Historic America

A Trip to the U.S. Capitol Building

No visit to Washington, DC is complete without seeing the U.S. Capitol Building, which is open to the public and more accommodating to visitors since the addition of a multi-million dollar visitor center in 2008. There are restricted areas, of course, and places you can only go with a congressperson or senator, but you don’t have to have any special connections to see public areas of the building, including the crypt and rotunda.

My mother-in-law was able to score us a tour with her congresswoman’s intern, which was preferable to standing in line. He graciously took us through the tunnels, which features a display of student artwork from all 50 states, and all public areas. Senators and congressmen travel to and from their offices and the Capitol via underground tunnels, so they don’t have to share the street with peasants like us.

The central building dates from 1800, with the addition of House and Senate wings in the 1850s and the dome in the 1860s, constructed during the Civil War. Like the White House, the Capitol Building is a treasure trove of art and history. You can even visit the Old Supreme Court Chamber, which was in use from 1810 to 1860 and saw monumental decisions like Dred Scott (1857).

The Crypt got its name from its intended use as the burial place of President George Washington, but Washington chose to be buried at Mount Vernon. Instead, the circular room is lined with statues contributed by states representing the thirteen original colonies, as well as a large marble bust of President Abraham Lincoln. Virginia’s contribution was a statue of Robert E. Lee, which has created controversy in recent years.

The Rotunda and National Statuary Hall are the highlights of any Capitol tour. Each state contributed two statues to the collection, for a total of 100 bronze or marble statues of important figures from our nation’s history. In the rotunda stands statues of Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant, Martin Luther King Jr., and Alexander Hamilton, among others.

The rotunda is filled with magnificent artwork, including the 1865 fresco painted by Constantino Brumidi “The Apotheosis of Washington.” Eight paintings from early U.S. history line the rotunda. You’ve probably seen all of them dozens of times in books (like “Declaration of Independence” by John Trumbull), but it’s different seeing them in person. I was surprised at how large the originals are.

The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, with its entrance off First Street SE in Washington, DC, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except for major holidays and Inauguration Day. Admission is free, but passes are required for tours. Special passes are required for admission to the Senate and House Galleries, where you can watch our legislature in session. A visit to the Capitol Building is well worth the hassle!

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