Closed to the public, the Capitol still ‘feels majestic’

Conveying that to tourists stuck at home is the hard part

A lone U.S. Capitol Police officer walks through the empty Capitol Rotunda on March 24.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
A lone U.S. Capitol Police officer walks through the empty Capitol Rotunda on March 24. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 12, 2020 at 6:30am

Spring is normally the time of year when the Capitol Visitor Center is swarming with international tourists, restless kids and history teachers leading field trips. Now the public needs a different way in.

Though its doors are closed during the coronavirus pandemic, the CVC wants to recreate, virtually, the feeling you get walking into the Rotunda for the first time. But can administrators capture the awe of standing under “The Apotheosis of Washington” with a video tour?

They’re certainly going to try. “Visually we want to evoke that feeling visitors have the first time they walk in the Capitol,” said videographer Marcey Frutchey during a recent Zoom Q&A.

Frutchey made sure the new video tour includes sweeping shots of the spots tourists tend to gawk at, including the neoclassical fresco painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865.

But “how do you convey the feeling of walking through the Rotunda with only words?” CVC tour guide Emily Boisvert asked herself. “It feels majestic.” Boisvert wrote the script for the video, while Frutchey worked from home to splice together footage she already had. The project came together over a few weeks, said Frutchey. 

“We got together shortly after the Capitol had to close,” said educational programs manager Lauren Windham Roszak. More than 2 million people a year visit the CVC. Right now “they can’t see the inside of the building. That’s a lot of people who aren’t getting to see the space. This video is our chance to give them a general tour.”

Other projects from the Architect of the Capitol have given viewers at home a glimpse inside the place where the nation’s laws are made, and tourist snapshots and footage posted on YouTube serve as an unofficial archive too. What made this effort different was its urgency. 

The new tour, which premiered Friday, is designed to reach out to the public and let them know the CVC is still there, according to Roszak. It’s a message many companies and services have attempted to convey during a coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted business operations across the country.

The sentiment recalls President Abraham Lincoln’s response to the Union chaplain when asked about constructing the Capitol dome during the Civil War.

“If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on,” Lincoln said. For the president, continued construction was a symbol that the Union had a future beyond the war.

Opened in 2008, the CVC welcomes visitors from around the country and the world, who want to know everything from the dome’s height (180 feet inside, 288 feet outside) to how many doorknobs are in the Capitol (unknown), according to Boisvert.

Administrators still don’t know when the CVC will reopen, but the decision will include input from the Capitol physician, Washington’s city government and the sergeants-at-arms. For now, the website bears this banner message: “The Capitol Visitor Center is closed for tours. All tours are cancelled. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we look forward to welcoming you to the Capitol Visitor Center at a future date.”