Luxe Congressional Visitor Center Almost Ready

It seems that while Americans nationwide were building enormous houses they couldn't afford, their lawmakers caught the same bug and were nearly doubling the size of the Capitol building -- with $621 million in taxpayer dollars.

Construction on the Congressional Visitors Center was begun after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to improve security in the Capitol, moving the public entrance 100 yards away from the building itself and putting it underground. The"CVC was supposed to be completed in 2006, when it was already extremely over budget.

Two years later, with the economic crisis worsening, the visitors center is finally nearing completion. The first tourists -- an estimated 4 million people visit the Capitol building each year -- and as many as 20,000 each day will walk through the grand bronze doors to the Congressional Visitors Center when it opens in early December.

"I don't think it's extravagant," said Steven Ayers, acting architect of the Capitol, during a preview tour for the media today. "And as you walk through here I don't think anyone would describe it that way. Certainly, it's a building that's built for generations in our business and here this is monumental architecture and monumental public space in a place that's built for generations. We're not building a speculative office building. We are building a building and have built a building that's here to last another 250 years as wonderful addition to the Capitol building."

Extravagance is in the eye of the beholder, and the CVC, built underground on the west front of the Capitol, with its five acres of sandstone cut to match the Capitol building and encased grand skylights that dramatically showcase the Capitol dome from below, is certainly stunning.

Some of the big-ticket items include solid bronze doors and handrails, 5 acres of Pennsylvania limestone walls, the preservation of historic trees on the Capitol grounds, a new hearing room on the House side of the building (with no seating for the public to watch hearings), the preservation of lanterns and picture-window skylights that offer sweeping views of the Capitol dome from underground.

Six years in construction -- double the time originally allocated -- the Visitors Center ballooned from the $265 million initially authorized to a more than $621 million opulent underground bunker that increases the size of the Capitol building by 75 percent. It includes spaces for the House and Senate to meet in case of emergency or when their chambers in the Capitol building are being renovated.

And while those measures seem reasonable, the $250,000 that was spent to change the name of the Great Hall to Emancipation Hall after signs had already been etched, might make one scratch one's head.

Republicans ruled the Capitol for most of the construction, but Democrats voted for the same ever-ballooning budget and are in charge of the building when it opens Dec. 2.

Building anything on Capitol Hill must be done by committee, and that can be difficult. In the case of Emancipation Hall, members of Congress realized there already was a Great Hall across the street at the Library of Congress. If it's raining, the Library of Congress is also accessible via underground tunnel built as part of the CVC project.

So Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and Jesse Jackson, D-Ill., passed a law to change the name of Great Hall to Emancipation Hall to commemorate African-American slaves whose labor built the Capitol building.

In addition to an on-site museum with historical artifacts like the pedestal on which caskets have lay in state since Abraham Lincoln and a miniature cutout of the Capitol dome and a touch screen interactive computer lesson, the CVC gives visitors a new cafeteria and greatly expands the number of restrooms in the building -- both important additions, as any red-coated Capitol Hill docent will tell you.

What there is not, according to Ayers, is a secret underground bunker as part of the Capitol Visitors Center. That, he said, is an urban legend, although there is enough nonpublic space in the 580,000-square-foot visitors center to fit a secret fallout bunker.

Tourists are not the only ones who will benefit from the visitors center. There is, on the Senate side, a new state of the art recording studio for senators to do television and radio interviews that can be beamed via satellite to their home districts. On the House side of the visitors center is a new, more spacious studio for press conferences.

Delays and cost overruns are nothing new in Capitol construction.

"Like so many aspects of American life, the Capitol is often viewed as a work in progress -- an architectural evolution reflecting the country's own political, economic and social development. It was not the vision of a single person nor the product of a single age; rather, it was -- and continues to be -- the accumulation of thousands of ideas worked by thousands of people over a 200-year period," according to historian William Allen in his "History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction and Politics."

"Honorable and gifted political leaders, architects, and builders appear at critical moments in the Capitol's history, but the story is also tangled and enlivened by dozens of unscrupulous and obstreperous characters who complicate matters along the way," wrote Allen, whose book is available for free download at the Senate website.

The last major construction completed on Capitol Hill was the Hart Senate Office building in 1982, after a decade of construction and the then-jaw-dropping sum of $137 million. Newspaper reports at the time indicated that senators didn't want to move their staffs into the new and opulent building at the time because the country was then also in an economic downturn and it sent a bad impression to voters back home. As it happened, senators with the lowest seniority had to be ordered to move their offices.