For American history nerds (or West Wing fans), a visit to the nerve centre of all things political in Washington DC – the Capitol, is an absolute must-do. 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 marvelled at during our tour.
The Visitor Center
The 580,000 square foot Capitol Visitor Center is a 3 level space dedicated to the story of how the 2 houses of Congress work. Comprising an Exhibition Hall, 2 theatres, countless artifacts and an 11 ft accessible model of the Capitol Dome, the Center highlights the role Congress plays in American’s daily lives.
The Visitors Center’s main space was named Emancipation Hall to remember the contribution of slaves who built the amazing structure. The enormous skylights not only flood the underground centre 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 House of Representatives’ regular shenanigans 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 who casts her eyes over this historic city. Visitors to the Capitol can view all of the statue’s symbolic detail via Emancipation Hall’s plaster model.
The National Statuary Hall
The 50 states donate statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection to honour their notable citizens. The statues commemorate a diverse list including Montana’s Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress; Colorado’s Jack Swigert, an Apollo 13 crew member who died only one week before taking his seat in the House of Representatives in 1982; and the legendary Sacagawea (Sakakawea), who guided Lewis and Clark during part of their Northwest Expedition.
Although the Rotunda serves no legislative function, it is a breathtaking ceremonial space where presidents since Abraham Lincoln, have been laid in state. As too, members of Congress, military heroes and distinguished citizens including Civil Rights champion Rosa Parks. It also houses four striking giant canvases painted by John Trumbull, George Washington’s aide de camp. Trumbull is known as ‘the painter of the Revolution’.
But it is Constantino Brumidi’s ‘Apotheosis of George Washington’ that elicits a simultaneous chorus of ‘ooh’s’ and ‘aah’s’ from visitors. Walking into the rotunda feels like entering the Sistine Chapel for the first time.
The Apotheosis elevates 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 white history since Columbus’s landing. Bathed in afternoon sunlight, it is beyond 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 an art gallery, architectural masterpiece, office building, and where the American government’s legislative arm 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/