It’s three years past the original completion date and $350 million over budget, but the subterranean Capitol Visitor Center
in Washington, DC is now open to receive the approximately 3 million visitors who come to tour the U.S. Capitol Building each year. The 580,000 square foot facility, which opened yesterday, comprises three levels below ground and now serves as the starting point for a tour of the Capitol Building.
Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitor Center
Exhibition hall at the new visitor center
In years past, visitors have had to line up outside while waiting for their turn to walk through the hallowed halls of this U.S. landmark. Now, those people will be able to watch a short film, wander through exhibitions of historical documents and artifacts, and enjoy a climate controlled environment (which can be a nice thing during the chilly winter or steamy summer weather).
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid alluded to this fact himself during comments in the opening ceremony. Noting the effect of the Washington, DC summer climate on visitors—and the repercussions on the legislative occupants of the Capitol— he stated: “My staff has always said, ‘Don’t say this,’ but I’m going to say it again because it’s so descriptive because it’s true.” He then referenced House Minority Leader John Boehner’s earlier comments about the long lines of tourists that stream into the Capitol complex, and said: “In the summertime, because (of) the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol.”
Thank goodness for effective air conditioning!
Excavation on the Capitol Visitor Center began in August 2002 and was completed in the fall of 2003. Work on the building structure began late in 2003. A Certificate of Occupancy was issued in July 2008.
The architectural firm RTKL Associates Inc., which was already involved in developing perimeter security elements around the Capitol, was tasked to design the new Visitor Center. The design located the Visitor Center below the East Capitol Grounds, so as to enhance rather than detract from the appearance of the Capitol and its historic Frederick Law Olmsted landscape. (Eighty five trees were planted to revive Olmstead’s—a landscape architect—original design of tree lined paths leading visitors to the Capitol.)
In addition to the theaters and exhibition space, the new facility contains food service accommodations, an auditorium, gift shops, security, a service tunnel for truck loading and deliveries, mechanical facilities, storage, and additional space for use by the House and Senate.
Some notable facts about the building, as provided by The Architect of the Capitol
The excavation for the Capitol Visitor Center required the removal of 65,000 truckloads of soil or 650,000 cubic yards of material.
Number of people expected to pass through the Capitol Visitor Center daily, during peak season.
Number of restrooms (compared to five public restrooms in the Capitol). The Visitor Center has 10 family restrooms as well.
Number of elevators in the Visitor Center and adjacent expansion areas.
Number of seats in the restaurant in the Capitol Visitor Center. There were no public eating spaces previously.
Heading up daily operations of the new Capitol Visitor Center is Terrie Rouse, chief executive officer for visitor services.
(Photos courtesy of The Architect of the Capitol)