Once again, I have to thank Tracy Antonioli, the Suitcase Scholar – this time for convincing me to tour the U.S. Capitol when I was in Washington. I didn’t want to. I’m so disgusted with politicians in Washington, Congress in particular. Why would I want to visit this temple to ego-driven decision-making?
But the more I looked into it, I quickly realized the reason was simple: The architecture. The U.S. Capitol building is a beautiful example of neoclassical architecture, with influences from the Greeks and Romans. I was sold. Tours of the U.S. Capitol are free, but passes are required. I recommend reserving a time online in advance of your trip. (You can take a chance as a walk-in, but don’t be too disappointed if you don’t get the time you want or don’t get in at all. These tours are popular.)
On the morning of my appointment, I took the metro to the Capitol South Metro Station. From there, it’s an easy walk up the street to the entrance of the Capitol. I missed the downward slope to the entrance to the Visitors Center, thinking I had to be at street level to enter the building, but realized my mistake and backtracked. By now, I was rushing. The journey from my hotel had taken longer than I expected, so I was running a tad late when I headed through security and into the Visitors Center.
When I approached one of the red-jacketed staff members to ask where I needed to go next, I noted that I thought I may have missed my 9 o’clock appointment.
She smiled and said, “Oh no, you have plenty of time. You’re on Capitol time now. The tour doesn’t start until 9:10.”
“Capitol time.” Yeah. That says a lot, doesn’t it?
I checked in, got my sticker to apply to my jacket and got in line. The tour group was so large, they split us into 5 different groups, each with our own guide. Ours was Monica.
Monica went up the line handing everyone a pair of headphones to wear during the tour so we could hear her better. Many people in the group had defective headphones, so they had to be replaced. (The headphones, not the people). Finally, we were ready for the tour.
[Aside: The Capitol website indicates that the tour starts with a 13 minute introductory video. I have no memory of that whatsoever. Which is kind of scary, since I was there a few short months ago.]
Monica was very young, funny and knowledgeable. It blew me away how many details she had memorized about the Capitol–when and how it was built, what was involved in that, and various facts and figures about it. It turned out to be a much more interesting tour than I had expected. We visited three main areas of the Capitol (but not the wings where members of Congress actually work).
Our tour kicked off in the Rotunda. (This is the area beneath the Capitol’s dome.) The highlight of this room is, of course, the domed ceiling and the fresco painted on it. The fresco is called “The Apotheosis of Washington” and was painted in 1865 by Constantino Brumidi. The fresco is still visible in the very center during the renovations of the Capitol dome, but the outside edges are covered.
Monica told us “The Congress-approved terminology for this (covering) is ‘The Donut’.” It’s nice to know Congress has a sense of humor once in awhile.
[Fun fact: The fresco is 4,664 square feet, 3.6 times the square footage of my condo. That’s a lot of paint. Doesn’t it remind you of frescos you see on ceilings of cathedrals and palaces in Europe? Or resorts in Las Vegas?]
The other significant artworks in the Rotunda are paintings by prominent artists of the day featuring significant moments in US history, and The Frieze of American History, a panorama that circles the room. Brumidi began the panorama, too, but died before it was completed. Two other artists finished it. (You can read more about at their website.)
Our next stop was Statuary Hall. The first thing Monica did was remove her microphone and demonstrate the famous “whispering gallery” in this hall. You may have seen this on TV before. The shape of the ceiling causes a weird acoustical effect whereby somebody standing many paces away can whisper and be heard as if they’re right next to you. That was really cool.
Here, we learned that every US state has 2 statues representing them in the Capitol building. Some of them were located in this room; others are scattered throughout the building. In the Rotunda, for instance, are statues of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Abraham Lincoln and other US Presidents. Hawaii’s King Kamehameha stands in the great hall of the Visitor’s Center (it looks exactly like the one in Honolulu and like the one that used to stand in the Hawaiian Marketplace in Las Vegas).
We didn’t really have time to stop and look at the names of each statue in Statuary Hall, so if I wasn’t standing right next to it during Monica’s presentation, I couldn’t tell who most of them were supposed to be. I saw a statue of Rosa Parks here, though, and also one of Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan friar who founded the early Spanish missions in California. Monica invited people to tell her where they were from and she’d tell them where their state’s statues were located. People called out states, and she rattled them right off.
I didn’t speak up, so I never did see the Vermont statues. But as it turns out, a statue of Ethan Allen is in the Statuary Hall, and one of Jacob Collamer is in the 1st Floor Senate Wing. You may have heard of Ethan Allen the furniture brand, but Ethan Allen was also a founder of Vermont and a leading Revolutionary War figure. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of Collamer. I am a lifelong resident of Vermont, and I had no idea who he was. According to Wikipedia, Jacob Collamer was a US Representative and a US Senator and also served as the US Postmaster General under President Zachary Tyler.
Then Monica brought us down to the Crypt, where Washington’s Tomb is. You might assume that means George Washington is buried here. You’d be wrong. Congress wanted it to be his burial place, but his will stated that he wanted to be buried on his estate at Mount Vernon, and that’s where he is buried.
From what I can tell, this means that the Crypt’s dual purposes are to hold up the Rotunda above it and to display more statues. In other words, it’s a very decorative basement. Oh–and it marks the exact spot of the intersection of the four quadrants of Washington, DC.
[Fun fact: Attention, beer fans: Sam Adams–also a Founding Father, of course–is down in the Crypt! His statue, I mean. So is General Robert E. Lee’s of Virginia and 11 other state historical figures I don’t really know.]
Bonus Room: The Supreme Court Chamber
Because there were fewer than 40 of us, Monica also gave us a quick peek at the old Supreme Court chamber before she wrapped up the tour. Did you know the Supreme Court used to meet in the Capitol building from 1810-1860? I didn’t until this tour. Later that morning, I passed the current Supreme Court building; I can see why they got an upgrade.
Was It Worth It?
For the architecture alone, the US Capitol Tour is well worth it. (Yes, even while the Rotunda is under renovation.) I have to admit, it was a great opportunity for me to be reminded of various historical figures who had long since retreated to the dark recesses of my mind, and to learn about others I’d never heard of before.
More importantly, being in this historic building that has seen so many Congressmen and Congresswomen come and go over the years was a good reminder that how we view individuals in the here and now may be very different from how they will be viewed through the lens of history. We may not care for some of the personalities currently holding office (or the decisions that they make) based on our own opinions and biases, but ultimately, the model of our government is a good one and it’s worth preserving.