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A Grand Entrance

The Baltimore Sun

We have built no national temple but the Capitol," U.S. Rep. Rufus Choate of Massachusetts said in 1833. "We consult no common oracle but the Constitution."

Now America's "temple" has a new front door, just in time for the millions of visitors expected to descend on Washington for the presidential inauguration and related festivities.

The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center will open Tuesday as the starting point for guests touring the Capitol, the seat of the legislative branch of federal government and the place where Barack Obama will take the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States.

Planners say they expect more than 3 million visitors a year to visit the Capitol, up from 1.5 million in recent years.

The visitor center's opening comes at a time when people are "riveted on government" because of the recent elections, said Terrie Rouse, the center's CEO for Visitor Services. "Interest is very strong."

"The visitor center is a treasure in itself," said Stephen Ayers, acting architect of the Capitol and chief operating officer. "We have built a modern, 21st-century facility, while at the same time preserving and enhancing the historic features of the Capitol and its grounds."

Located on the east side of the Capitol, with its main entrance near First Street and East Capitol Street Northeast, the underground visitor center is one of three recently completed attractions all within easy walking distance of each other. The others are the refurbished National Museum of American History on the Mall, which reopened Nov. 21 after an $85 million transformation, and the relocated Newseum at 555 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.

The new Capitol attraction is also part of a national trend in which many historic buildings and places are opening new visitor or interpretive centers, including Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, in Virginia, and Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

The new visitor center is not meant to be a destination unto itself but a supplement to and extension of the Capitol, which was built beginning in 1793.

Constructed over six years at a cost of $621 million, the center is the largest single addition to the Capitol since its dome was completed in the 1860s. It was placed underground, planners say, to preserve historic views to and from the Capitol.

As designed by the Washington office of RTKL, with Rod Henderer as project architect, the 580,000-square-foot building in many ways has the look and feel of a museum, complete with scale models, films and an exhibition hall highlighting historic documents and other artifacts.

Among the highlights are the ceremonial trowel and gavel George Washington used to lay the building's cornerstone in 1793, John Quincy Adams' cane and the drafting tools used by Thomas Walter to design the Capitol dome.

Documents include Thomas Jefferson's letter detailing the funds for Lewis and Clark Expedition; John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech vowing to put a man on the moon in 10 years; Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech; and a copy of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Also on display is the Lincoln catafalque, a pine platform built to support President Abraham Lincoln's casket after he was assassinated in 1865, and used since then when presidents and military leaders have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

Also notable is an 11-foot-high cutaway scale model of the Capitol dome and Rotunda, depicting details such as Constantino Brumidi's painting on the dome's ceiling, the Apotheosis of Washington.

According to Ayers, the center was built to enhance the visitor experience by showing educational exhibits that prepare guests to see the Capitol, and also to provide amenities that guests need during their visit, starting with a place to wait under cover before their tours begin. Visitors now line up outside in the heat, rain and snow to sign up for tours.

The visitor center was also constructed to provide better security for occupants of the Capitol, including members of Congress and those who come to meet with them. All visitors must pass through sensitive electronic scanners before they can enter.

Now that construction is complete, "I believe we succeeded in meeting all our goals," Ayers said. "Generations of Americans will benefit from all [the center] has to offer."

The visitor center has many components, including a large, light-filled hall where visitors can gather before tours begin; two theaters where they can see an orientation film; a 530-seat restaurant; two gift shops; 26 restrooms; meeting rooms; and the exhibition hall containing educational displays.

The large front space was named Emancipation Hall to remind people of the contributions of enslaved laborers who helped build the Capitol. Lined with statues from different states, it evokes a Beaux-Arts train station's grand waiting room.

Although it is underground, the hall is light and airy because it's covered with glass skylights that let sun in and provide views of the Capitol dome for those below.

From this hall, visitors can move to the exhibition hall, which features displays designed by Ralph Applebaum and Associates (designer of the exhibits at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum). Marking the entrance to this area is the Statue of Freedom, a 19-foot-high plaster figure that was the model for sculptor Thomas Crawford's figure atop the Capitol's dome. Tuesday is the 145th anniversary of the day the statue was placed atop the dome.

According to officials, the hall is the only place in the world dedicated to telling the story of the U.S. Congress and U.S. Capitol. Displays touch on subjects such as the different phases of construction of the Capitol, the evolution of the surrounding area, and the architectural features of the building.

In addition, visitors can learn about the members of Congress (including their own representatives), how the Capitol accommodates them, and many of the milestone actions they have taken over the years.

Carved into a marble wall in the exhibition hall are two phrases that had significance for the Capitol in its beginning and maintains importance for the visitor center today: E Pluribus Unum, which means "Out of Many, One."

"Our founding fathers selected these words to describe the coming together of the 13 Colonies into one, united country," Rouse said. "The Capitol is a place where many gather, and today, we share the Capitol ... in a new way. We hope to make every visit to the Capitol an educational and inspiring experience of a lifetime."

if you go

U.S. Capitol Visitor Center: Admission is free, but visitors need time-specific tickets to see the orientation film and to tour the Capitol itself. Tickets can be obtained in advance by going to visitthecapitol.gov or calling 202-226-8000. Tickets also can be obtained on-site the day of the tour, if still available. There are security restrictions on what can be brought into the building, so call or go online to see a list of prohibited items. Visitor center hours are 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. The main entrance is near First Street and East Capitol Street Northeast, Washington. The center is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Inauguration Day.

The National Museum of American History: The museum reopened Nov. 21 after a two-year, $85 million renovation. The centerpiece of the museum is the new Star-Spangled Gallery, which offers visitors a unique look at the nearly 200-year-old Star Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem. The museum is on the National Mall, at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington. The museum is free and open every day except Christmas Day. Hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. For more information, call 202-633-1000 or go to americanhistory.si.edu.

Newseum: The six-story museum dedicated to media and journalism was relocated from Arlington, Va., to the heart of Washington in April. It is on Pennsylvania Avenue between Fifth and Sixth streets Northwest. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day). Tickets are $20 for adults 13-64; $18 for seniors 65 and older; $13 for youths 7-12; free for children 6 and younger. For more information, call 888-639-7386 or go to newseum.org.

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