October 1, 2008
The new Capitol Visitor Center symbolizes the kind of nation we have become.
There is arguably no more potent image of democracy than the Statue of Freedom atop the United States Capitol dome. With the opening of the massive underground Capitol Visitor Center planned for December 2, the hallowed place takes on the burden of new symbolism: a nation hunkered down. The $621 million, 580,000-square-foot complex, by RTKL Associates, is a marble bunker and then some.
The project grew out of a modest plan to manage tourists after a gunman killed two Capitol Police officers in 1998. After September 11, 2001, the design morphed into a supersecure five-acre subterranean city, much of it off-limits to the public. The former Architect of the Capitol, Alan Hantman, who was one of the last people to evacuate the building on 9/11, sees it this way: “We had to go back to ground zero and do a total new design. Whatever the Capitol Police wanted they got. We’d be foolish to believe that there weren’t people who would want to see the building destroyed.”
The first freedom to go was the uplifting saunter across Frederick Law Olmsted’s East Front Plaza, up the steps, and through the Columbus Doors to the rotunda, where tour groups had gathered for generations. The new center requires a direct descent from the street to the state-of-the-art security checkpoints. Once past the metal detectors, tourists will be rewarded with a grand lobby, a history exhibition, and touch screens designed to help them connect with the role of legislation in their lives. There will also be such mall-worthy amenities as shops, restrooms, and a 530-seat food court. Unseen by the public is the real point of all those taxpayer dollars: a network of congressional hideaways, truck tunnels, and passageways sprawling beneath the 27-inch-thick roof deck with its bomb-proof skylights. Workers burrowed about 70 feet under Olmsted’s landscape, creating “as big a hole as you could dig,” says Hantman, whose decadelong tenure ended under fire in 2007.
Officials on Capitol Hill, no doubt burned by eight years of controversy, are reticent to talk about the project. Congressional investigators pursued allegations of kickbacks and waste. In 2006 the Washington Post reported that air-filtration-system upgrades were expected to cost more than $100 million, paid from a secret account. To block a multimillion-dollar tunnel to the Library of Congress, Representative Jack Kingston, a Republican of Georgia, tried to persuade colleagues to use umbrellas. The design team at RTKL Associates was refused permission to speak to this reporter. The acting Architect of the Capitol, Stephen Ayers, wouldn’t respond to written questions, but his spokesman, Tom Fontana, offered a tour—of the model, public floors only. Fontana acknowledged that a 1,000-foot-long vehicle tunnel was dug to counter the threat of truck bombs, and possibly to ensure safe arrival of dignitaries. “Nothing compares to the complexity of what we’re doing here,” Fontana says. “It’s a very volatile environment.”
Hantman defends his decision to hide the biggest addition ever made to the building, thus passing up an opportunity to add to the Capitol’s architectural glory. He didn’t have to say that the last thing Washington, D.C., needs is another target. As fortresses go, this one could have been worse: Hantman quashed a plan to close off the parklike Capitol grounds with a perimeter wall. He also added skylights to the central gallery. “It’s critical that people not feel that they are in a labyrinth,” he says.
Entering tourists will enjoy oblique views of the Capitol dome and its bronze statue through 30-by-70-foot skylights. But a metal grid over the glass accentuates the surreal nature of this place and our time. Visitors must seek the essence of freedom from a cage embedded in the cellar.