The new Capitol Visitors Center is due to open in another three weeks or so, but we got a sneak peek yesterday at the brand new CVC and Emancipation Hall. The new Visitors Center began its project life as an extended above-ground addition to the Capitol, but over its design process, changed into a subterranean addition to the Eastern side of the Capitol. The 580,000 square foot addition to the Capitol is quite a site to behold. The interior construction is mostly sandstone, to match the rest of the Capitol, but it hasn’t yet been imbued with the same sense of character and gravitas as the rest of the building. I suspect that with another 50 or so years, it may begin to feel like the Capitol, instead of a shiny new convention center.
Set your calendars for Friday. That’s when the new Visit the Capitol website goes live. Once it’s up, you’ll be able to schedule your own tour of the Capitol, either through your member’s office (and yes, I understand this also includes Delegate Norton) or just on your own. While the site wasn’t previewed for us yesterday, we’re assured in a lovely glossy flyer that it’s going to rock. So, plan on visiting their site once Friday hits, and schedule yourself a tour of the new space.
The CVC will be the new point of entry for all tourism-related visitors to the Capitol, containing a full security screening area, and staging for the tours. The screening area opens upon the football-field-sized Emancipation Hall. The beautiful view from the skylights that you’ve seen everywhere is from the north and south sides of Emancipation Hall. I think we may get to see some incredible weather shots once it opens this Winter. Can you imagine the shot of a guy shoveling snow from there? Or hailstones piling up? Or the video of a downpour? Yeah, expect to see this one everywhere.
The centerpiece of the new Emancipation Hall is the 19-foot-6-inch plaster of Armed Freedom, the model for the beautiful bronze atop the Capitol Dome. Thomas Crawford’s magnificent plaster model of Freedom, triumphant in War in Peace, now stands at the entrance to the Exhibition Hall. The pair of grand promenade staircases that lead up to the entrance of the Capitol proper surround the immense statue, letting you appreciate it from a number of angles and views. Stored before now in the basement of one of the Capitol Office Buildings, Freedom’s new home is fitting of the quality of the amazing sculpture. But, I recognize that I’m a bit biased.
The Exhibition Hall is divided nicely into four quadrants by a pair of 93-foot 10-ton marble walls, together called the Wall of Aspirations. The walls are inscribed, in beautiful script, with portions of the Constitution that set forth the role of the Congress. Each section has a set of original documents below the script, including FDR’s “Day of Infamy” original typed speech (below Defense), and the whole of the collection is pretty astounding. The historic documents mean, though, that the whole Exhibition Hall is fairly dimly lit, and I felt that the darkness was either an allegory about the murkiness of Congress’ legislatural practices, or in stark contrast to it.
The reverse of the Wall of Aspirations contains a pair of exhibits: The Practices of Congress, which covers the routines and roles of both Chambers of the Bicameral Legislature, and one on the history of the Capitol’s structure and surrounds. Of the two, I found the latter to be most compelling. It’s a history, complete with a miniature of the Capitol Hill area for blocks around, across four different periods of time. Between the historic documents and the models of the Capitol Hill area, you get a good glimpse at how the Capitol, and its grounds, evolved over a period of over 200 years.
In addition to the Exhibition Hall, the new CVC features two large orientation movie theatres that are pretty much unmatched by any movie theatre I’ve seen outside of the private screening rooms in Hollywood, as well as a 530-seat restaurant, a pair of gift shops and two smaller theatres for watching Congress while it’s in session. Overall, the cafeteria-style restaurant left me nonplussed, I didn’t feel it captured the same aesthetic as every other space in the new CVC. It felt, in places, rather chintzy and cutesy. The Gift Shops weren’t open yet, and weren’t available for viewing, so I’m afraid I cannot pass judgment on those either.
Overall? It’s amazing. I suspect once the new stone has had time to age into the character of the rest of the building it’ll feel more at home for those who’ve walked the rest of the halls of the Capitol. I couldn’t help but notice the difference, though, as I walked from the Senate Press Gallery into the new CVC, that I was stepping into something that was built to be new, but try to be camouflaged into the old.
For more photography, be sure to also check out the Washington Post’s 360° panorama.