of the British Army under the Command of Lord Cornwallis" in the Battle of Yorktown in the final major battle of the Revolutionary War.
In addition to the lavish setting and abundant history, the visitor center harbors one of the most coveted destinations on the Mall: restrooms. In fact, it has 26 of them, equipped with automatic, low-flow toilets.
The center also has a restaurant, a pair of gift shops and an ATM if Capitol price tags demand it. Foreign-language versions of films are available. Sign-language interpretation of tours is also available with advance notice, as are wheelchairs.
After tomorrow's private opening ceremonies, which will include speeches by the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the center will open to the public about 1 p.m., said Sharon Gang, communications director for the visitor center. "December 2nd usually isn't a high tourism day for the Capitol, but we want people to come," she said.
When the doors open after lunch, it will be something of an open house, Gang said, and no reservations will be required. A new reservation system that will allow visitors to book a tour of the Capitol will go into effect this week. The online reservation service at http://www.visitthecapitol.govtol.com is intended to eliminate the long lines that formed outside the Capitol's visitor entrance. A constituent can also call the office of a House or Senate member for a reservation.
The center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day and Inauguration Day. Although use of the advance registration system is the best bet for avoiding delays, there will be a few same-day passes available at the tour kiosk on the east front of the Capitol or at the information desks on the visitor center's lower level.