Congress’ Newest Member: The US Capitol Visitor Center

After many years of dreaming and seven years of building, the Hill will start a new chapter in welcoming visitors when the US Capitol Visitor Center finally opens on December 2.

From that day forward, touring the Capitol will be a completely different experience. The center’s architects created a space that compliments the Capitol Building without imposing on the original design of the building or the surrounding landscape. In the 580,000 square feet of underground space are two halls, two 250-seat theaters, a congressional auditorium, a restaurant, and gift shops.

The entrance is located on the east lawn. From there, visitors will descend past newly planted trees and masoned courtyards into the lobby. Once past security, visitors will enter Emancipation Hall, a cavernous area that can hold 4,000 people, lit by two 30-by-70-foot skylights on both ends of the hall. The skylight on the north side provides an interesting upward angled view of the Capitol dome.

Visitors can admire 24 statues of culturally significant figures from different states—the most noticeable will undoubtedly be the life-size, plaster model of the Statue of Freedom, whose original stands atop the dome. It’s the centerpiece of Emancipation Hall and allows visitors to view the statue up close.Directly behind the State of Freedom is Exhibition Hall, the area that displays historical artifacts and provides educational information about the Capitol and Congress. Artifacts on display include letters from past presidents, including one from Thomas Jefferson to Lewis and Clarke, and Abraham Lincoln’s catafalque, which was used not only to support his casket in 1865 but also for 12 presidential funerals since then.

But what is most interesting about Exhibition Hall is the 11-foot touchable model of the Capitol dome. The lights around the dome simulate a day-and-night cycle, showing how the light in the columns beneath the Statue of Freedom come on when Congress is in session. Lasers were used to help recreate the inner portion of the Capitol dome.

Adjacent to Exhibition Hall are two theaters that seat up to 250 people, and this is where tours will begin with a film. The 13-minute orientation film provides a history of Congress as well as how it works. The film, entitled E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One, emphasizes national pride and unity.

The Visitor Center will be open to the public Monday through Saturday, 8:30 to 4:30. Admission and tours are free, but passes are required for tours. Advanced passes can be booked online at visitthecapitol.gov, through the offices of local senators or representatives, or by calling 202-226-8000. Same-day passes may be obtained from kiosks or the information desks in Emancipation Hall.

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