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Capitol Visitor Center

Capitol tourists won't be squished  Nov 24, 2008

WASHINGTON — The long-awaited Capitol Visitor Center will finally open to the public on Dec. 2, providing an enhanced experience for tourists almost four decades after it was originally conceived.

Although 3 million people visit the Capitol every year, the narrow corridors and sparse amenities are not particularly conducive to tourism. Officials hope to change all that with the new building, which cost $621 million and took six years to build.

The result is a visitor center that is one part bunker, one part Grand Central station and one part museum.

Visitors enter the underground structure by walking down a sloping pathway behind the Capitol building. After passing through security — beefed up for the post-9/11 era — the interior opens up into an expansive atrium reminiscent of New York City's train station.

Trove of artifacts

The floor of the atrium is 35 feet below ground, but skylights in the ceiling provide striking views of the Capitol dome.

The room, called Emancipation Hall, is finished with sandstone and marble and anchored by the original plaster model of the Statue of Freedom that tops the Capitol.

Statues of historical lawmakers and public figures are placed along the walls.

Deeper into the center is a museum chronicling the evolution of Congress and the building where it works. The dimly lit rooms contain a treasure trove of historical artifacts, such as George Washington's letter proclaiming victory against the British following the battle at Yorktown in 1781.

From there, visitors can join guided tours through the Capitol building itself.

The 580,000-square-foot building is the largest and most expensive addition in the Capitol's history.

"Today we're really here to celebrate," said Stephen Ayers, the Capitol's chief architect, during a recent media tour.

Officials emphasized that the center will provide greater comfort and ease of access. Instead of waiting outside in long lines to enter the Capitol, visitors can eat at the 530-seat food court, browse two gift shops and watch a 13-minute film.

And a spokesman said more metal detectors will allow people to move through the entrance faster than before.

Security enhancement

Security was a major impetus for the visitor center. In July 1998, two police officers were shot and killed before the killer was subdued in an office used by top Republican lawmakers.

The issue was brought to the forefront again after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which officials said caused the project's budget to swell.

But don't listen to the rumors — none of that money went to a top-secret hideaway even further underground.

"There is no bunker," Ayers said, smiling. "It is nothing more than a visitor center."

Capitol tourists won't be squished
Image via Getty Images

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