Monday, November 3

FOR THIS THEY SPENT $600 MILLION?

Ken Johnson, DC Mud - Last week, DC Mud became the first media outlet in the world to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the new US Capitol Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is scheduled to open to the public on December 2nd, the product of an 8-year, $600m, 580,000 s.f. construction project. Conceived originally as a tourist-friendly entryway that happily banished the surface parking lots and delivered the eastern lawn of the Capitol closer to the status quo ante of Frederick Law Olmsted's design, the Visitor Center now serves as the only public ingress to an increasingly restricted, post-9/11 Capitol.

Described by its detractors as a "monument to waste", and its defenders as better, cheaper and more justified than DC's new ballpark (with an expected 40 year life-span, at that), the project will be open to media scrutiny starting next month.

At 580,00 square feet, the Visitor Center is nearly three-quarters the size of the newly expanded Capitol. Of that, 210,000 square feet will be accessible to the public; the rest is dedicated to private meeting space for the House and Senate. . .

After a trip down a grand outdoor staircase and across the new visitor's reception green – which features historic, recently transplanted Capitol trees - visitors will be ushered into the Center itself. Painstakingly designed to be architecturally true to the old Capitol, down to the flawed marble that mimics the original material, and statuary that once sat under the dome, the entry hall is impressively grand for a structure invisible from the street. While it may lack the architectural awe of the original Capitol, the grandeur of the dome, or the detailed beauty of the original frescoed ceilings, it is the Center's ability to move masses of people on a continuous basis that prevailed as the Center's design theme. . .

The first view of the Visitor Center is Emancipation Hall, a grand entry meant to showcase the diversity of America's leadership. Populated by state icon statuary such as Hawaii's King Kamehameha, North Dakota's Sacagawea, Montana's Jeannette Rankin (the first female member of Congress), and Utah's Philo T. Farnsworth (the bane of most parents as inventor of the cathode ray tube. . .

Standing front and center in Emancipation Hall is the original scale model of the Statue of Freedom, the byproduct of which now perches on the Capitol dome. . .

The first stop off Emancipation Hall is the Orientation Theater, premiering a 13 minute film entitled "Out of One, Many," (as in e pluribus unum, as on the seal of the United States, we remind our less civic-minded readers) directed by documentarian Donna Lawrence. The film is a visual timeline of landmark legislation passed in Congress, cast across a 34-foot Imax-like screen, with sound effects that reverberate through the 250-seat theater.

The Visitor Center experience ends in the Wall of Aspirations - a state of the art museum divided into sections, each dedicated to one of the underlying principles of the founding political philosophy - virtues such as Unity, Freedom, Exploration - each with its own section and relevant historic documentation. Documents such as Abraham Lincoln's original notes for the Emancipation Proclamation will rotate in and out of the museum as the themes themselves change. . .

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