on September 8, 2009
The US Capitol is the seat of power of our government, where our laws and policies are made. The US Capitol building is very easy to find in Washington DC, as it sits in the center of the different quadrants of the city and the rotunda is easily visible and recognizable from far away. It sits atop Capitol Hill at the eastern end of the National Mall.There are two ways to obtain interior tours of the US Capitol. One is to go to the newly constructed visitor’s center on the east side of the Capitol. The better way is to contact your local House Representative or US Senator months prior to the trip and they will arrange for an intern guided tour. Either way, you still end up at the visitor’s center. We contacted our local House Rep. with our dates that we would be in Washington DC. A few weeks later, we received a letter via email with our ticket for the Capitol tour. The letter said to proceed to the House Rep’s office and an intern would accompany us to check in at the visitor’s center and take the tour.Unfortunately we forgot to head to our House Rep’s office first and headed to the visitor’s center. The visitor’s center is a 3-story underground structure on the east side of the Capitol. No liquids are allowed, so we drank up our bottles of water and headed inside to be screened and have our bags x-rayed. The visitor’s center itself is very nice, with nice tall white granite walls and fixtures; a huge skylight illuminates the entire area. There are 2 gift shops on either side of the upper levels, 2 visitor check-in areas, a small restaurant, and an underground walkway to the Library of Congress.Upon check-in at the visitor’s center, I noticed our letter mentioned proceeding to the House Rep’s office first. I telephoned our House Rep’s office, and an intern said to take the regular tour. We found out later that the intern guided tours visit the House and Senate chambers, if available; whereas the regular tours do not. After checking in and receiving a visitor’s badge, we were directed to a line awaiting the next showing at the visitor’s center theater.When it was our showing at the theater, we took a nice comfy seat and watched a superbly produced documentary movie about the Capitol. The movie touched on the creation and building of the Capitol, the attack damaging the Capitol during the war of 1812, and the rebuilding of the Capitol. The movie also dealt with how government should work and the Capitol’s important purpose in our government. It was move that made people feel good about our government at work, no matter what political party.After the movie we exited the theater and lined up for our tour in groups of around 30. Our tour guide took us down a maze of hallways and escalators until we arrived at the Capitol’s rotunda. The rotunda is a beautiful example of American neoclassical architecture. There are exquisite paintings all around depicting various scenes during important events in American history, such as the baptism of Pocahontas, Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, Columbus’ landing, and others. The rotunda’s dome itself is magnificent, with a beautifully painted 360 degree fresco in the center with George Washington ascending to the heavens and symbols of our country’s strengths, such as commerce, agriculture, military strength, and others. There is an amazing frieze painting just below the dome depicting the history of the United States from Columbus’ landing to the Wright Brother’s first flight. The guide said the frieze wasn’t finished due to the death of the artist, and was completed by three other artists in the 1950’s. We also noted various statues of former Presidents in the rotunda, donated by different states.We went into the National Statuary Hall Collection, which was used as the old House of Representatives. The Statuary Hall is basically a statue storage and display room. The guide said each state is to donate 2 statues depicting important people in the state’s history. The statues are to be of certain dimensions and specifications in order to be included in the National Statuary Hall Collection. There can only be 2 statues from each state, so if a state wants to submit a newer statue, they must collect an older one currently in the Collection. For instance, California has statues of former governor and President Ronald Reagan, and Junipero Sierra, a Franciscan friar influential in early California history. The guide explained that the former Presidents were featured in the Capitol rotunda, while all others are here in the Statuary Hall or visitor’s center, or the Crypt, which we will visit next.One interesting about Statuary Hall was the fact that it was the old House of Representative. The House was relocated to it’s current hall due to the increasing size of the Union and the need for more room due to more Representatives. An interesting feature of the room was that it was engineered so somebody standing in particular points of the room and speak at a low level of volume and be heard in other areas of the room. Our guide demonstrated that by having us stand in a certain place and wandering about 50 feet away and speaking softly at the floor, where we heard him loud and clear. He explained that the room was engineered to have this built-in acoustic effect since this was before the time of microphones and speakers. One drawback is that the effect also worked in reverse and the speaker could hear whatever derogatory things the other Representative might be whispering about him.Our next stop was one more level below into the Crypt, which is a small room filled with thick support columns directly below the rotunda. Some more statues are stored here as well. The guide explained that the main purpose of the Crypt was structural support for the rotunda, as well as an entrance to George Washington’s tomb, hence the name of the Crypt. George Washington is not buried here since there was a snafu with his will. Congress assumed Washington wanted to be buried in the Capitol, and built the Crypt and his tomb, which were finished in 1927, due to interruptions during the War of 1812. It was later revealed that Washington’s will stated he was to be buried at Mount Vernon, so his body remains there.At this point, our tour ended, and we proceeded back to the visitor’s center. We noticed that other tour groups that had a Congressional intern continued onto other parts of the Capitol, probably both House and Senate chambers. It was my own fault for not remembering to proceed to my House Rep’s office for the intern guided tour. Our tour took about 30 minutes, not including the introductory movie. I was disappointed that the tour didn’t show more, and basically only covered 3 rooms. Our tour guide was very informative and patient, answering pretty much any question asked of him. I particularly enjoyed the introductory movie. I was not that impressed with the small scope of tour, but the fact that it was a unique experience, being the US Capitol, I was glad I went anyways.
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