For die-hard fans of American history (or House of Cards), a visit to the nerve centre of all things political in Washington DC – the Capitol, is an absolute must-do. A few years ago, TML was granted a private tour of this historic, working monument including a visit to both the House and the Senate in session. Today, the world’s most recognised symbol of democratic government undergoes daily scrutiny – here’s what we marveled at during our tour.
The 580,000 square foot Capitol Visitor Center is a 3 level space dedicated to telling the story of how the 2 houses of Congress work. Comprising an Exhibition Hall, 2 theaters, countless artifacts and an 11foot touchable model of the Capitol Dome, the Center highlights the role Congress plays in American’s daily lives.
The central space of the Visitors Center was named Emancipation Hall to remember the contribution of slaves who built the amazing structure. The enormous skylights not only flood the underground center with light but allows everyone to get an up close view of the Dome. The Visitor Center details the history of Congress and is the entry point for visitors to watch the shenanigans of the House of Representatives or the Senate in session.
The Capitol houses one of the most significant and magnificent collections of American Art and is an architectural masterpiece in its own right. This one magnificent, emblematic building houses an abundance of the most potent symbols of American representative democracy. The Statue of Freedom that sits atop the Dome is a classical female figure that looks down on this remarkable city. Visitors to the Capitol can view all of the statue’s symbolic detail via the plaster model in Emancipation Hall.
Statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the Capitol are donated by the individual 50 states to honor notable citizens of each state. The statues include those of Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress; Jack Swigert, astronaut and crew member of the disastrous Apollo 13 mission who died only one week before taking his seat in the House of Representatives in 1982; and Sakakawea, who guided Lewis and Clark during part of their Northwest Expedition.
Although the Rotunda serves no legislative function, it is a magnificent ceremonial space that has been the site of state funerals for presidents since Abraham Lincoln, as well as members of Congress, military heroes and distinguished citizens including Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks. It also houses four striking giant canvases painted by John Trumbull, George Washington’s aide de camp to George Washington.
But it is Constantino Brumidi’s ‘Apotheosis of George Washington’ that elicits a simultaneous chorus of ‘ooh’s’ and ‘aah’s’ from visitors. I can only describe walking into the rotunda is like walking into the Sistine Chapel for the first time.
The Apotheosis does indeed elevate the first president to god-like status: ascending to heaven and flanked by Liberty and Victory. Below, the Frieze of American History depicts some of the most significant events in America’s history since the landing of Columbus. Bathed in afternoon sunlight it is magnificent. You look at the Frieze and your eyes are tricked into believing it is bas relief. I dare you to not be in overawed by the sheer beauty and spectacle.
The Capitol is art gallery, architectural masterpiece, office building, and where the legislative arm of American government meets and constructs the laws of the land. The Visitor Center is an incomparable educational facility that more than delivers as a major tourist attraction. Even if you’re not an American you will be dazzled by just how good Americans not only tell their story, but also how well they sell it.
Thanks to the Architect of the Capitol for all photos: https://www.aoc.gov/
Advance passes for excellent guided tours are available: