CVC Opens Its Doors to the Media

Posted November 10, 2008 at 1:44pm

After 30 years of talking, more than a decade of planning and $621 million, the Capitol Visitor Center is now reality — 580,000 square feet of polished sandstone, tall columns and cavernous halls.

Long a myth to many, the CVC shed some of its mystery Monday when officials gave reporters and photographers a long-awaited tour of its exhibits, theaters and cafeteria.

The underground center is vast and elegant, with large skylights that let in sunlight and tall ceilings reminiscent of the Library of Congress. [IMGCAP(1)]

In fact, the CVC is so monumental that officials were forced to argue that it wouldn’t overwhelm the Capitol, a 215-year-old building with cracked walls and worn steps.

“We did not want to do anything to overshadow the Capitol. We certainly, I think, succeeded,” Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers said. “This is sort of the front door to the Capitol building.”

The center will open to the public on Dec. 2, about six years since construction began. It was a complex project: Workers had to excavate 65,000 truckloads of soil and build a massive underground structure without moving the Capitol or disturbing the day-to-day legislative process.

Some wondered whether it would ever open, after years of cost overruns and delayed completion dates. And in the six years since construction began, stories also spread about how Congress was spending the $621 million — about $400 million more than the project’s original price tag.

On Monday, CVC officials attempted to set the record straight— including dispelling a rumor that officials were building an apocalyptic bunker for Members.

“There is no bunker. I think that’s urban legend,” Ayers said, in response to one reporter’s question. “I challenge you to ask yourself if you feel like you’re in a bunker.”

Indeed, the CVC is bathed in light, despite the fact that it is underground. Two main skylights, each 30 feet by 70 feet, allow sunlight into Emancipation Hall, the 20,000-square-foot “heart” of the center.

The rest of the visitor portion of the CVC is much like a museum: a cafeteria, two gift shops and an Exhibition Hall flank the main hall.

Exhibits range from historic to hands-on, with one alcove displaying Madison’s notes on the Constitution and another showing a touchable, 11-foot model of the Capitol Dome.

Restrooms are also available around every corner. A press release proudly proclaims that visitors have access to 26 bathrooms, a vast improvement to the five public restrooms in the Capitol.

It’s all a big step forward from what tourists to the Capitol now face: a long wait in an outside line, with no food or bathrooms in sight.

But much of the CVC still remained unseen Monday. About 60 percent of the underground center is new office space for the House and Senate, but doors to those sections remained closed and guarded.

Some offices have already moved into the CVC, and the Senate side is accessible through the Capitol subway tunnel. On Monday, the stairways on the Senate side were still undergoing construction.