CVC Aims to Protect, Serve

Blast-Proofing, Other Measures Are Unveiled

Posted July 22, 2005 at 6:25pm

This weekend, Capitol Police officers planned to mark the seventh anniversary of the July 24, 1998, shooting deaths of Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson by laying a wreath at Memorial Door on the east front of the Capitol.

As in past years, police officials planned to hold a private, solemn ceremony as a tribute to the two officers who were killed when alleged shooter Russell Weston Jr. pulled a .38-caliber revolver from under his clothes at a visitor checkpoint and set off a running gun fight through the halls of the Capitol building.

But beyond the Memorial Door that Weston entered that Friday afternoon seven years ago lies another acknowledgement of what transpired that day: The Capitol Visitor Center.

On a tour last week of the CVC, spokesman Tom Fontana noted that it was the 1998 Capitol shootings that gave momentum to the project, which had been discussed and debated by Members for decades, and “put the CVC on the front burner.”

“The idea for a visitor center is not new,” said Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman on Friday. But, “the fatal shootings of two U.S. Capitol Police officers in July 1998 underscored the degree to which the building and its occupants are at risk.”

Within three months of the shootings, $100 million had been appropriated for the project — a price tag that has since risen to more than a half-billion dollars — as Members demanded a better and safer way to screen visitors coming into the Capitol building.

And as he stood amid the hum of construction work last week, Fontana took time to point out some of the layers of security that had been built into the visitors center design and tried to give a sense of how some of the security features of the CVC — some of them obvious and others hidden — would be felt by visitors.

Compared to the current screening facility located on the South side of the Capitol near the House chamber, visitors entering the CVC will now be screened some 300 feet from the main Capitol Building in the underground center. Four magnetometers will greet guests in a “blast-proof” screening room constructed of concrete and steel.

“There’s a level of blast resistance we feel is important,” Fontana said of the walls.

In addition, large blast resistant windows on either side of screening area will allow Capitol Police officers to monitor guests leaving the facility even as they screen visitors coming in.

While Capitol Police Officer Michael Lauer, a spokesman for the department, said he could not comment on the specifics of how the department will conduct security screenings he said that “the Capitol Police continue to be involved with the security planning for the CVC and are working with the Architect of the Capitol to ensure proper security needs are met.”

After visitors move through the new screening room they will head into the CVC’s 20,000-sq. foot Great Hall which will offer guests stunning views of the Capitol Dome through skylights also constructed with blast resistance in mind. Though Fontana was hesitant to give details on the exact design of the the two massive, three-tiered windows which will sit atop the hall, the large open skylights will be strong enough to help contain a bomb blast. It’s a design that combines security with aesthetics, Fontana said.

“What we’re trying to do is alleviate a feeling of a bunker by having a lot of natural light in the facility,” Fontana said, “And at the same time we’re maintaining a visual orientation and connectivity to the Capitol by having views of the Dome as you move through the facility.”

Many of the visitor amenities now located in the Capitol, such as educational displays and gift shops, will be located off of the Great Hall and in the new CVC exhibit gallery. Fontana said that moving these items into the large open areas in the CVC will alleviate the security concerns that arise from the current crowding together of large numbers of tour groups and visitors in places like the Capitol Crypt.

And while the 1998 shootings in the Capitol served to jump start the project, not all the security lessons used in the design of the CVC came from that day.

“The events of September 11, 2001, the anthrax attacks and the war on terrorism have further punctuated the need to enhance security in the Capitol,” Hantman said.

By the time Congressional leaders broke ground on the project in 2000, with hopes the center would be completed by the January 2005 inauguration, the project’s price tag stood at $265 million.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, lawmakers expanded original plans for the facility, and appropriated $38.5 million for security enhancements, along with an additional $70 million for the completion of “shell” space allocated for the House and Senate on each side of the visitor center.

The anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill that year also forced designers to take another look at air circulation systems in the CVC. The result was the creation of a massive air handling system made up of 20 separate units, each 40-by-12-by-8 feet, that are designed to “purge air more rapidly” out of specific sections of the visitor center. Last week, workers were installing the piping and support steel around many of those units.

While the idea of the visitor center may date back to the mid-1970s, Fontana said that the security systems used in the facility will be as close to the cutting edge as possible, taking lessons from all the challenges the Capitol has faced over time.

“The Capitol Visitor Center will not only provide a place for people to learn about our Capitol and our government, it also will provide a secure environment to welcome large numbers of visitors, and protect the Capitol Building, Members of Congress and their staffs,” Hantman said.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.