Monday, February 16, 2009

Capitol Visitor's Center

Emancipation Hall : Under the East Plaza : U.S. Capitol

As a result of several security incidents at the U.S. Capitol in the last 15 years and because of the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the U.S. government constructed a new space for channeling visitors through the Capitol complex that allows for tighter security and regulated traffic flow. The result is the $621 million, 580,000 square foot (54,000 square meter) underground Capitol Visitor's Center (CVC), which--after six years of construction delays and cost overruns--finally opened to the public in December 2008.

Replica of the Statue of Freedom that sits atop the Capitol Dome

I generally try to be enthusiastic about things to see and do in D.C., but aside from the introductory film "Out of Many, One", the Capitol Visitor's Center is a disappointment. At least, it is if you recall a time when you could freely walk in and out of the Capitol and if you've ever been on a tour led by a legislative aide from your respective senator's or representative's office. Now, it's all very streamlined. You have to have tickets to take a tour--they're free, but reservations are required--and the process to visit the House or Senate galleries involves going through so many security checkpoints, it's hardly worth it.

Interior Dome on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol

While I won't outright discourage people from contacting their legislator to arrange tours of the Capitol, I will tell you the only advantage this gives you over the large, general public tours is you get to go to the head of the line and you're in a group that's likely five people or less. But those are the only advantages now.

Unfortunately, unlike in the past, you end up with the same tour as those who didn't contact their legislator. And that's the sad part. Use to be, when you contacted your state's legislator, you not only got a tour of the general areas of the Capitol along with the general public, but you got to see special areas like the Brumidi Corridors, which the general public did not. Not anymore. And that's a shame really. What should be the house of the people has become so buttoned down and sterile, it barely inspires like it once did. The saving graces of the Capitol are the Rotunda with the Apotheosis of Washington and Statuary Hall and that's about it.*

On top of that, there was a time when you could walk around the upper perimeters of the Capitol and enjoy spectacular vistas of the National Mall from the west side of the building. This is no longer possible and that, too, is unfortunate.**

The U.S. Capitol as seen from the newly installed East Plaza.
This concrete plaza is the roof of the underground visitor's center and replaces
a beautiful series of gardens and walkways that previously graced the front of
the Capitol--all for the sake of security.

A note to the CVC's personnel: Get your crap together on how you guide people through the coat check/electronics devices check for visiting the Senate and House galleries. Your system is confusing and unclear, your staffers suck and they yell at people needlessly. Trying to visit the Senate gallery was not a good experience.

* Maybe I've lived in D.C. too long or I remember too fondly what past tours were like. I'd still take visitors to see the Capitol, because you can't come to Washington and not see it, but for me it was a bit of a let down. Lots of sterile, contemporary grandeur, but no spirit.

** So much for not letting the terrorists win.

Photo copyright: D.C. Confidential, 02/09


bARE-eYED sUN said...

a touching post,

thank you.


Lucy said...

Whuuuuttt? We got to go through those coridors just last March on a legislator tour. No more??? I'm getting sick of these buildings being so shut off. They're ours dammit. And that includes the White House. America's goin' to hell.

D.C. Confidential said...

BES: Thanks.

Lucy: You can still take a tour led by a legislative aide, but it isn't unique like it once was. And you won't be seeing the corridors like you use to with an LA. Instead, it's the same tour everyone else takes. The only difference is, you don't stand in a hideously long line and you aren't in a large group of tourists. And yes, I agree, I'm tired of the people's buildings being locked down like Fort Knox.

Virginia said...

That's a bunch of #$%*. Love your dome shot. I"m suprised you got to take it. God forbid you whipped out that tripod.

Miranda said...

Supposedly, when I go to DC for my big agency orientation, I will get to have a proper tour of the buildings. I work in a federal building and I resent the security rigamorole I face every day; yet, I know the general public deals with far worse.

I hope that things improve with a new administration.

The Artful Eye said...

Last time I visited the Capitol the Gulf War had started, there was one small security checkpoint. I was able to move freely and swiftly, looks like those days are gone.

aarrgghh.. I won't go through that much trouble.

Godinla said...

You are the master of the angle. Bravo baby!

D.C. Confidential said...

VJ: I agree. As for the tripod, I left it home that day. I knew better than to even try.

Miranda: It's incredibly frustrating because most of these security measures address incidents that are after the fact. Ninety-nine percent of us are law-abiding, respectful people who just want to enjoy our nation's treasures. And yet, we're all punished for that 1% who have ulterior motives. So much for government "of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Andrea: Yeah, it's hardly worth it.

GIL: Thanks!

Lori said...

like the B+W shots!

I went there shortly after it opened... while I agree it was chaos getting in and out of there security-wise, I'm not sure I really minded the hassle of the extra security. Also not sure i'd call it a total disappointment --I thought the 3d models of the National Mall over the years were pretty cool among other things.

Maybe I would have had a much different experience if I'd waited for the ticketed tours, but I'd say it's worth walking through there at your own pace :)

thanks for the post.

Maya said...

Well, that doesn't sound like much fun. You were lying on the ground again for that last shot, weren't you? ;-) Nice shot.

D.C. Confidential said...

Lori: I concur that the timeline models in the exhibit hall were cool. Emancipation Hall, though, was a bit uninspiring though, when you compare to the artistry and grandeur of the Capitol itself or a building like the Library of Congress with their frescoes and mosaics and sculpture. For those who are visiting for the first time, I suppose it would all still be heady and awe-inspiring, but for those of us who've lived here a while and remember days of access gone by, it's kind of anti-climatic. That said, though, I wouldn't discourage anyone from visiting the Capitol because of it.

Maya: Yeah, I think I let my previous experiences cloud my judgment on this one. It's still worth seeing and the Capitol is a definite must-see when visiting the capital. And no, I was not lying on the ground for that last picture. Six inch tripod, baby! Six inch tripod! :-)

Julie said...

excellent photos and narrative. It is too bad that it is so difficult to see some of these sites.

Lori said...

true true :) It's definitely not the #1 place to go in DC by any means... anti-climatic, as you said, is a good way to put it

D.C. Confidential said...

Julie: Thanks! And yes, it is a shame that it's so much more work to get into public areas like this.

Lori: I agree. And frankly, that's sad. It should by the first place every visitor wants to go to and the last place that should be so arduous to get into.