Inside the Capitol Visitors Center

After years of delays and millions of dollars spent, the brand-new Capitol Visitors Center opens in December

One of the highlights of Emancipation Hall is a skylight view of the Capitol Dome, from below the East steps of the building. (Brendan McCabe)
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The new Capitol Visitor Center opens December 2, after an eight-year delay and a cost overrun of hundreds of millions. At 580,000 square feet, the Visitor Center is the largest addition to the Capitol in its 215-year history.

When builders broke ground for the project in June 2000, they planned to lay the final stone in late 2005. But after September 11, 2001, legislators demanded greater security measures in the Visitor Center. The estimated cost rose from $265 million to $621 million.

Now that the Visitor Center is finally open, what will visitors get?

For starters, they'll enter from the East side—the side opposite from the National Mall—and take a set of stairs into the building's underground main chamber, Emancipation Hall, which is nearly three times the size of the Capitol Rotunda. Emancipation Hall, named in honor of the enslaved laborers who helped build the original Capitol, stretches nearly 20,000 square feet underground. Statues from the National Statuary Hall collection decorate the perimeter—luminaries include Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of the television, and King Kamehameha of Hawaii, whose gold-caped statue towers over the others.

Visitors may watch a new orientation video, "E Pluribus Unum," named for the motto found on the Seal of the United States meaning "out of many, one." The curious can get additional information about the Capitol along the room's far walls. The hungry can grab a bite at a new 550-seat restaurant, catered by the same company behind the House and Senate cafeterias in the Capitol.

Sightseers can loiter in museum galleries dedicated to American and Congressional history. Each "historical alcove" spans 35-50 years, and features videos and text from major events and how Congress shaped them. As the only museum dedicated to the history of the Senate and the House of Representatives, the exhibitions highlight the impact of Congressional action on our history.

Two separate viewing galleries stream videos of the Senate and the House in action, and interactive "Jeopardy"-style quizzes let visitors test their legislative know-how against a friend's.

One of the main draws is the "touchable Dome," an 11-foot polyurethane model of the Capitol, built as a replica on a 20:1 scale. Visitors can run their hands over the balconies, windows and doors, and take a peek at miniature versions of the frescos on the inside of the dome.

"We wanted to create a more complete experience," says Terrie Rouse, CEO for Visitor Services at the Visitor Center. "We have masses of people coming in of multiple ages and they all want to be informed."

For those who took the Capitol tour in years past, the experience usually began with a hike up Capitol Hill and a long wait in line. Guides took visitors into the main Rotunda, into the galleries where the House and Senate convene, and then released them to their own devices in the building's crypt. The entire tour rarely lasted more than an hour, and there was no museum to provide greater context to the experience. When winter weather turned nasty, visitors waited outside. When the summer heat and humidity was unbearable, they waited outside. Once inside, there were no restaurants, and tourists had to jockey to use one of the Capitol's five public bathrooms.

The Capitol could only accommodate 1500 people at a time, but during the spring cherry blossom season, interest often peaked at 4000.

Compared to that, the new Visitor Center is an expansive, if expensive, haven.

From the inside of the replica, you can see a miniature rendering of Constantino Brumidi’s fresco, “Apotheosis of Washington.” (Brendan McCabe)
One of the highlights of Emancipation Hall is a skylight view of the Capitol Dome, from below the East steps of the building. (Brendan McCabe)
The addition of the new Capitol Visitors Center nearly doubles the size of the entire Capitol complex. (Brendan McCabe)
The original plaster model for the 19-foot-six-inches-tall Statue of Freedom that sits atop the Capitol Dome is the centerpiece of the new visitors center. (Brendan McCabe)
The plaster model had been on display in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building before it was given a much more visible position here. (Brendan McCabe)
On the opposite end of the wall, museum curators put copies of the 19th Amendment and other documents that highlight the freedoms of the American people. Also included is the bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution. (Brendan McCabe)
On one side of the “Wall of Aspirations”, visitors can read the texts of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech and President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon. (Brendan McCabe)
The statues represent a broad diversity of Americans, including five American Indians. Each state has donated two statues to the collection. (Brendan McCabe)
The Statue of Freedom’s right hand rests on a sword while her left hand holds a holds a laurel wreath of victory. (Brendan McCabe)
The statue’s helmet features a crest composed of an eagle's head, feathers and talons, all encircled by stars. (Brendan McCabe)
This 11-foot high touchable dome is an exact replica of the actual Capitol dome, constructed on a 20:1 scale. (Brendan McCabe)
King Kamehameha I, one of Hawaii’s statues, unified the Hawaiian Islands during his rule at the turn of the 19th century. He is shown wearing gilded clothing, included a cloak of yellow-bird feathers. (Brendan McCabe)
John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr. was one of the three astronauts on the ill-fated Apollo XIII mission. Portrayed by Kevin Bacon in the film, Swigert also was elected to Congress, but died of cancer one week before taking office. (Brendan McCabe)
Chief Washakie negotiated with the U.S. Army on behalf of the Shoshone tribe to preserve over 3 million acres in Wyoming for his people. (Brendan McCabe)
Sarah Winnemucca represents Nevada in Emancipation Hall as the writer of the first book written by a Native American woman, according to the office of the Architect of the Capitol. (Brendan McCabe)
Philo T. Farnsworth is considered the “Father of Television” for his invention of an early electronic camera tube that was the harbinger of television. (Brendan McCabe)
Joseph Ward was one of the earliest proponents of South Dakota statehood, composing the state constitution, the state motto, and the description of the state seal. (Brendan McCabe)
Sakakawea, perhaps better known as Sacagawea, guided Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition to the Pacific Coast. (Brendan McCabe)
Po’ Pay organized a Pueblo revolt against Spanish conquistadors in the 17th century and served as a religious and spiritual leader for the Pueblo of what is now New Mexico. (Brendan McCabe)
There are 24 statues on display in Emancipation Hall. Those in the Capitol Visitors Center include the most recent acquisitions to the National Statuary Hall collection. (Brendan McCabe)
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About Anika Gupta
Anika Gupta

Anika Gupta’s writing has appeared in India and the United States, including in Business Today magazine, where she served as its first digital content editor, the Hindustan Times newspaper and Smithsonian magazine. Currently, she is a Master's student at MIT, where she studies user-generated content and mainstream media culture. She's also a science writer, media blogger, and essayist.

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