The 40th president will lie in state in an audacious place, American-sized, tall enough to hold the Statue of Liberty if you took away her pedestal.
The Rotunda is 96 feet from wall to wall, 186 feet from the floor to the canopy, and packed with art that proclaims the glories of the nation. This is a temple of romanticized history, of larger-than-life heroes, the images skewing toward the mythological.
What a perfect place to say goodbye to Ronald Reagan.
"America does not have a Westminster Abbey," Capitol architectural historian Bill Allen said yesterday. "We do not have a state church or anything like England might have to call the nation together in times of mourning. The closest we have is the Rotunda."
Reagan was a master of the theatrical gesture, and his final farewell is rapidly becoming his final and greatest performance. It has been 31 years since a president lay in state in the Rotunda, but Lyndon Johnson did not command the love, admiration and round-the-clock media attention that Reagan has summoned in the last few days.
Suddenly he is everywhere, beaming, twinkling, quipping, his most controversial actions and his personal flaws largely overwhelmed by the homages to his best moments. He never looked better, never loomed larger. Some of that might be glorification and hagiography. Perhaps his presidency has gone through some instant retroactive renovation. But Americans need heroes, and the Rotunda is a magnificent space to mourn them.
When initially designed in 1793, the Rotunda was a bit enigmatic, for no one knew how it would be used. There was talk that it would hold an equestrian statue of George Washington, or, someday, Washington's tomb. One early plan called it the Hall of the People. But the mere existence of the place is a reminder today that Americans have always embraced symbolism and ceremony. These things weren't invented by Hollywood or Madison Avenue or the professional manipulators of political images.
George Washington, who rode into villages on a white horse and liked to wear a ceremonial sword, wanted a grand seat of government with an impressive Capitol. The Rotunda was never an afterthought, but the heart of the original blueprint.
Workers were fixing it up yesterday, installing risers for the TV lights, running cables. All the high-frequency construction noises echoed off the walls and a stone floor so polished you could check your makeup with it.
"I've been here six years now and when I walk through I'm still in awe," said Jeff Walters, a woodcarver. "It's an honor to work here."
He and his colleague Gary Bullis needed to hang a curtain over the west door, a tricky task since there was no curtain rod and they couldn't exactly start driving nails into the historic marble. "You don't want to destroy the building," Walters said. They improvised with a wedged board.
The two woodworkers know that the Rotunda is a bit deceptive from the floor, that it's taller than it looks initially. From the highest balcony, accessible from a hidden stairwell, the view is unnerving, they say. And there's a strange auditory effect up there. When two people face across the vault and speak, the other's voice seems to come from behind the listener's head.
When conceived, there was nothing like the Rotunda anywhere on the continent, historian Allen says. The Rotunda was modeled on the Pantheon, reflecting the preoccupation of the Founders with all things Roman.
The sandstone walls, quarried at Aquia Creek, remain from the original Rotunda, up to a height of 48 feet. Everything higher is part of an expansion that began in 1855.
The artwork depicts historical scenes heavily filtered through 19th-century romanticism. This is not the kind of history taught today in textbooks. The Indians are everywhere, most barely clothed, and reacting in some way (with friendship, violence, or simply by cowering) to the advance of European American figures.
"Manifest Destiny is a theme that occurs time and time again in the Rotunda," says Allen.
High overhead, on the canopy, is "The Apotheosis of Washington," showing the great man ascending to the heavens surrounded by maidens and the mythological figures of Liberty and Victory and Fame. He is becoming godlike.
Eight huge paintings circle the room. One takes place not in America at all, but Holland, showing the embarkation of the Pilgrims. In another, Columbus discovers America, practically prancing onto land and raising a royal banner as natives watch from the woods. Washington surrenders to Congress his commission as commander in chief, passing up his big chance to become king. The Founders sign the Declaration of Independence, looking calm and assured, as though ready to go out momentarily for drinks.
The events all look rather inevitable, as though these are actors following a script and playing their roles for the umpteenth time. Hernando De Soto proudly rides a white horse as he discovers the Mississippi. A caption notes that in real life he was so ravaged by his march across the country that he soon sickened and died.
"The painting does not verify history by this scene," the caption says in a tone that implies a slight grimace.
Pocahontas pops up, Zelig-like, in three places in the Rotunda, once getting baptized (in a painting that, Allen points out, reveals nothing at all about life in early America) and twice saving the life of Capt. John Smith, once in a relief sculpture and once in the frieze that circles the dome high off the floor.
The Civil War appears in the frieze in the form of a handshake between Union and Confederate soldiers. A visitor might guess that there'd been a mild disagreement.
Antiquated though the Rotunda's version of American history might be, it still echoes some of the spirit of Reagan. He believed that the country was providentially blessed, that it was the last best hope of man on Earth, that it was destined to be a "shining city on a hill."
And he understood the power of images. Others may have been more adept at analyzing the fine details of government policy, but no one looked more comfortable in the White House, or had more quips and anecdotes in his side pocket. He knew that a culture is in many ways a collection of the stories we tell.
A few steps outside the Rotunda, on the West Front balcony, Senate staffer Mary Dietrich watched yesterday's dress rehearsal of the state funeral. A military band played "Hail to the Chief" as soldiers with raised rifles stood perfectly motionless. Pallbearers lifted a flag-draped casket and began the long march up the steps of the grand old building. The band played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Dietrich cried.
It was just a rehearsal, but the images, sounds, pageantry -- the view of the monuments in the distance -- the endless drum roll -- brought forth the tears.
"He was the first president I ever voted for. He restored my faith in America. Restored the world's faith in this country. A great man, a great hero, a great American."
Twenty-one guns boomed. The military did two rehearsals. It was all symbolism, but everyone wanted to get it exactly right.