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D.C.'s New Underground Jewel: Best In A Decade

I had very low expectations for the Capitol Visitor Center. Even before the obscene cost overruns and mind-numbing construction delays, even before we learned that a giant holding pen and security barrier for tourists was going to cost every bit as much as Washington's new baseball stadium, the idea of funneling visitors away from the glorious outdoor view of the Capitol and into a marble-clad tunnel only fed whatever grousing gene it is that makes so many citizens cynical about big federal projects.

Four years and a stunning $400 million in extra costs later, the center, a vast underground network of tunnels, meeting rooms, exhibition halls, eateries and security barriers, will open to the public Dec. 2. You can reserve free tours online at visitthecapitol.gov

As a public works project and as an expenditure of the taxpayers' money, the Visitor Center is an obscenity. The watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste called it "among the most wasteful examples of botched construction projects ever promulgated by the federal government," and that judgment came when the projected cost of the complex was a mere $456 million. In reality, the center is going to cost us more than $620 million--more than the District government agreed to pay for the new Nationals baseball stadium.

But as a station on the classic Washington tourist circuit, as a contemporary museum of American civics and government, and as a demonstration of how to blend education and entertainment without insulting the intelligence of the citizenry, the Visitor Center is a smash hit--the best addition to the District's tourism portfolio since the FDR Memorial in 1997 and the Holocaust Museum in 1993.

After too many recent experiences with empty, ahistorical and timid attractions such as the World War II Memorial, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian and this month's remake of the National Museum of American History, Washington needed a winner on the culture front. Now it has one.

The Visitor Center feels almost forbiddingly vast and cavernous. The main room, Emancipation Hall, looks more like New York's Grand Central Terminal than it does a museum or home to the rough-and-tumble of congressional debate and discord.

But if you can look past the ocean of dollars it took to make this place, you'll see that here, content is king. The publicity about the center focuses on the big hall and its statuary and amenities, but the main exhibition, "Out of Many, One," is a rich collection of documents, doodads, and well-considered visuals that really do tell the story that is missing from so many of our country's classrooms. Here, in traditional placards, in wisely selected artifacts, in state-of-the-art touch-screen interactive video, and in you-are-there theatrical settings, are the stories of how a bill becomes a law, what members of Congress really do, how the Capitol came to be, how Washington the city evolved, and who the great men of our nation have been, as seen in their own hand.

Especially in contrast to the American History and American Indian museums, which seem to have been designed in mortal fear of timelines, details and the power of narrative, the story of Congress told here (the exhibit design is by Ralph Appelbaum, the Michael Jordan of the museum world), is certainly self-serving (even diehard fans of legislative handiwork may be less than dazzled by the cavalcade of bills whose names flash by during the museum's gorgeously-filmed introductory movie), but it's also often quite compelling:

Step into the House or Senate theaters, where you can watch short films that tell the story of each side of Congress while checking out live video of that day's session. (The films here are not promotional material for the History Channel, as too many videos at the American History Museum are these days, but rather are classy and smart films made without apparent commercial tie-ins.) Or stroll along a series of models to see how the Capitol Hill neighborhood developed from farmland to seat of government to the urban village it is today. Or watch kids become totally entranced by the centerpiece of the main exhibit, a please-touch, architecturally-correct model of the Capitol Dome that is going to require an army of Windex-wielding janitors to keep clean.

History buffs will find fascinating documents galore, even if a few of them are so dimly lighted as to be unreadable. FDR's "Day of Infamy" speech is here, as is the request for funding for the Lewis and Clark expeditions, a page from Lyndon Johnson's diary, and John Kennedy's message to Congress requesting a commitment to explore outer space.

A table from Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural stands just opposite a photograph of that ceremony, and though it isn't marked, you can see his future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, standing just a few rows up from the president.

Contrary to early concerns that the Visitor Center was being built to siphon tourists away from the Capitol building itself, the exhibition space is designed to funnel you into the real thing. Indeed, you are not permitted into the introductory film unless you have a ticket for a Capitol tour, and the only exit from the film leads directly into the staging area for the staff-led tours. (Timed tickets are available online or from congressional offices.)

Could the nation have done without this underground extravaganza, or its 530-seat restaurant, or the preposterous security overkill, or the mindboggling expense? Sure. (Sixty thousand truckloads of dirt were hauled away from the site to create the hole that the Visitor Center has filled.) But the result is an aesthetic boost to the Capitol campus--gone are the parking lots and trash transfer station that previously littered the East front, replaced by a park setting based on Frederick Law Olmsted's original plan for the Capitol grounds. (Olmsted's 1870s lanterns have been restored and reinstalled, as have his fountains on the East grounds.)

Even more important, the Visitor Center sends a signal to the city's cultural and political leadership that meaty content can still succeed in the effort to educate citizens who grow up with only the slightest whiff of civics in their schooling.

By Marc Fisher |  November 28, 2008; 8:22 AM ET
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Comments

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To complain that the Capitol Visitors Center cost $620 makes no sense. The truely uninspired National stadium did cost more. In just the past 2 months the Treasury Department has committed $5 trillion to the financial bailout. Now that's an obscenity.

Posted by: buffysummers | November 28, 2008 9:56 AM

$620 million? That's Wilson Bridge territory.

Big Dig, The Sequel!

Posted by: DonR | November 28, 2008 1:47 PM

I took a tour on November 15 and I agree that it's far more impressive than I expected. I've lived in the DC area since 1974, so I found the historical photographs and illustrations showing the evolution of the building to be some of the most interesting material.

Posted by: 1995hoo | November 28, 2008 2:53 PM

Marc,

I'm pretty surprised by your comments on the CVC. I have to say I was totally underwhelmed. Yes, the hall is nice but it's empty except for the lines into the movie. We weren't given much of a chance to look around before being herded into the movie. From what we saw of the exhibit hall the exhibits pretty limited, more like $6 million than $600. And the rendition of the capitol you mention is tiny. A few lights in the Exhibit Hall would be nice to.Bt onto the film which was overly schmaltzy. Whatw e didn't know was that once into the film, you aren't allowed out of the exhibit hall and were forced from the movie to the endless line for the Capitol. And forced to put on headphones (none for the kids of course, why would tshould they be allowed to hear the tour) instead of spoken to. So, to sum up, blech. I'm just grateful they are finally opening up the grounds 9well sort of - you want to make a bet how long those little green fences stay up? I'm betting they'll be permanent...

But you are right about the new American history museum, especially if you enter from the Constitution side, it's awful. The American indian museum is just... empty. To show I'm not a total hater, I too love the FDR memorial, best in DC.

Posted by: CapHillResident | November 28, 2008 4:22 PM

According to the website, you CAN visit only the Visitor Center and there are other exits. Perhaps the films are restricted - the website is unclear - but the center is open to the public, even without tour tickets to the Capitol.

Posted by: DCgrr1 | November 28, 2008 5:56 PM

Dad fought in the Pacific during WWII. He saw the WWII Memorial and was extremely moved by how everything was presented.

The vets he knows and spoke with also loved the WWII memorial and they are the ones who EARNED it, not you or the citizens of DC.

Dad isn't here to speak out in defense over HIS memorial, so I will say it for him: Get over it.

Posted by: SoMD1 | December 2, 2008 10:04 AM

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