On Hill, Quiet Preparations

The Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol is empty and still as the sun rises in a Washington sky white with haze. The crowds are many hours away from entering the grand circular room that connects the House and Senate and serves as the symbolic heart of American government.

Lights on tall poles and television cameras stand along the walls, tucked between the fluted Doric pilasters and large oil paintings that depict scenes from U.S. history.

In the center, under the eye of the soaring dome and the frozen stares of bronze statues of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, lies the bier. Built from pine boards in 1865 for the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, the seven-foot-long platform has cradled the coffins of nine presidents.

Covered in black velvet made rough with time, it awaits the coffin of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

The Rotunda is typically filled with the chatter of tourists and the clicking heels of legislative aides. Now barely perceptible air currents waft through the cool, cavernous space. A police officer with a dog appears at one entrance, then turns and walks away. Workers occasionally lumber through, holding a rag or paintbrush.

Carl Faison, a janitor who works the night shift, guides a battery-powered buffer in circles across the floor, polishing the gray and beige Seneca sandstone.

Faison began working at the Capitol during Reagan's first term. "When he'd come here, you could see him, but just a glimpse, really," Faison remembers.

As the sun climbs higher in the sky, shafts of light pour through the east windows high up in the cream-colored dome. The Rotunda brightens.

At 7 a.m., blocks away, a tiny line forms for the public viewing. Two women, one man and a couple of teenagers have taken their places on a stone sidewalk. Later in the day, the coffin will begin its journey east.

-- Lyndsey Layton