CVC Opens in Invitation-Only Ceremony

Posted December 2, 2008 at 12:26pm

House and Senate leaders ceremoniously opened the Capitol Visitor Center on Tuesday with speeches that evoked the beginnings of Congress and the creation of the Capitol.

In an invitation-only ceremony, Members and Congressional officials declared the CVC a success, calling it inspiring, educational and the embodiment of “our national ability to adapt.”

House Chaplain Daniel Coughlin went even further in an invocation and described it as “a multidimensional dream” that “opens ever new dimensions to the meaning of freedom to the people.”

And on Tuesday — with leaders smiling widely and the U.S. Marine Band playing patriotic songs — the new underground center did feel like a momentous accomplishment.

Getting to this moment took six years of construction and a constant stream of delayed deadlines and cost overruns. Ten years ago, Members planned to build a $265 million center; today, it opens three years late with a $621 million price tag.

But Tuesday was all about the product: an underground building that boasts a wide open main hall, large skylights and much-needed extra space for the House and Senate.

[IMGCAP(1)]Not everyone was impressed, however. In a scathing review, Washington Post writer Philip Kennicott called the CVC “a perfect exemplar of bureaucratically conceived and executed architecture.”

During the hourlong ceremony, Members tried to put the CVC in the context of America’s history, recounting stories from the Capitol’s construction, Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration and the evolution of Congress.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told the story of when the House and Senate chambers were torched by British troops in 1814 and then rebuilt into what they are today.

“The lesson of that August in 1814 was clear,” he said. “Nothing comes easy.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) instead focused on the meaning behind Emancipation Hall — the CVC’s main hall, named in honor of the slaves who helped build the Capitol.

For Lincoln’s inauguration, she said, newly freed black Americans came in their “Sunday finest,” despite stormy weather and muddy roads.

“It was pretty remarkable if you can imagine it,” she said. “I think the spirit of those people lives on in this hall.”

After the ceremony, hundreds of people — including Members, staffers and schoolchildren — explored Exhibition Hall, ate in a new cafeteria and made use of the CVC’s much-heralded 26 bathrooms.

In one of the new House meeting rooms, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) — a big proponent of the CVC — held a small reception. Photos of the CVC’s groundbreaking and construction were displayed on easels, and various officials involved in the project jovially discussed the years of hard work that led to Tuesday’s opening.

At least one integral Member wasn’t in attendance — Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who left the ceremony minutes after it ended. After two years of monthly hearings, she joked, she was “very glad it’s over.”

“This was a fitting ceremony for an incredibly beautiful facility,” she said.

Even former Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman — who oversaw the bulk of the project — was in the audience at the ceremony. Though he didn’t speak during the ceremony, he greeted a constant stream of well-wishers and former colleagues.

After 10 years of constant stress and criticism, he seemed relieved and pleased with the outcome.

“The day has been a while in coming,” he said, “but clearly has been worth the wait.”