WASHINGTON -- Decades in the dreaming, three years late and more than double its original price tag, the $621 million Capitol Visitor Center finally opens its heavily fortified doors to the public next week.
It comes in the nick of time: With a record crowd expected for the inauguration of president-elect Barack Obama Jan. 20, the controversial underground facility promises Washington tourists easier, more comfortable access to "the people's house" — and a chance to see artifacts and documents that had been off-limits because of a lack of exhibition space in the Capitol itself.
The biggest construction project in the Capitol's 215-year history broke ceremonial ground in 2000. But progress was hobbled by 9/11 security concerns, a congressional decision to add extra office space, and logistical challenges that included the removal of 60,000 dumploads of dirt.
For the 3 million people who visit the Capitol each year, the 580,000-square-foot center's biggest payoff may be the most basic: avoiding long outdoor lines for tours.
Visitors are encouraged to sign up for free, time-specific tours online at visitthecapitol.gov. Once they pass through security gates at a new East Front entrance across from the Supreme Court, tourists will gather first in Emancipation Hall.
The soaring space, whose name evokes the slave labor that helped build the Capitol, is capped with skylights offering views of the Capitol dome. It's lined with state-donated statues, including Hawaii's imposing, gold-flecked King Kamehameha I, and dominated by a 19-foot plaster model of the Statue of Freedom (the original sits atop the Capitol Dome).
The adjacent Exhibition Hall, dedicated to telling the story of Congress and construction of the Capitol, includes such artifacts as Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech and the simple, black-shrouded pine platform built for the casket of Abraham Lincoln and used for all those who have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
Hands-on options range from a 11-foot cutaway model of the Capitol Dome to interactive computers with quizzes that let budding policy wonks test their knowledge of Congress. Two small theaters provide live feeds of floor proceedings.
Other amenities: a restaurant, gift shops, twin theaters showing a 13-minute orientation film that all visitors see before taking tours of the historic Capitol, and 26 restrooms (vs. five in the Capitol itself).
Also part of the center, though off-limits to tourists, are new House and Senate offices, hearing rooms and broadcast facilities.
Don't bother asking, however, about whether the sprawling underground project includes a bunker for lawmakers.
Says Stephen Ayers, acting architect of the Capitol: "That's urban legend."