Hundreds of visitors got their first look at the Capitol Visitor Center — an underground museum and now the first stop for people touring Congress — as it opened Tuesday three years late and $360 million over budget.
A 186-foot marble wall holds display cases that document the nation’s milestones and key decisions in Congress. Visitors will find President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 speech calling for the nation to send a man to the moon, Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 letter urging Congress to fund the Lewis and Clark Expedition and James Madison’s notes for the Constitution.
“It provides a splendidly presented civics lesson,” said James Billington, the librarian of Congress. The new structure, he said, “will make the Capitol, the icon of our republic, more accessible to all of us than ever before.”
At a dedication ceremony for the three-story underground center, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said work has never ceased on the Capitol, “one of the most recognizable structures in the world,” since construction began in 1793. She praised the inclusive nature of the center’s main space, called Emancipation Hall in part because slaves helped build the Capitol.
When the slaves were later emancipated, many came to President Abraham Lincoln’s second inauguration there, Pelosi said.
“I think the spirit of those people still lives in these halls, and that’s why I’m so pleased this grand hall is called Emancipation Hall,” she said.
A towering Statue of Freedom, the plaster model for the bronze sculpture that sits atop the Capitol Dome, dominates the visitor center’s main hall.
“She’s beautiful, she’s gone through a lot and now she’s home,” said Melody Hill of Fairfax, Va., who took time away from work to see the new Capitol exhibit space. She snapped photos of the “Freedom” statue with her cell phone camera.
Hill said the project’s eye-popping price tag doesn’t matter much now that the visitor center is open.
“Don’t you think with everything going on in the country, something positive is nice right now?” she said.
The cost ballooned to $621 million, more than double the $265 million estimated cost if the center had been completed on schedule by December 2005.
“I cannot believe that this was over $600 million,” said Sue Woodson of Charlottesville, Va., who toured the center with her son, 11-year-old Sam Denham. “I think that it’s worth it to keep people out of the elements while they’re waiting to go on their tour, but you still have to wait in line to go through security.”
The idea for the center was first floated in the 1970s as a way to improve the experience for 3 million annual visitors who had to wait outside before their tours.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a former Capitol police officer, remembers long lines of visitors waiting in Washington’s oppressive summer heat and said the center is long overdue.
“You could literally smell the tourists coming to the Capitol,” he said.
Ground was broken in 2000 and the project was expanded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to improve Capitol security.
The new center’s marble corridors can accommodate thousands of people. It has two orientation theaters where people touring Congress can first view a film entitled “Out of Many, One,” a 530-seat restaurant, 16,500 square feet of exhibit space, and 26 restrooms. Advance reservations, which can be booked online for free, are recommended for tours.