In Washington, D.C., one catches sight of the Capitol all around town. That’s no accident: When planner Pierre L’Enfant laid out the capital in 1791, he purposely placed “Congress House” upon this bluff, overlooking the city. Its importance, and the importance of Congress, is meant to be unmistakable.
Incontrovertible, too, is the fact that a tour of this iconic American symbol is a necessary stop on any first-time tour of D.C. When you visit here, you understand, in a very visceral way, just what it means to govern a country democratically. The fights and compromises, the din of differing opinions, the necessity of creating “one from the many” (e pluribus unum), without trampling on the rights of that one. It’s a powerful experience. And the ideals of the Congress are not just expressed in the debates on the floor of the House and Senate (though you should try to hear those if you can; see below), but in its masterful architecture, as well as within the many historical works of art and artifacts displayed within the massive building. For 135 years it sheltered not only both houses of Congress, but also the Supreme Court and, for 97 years, the Library of Congress.
So before entering the Capitol, stand back and take it in. In 2015, the first thing you’ll notice is the scaffolding clasping the Capitol dome, from its base up to the pedestal for the “Statue of Freedom,” the 19-foot, 6-inch bronze female figure crowning the Capitol’s dome. (You’ll get to see the plaster model for the statue on display in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall.) The Capitol is halfway through a restoration project that will repair weather damage to the dome’s cast iron exterior and decorative elements. No worries: Capitol tours continue throughout the restoration period. At night, the illuminated scaffolding enhances the Capitol’s attraction, especially when you notice the tiny figures within the construction: Craftsmen are working mostly at night and on weekends so as not to interfere with congressional business, tours, and events.
The hour-long guided tour starts in the Capitol Visitor Center, where you’ll watch a 13-minute orientation film, then takes you to the Rotunda, National Statuary Hall, down to the Crypt, and back to the Visitor Center. Here’s some of what you’ll see:
The Rotunda—a huge 96-foot-wide circular hall capped by a 180-foot-high dome—is the hub of the Capitol. In 2015, a doughnut canopy embraces the interior of the dome, to protect people from stray pieces of plaster or other materials related to the restoration work underway on the dome’s exterior. The doughnut hole allows visitors to view the masterpiece, The Apotheosis of Washington, in the eye of the dome. (More information below.)
The dome was completed, at Lincoln’s direction, while the Civil War was being fought: “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on,” said Lincoln. Eleven presidents have lain in state here, with former President Gerald Ford, in 2006, being the most recent; when Kennedy’s casket was displayed, the line of mourners stretched 40 blocks. On rare occasions, someone other than a president, military hero, or member of Congress receives this posthumous recognition. In October 2005, Congress paid tribute to Rosa Parks by allowing her body to lie in state here, the first woman to be so honored. (Parks was the black woman who in 1955 refused to relinquish her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, thereby helping to spark the civil rights movement. On February 27, 2013, Congress further honored Parks by adding a full-sized statue of the civil rights hero to National Statuary Hall. The statue is located in Statuary Hall, but is not part of the state collection—see below.)
Embracing the Rotunda walls are eight immense oil paintings commemorating great moments in American history, such as the presentation of the Declaration of Independence and the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. As mentioned above, inside the now-canopied inner dome of the Rotunda is an allegorical fresco masterpiece by Constantino Brumidi, The Apotheosis of Washington, a symbolic portrayal of George Washington surrounded by Roman gods and goddesses watching over the progress of the nation. Brumidi was known as the “Michelangelo of the Capitol” for the many works he created throughout the building. (Take another look at the fresco and find the woman directly below Washington; the triumphant Armed Freedom figure is said to be modeled after Lola Germon, a beautiful young actress with whom the 60-year-old Brumidi conceived a child.) Beneath those painted figures is a trompe l’oeil frieze depicting major developments in the life of America, from Columbus’s landing in 1492 to the birth of the aviation age in 1903. Don’t miss the sculptures in the Rotunda, including: a pensive Abraham Lincoln; a dignified Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; a ponderous trinity of suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott; a bronze statue of President Ronald Reagan, looking characteristically genial; and a likeness in granite of President Gerald Ford.
The National Statuary Hall was originally the chamber of the House of Representatives; in 1864 it became Statuary Hall, and the states were invited to send two statues each of native sons and daughters to the hall. There are 100 state-represented statues in all, New Mexico completing the original collection with its contribution in 2005 of Po’Pay, a Pueblo Indian, who in 1680 led a revolt against the Spanish that helped to save Pueblo culture. States do have the prerogative to replace statues with new choices, which is what Iowa did in 2014, swapping out the 1910 choice of U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior James Harlan for Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, known as the “father of the Green Revolution” for his work to increase food production and eliminate world hunger. Because of space constraints, only 35 statues or so reside in the Hall, with the figures of six presidents displayed in the Rotunda, 24 statues placed in the Visitor Center, and the remaining 26 standing in the Crypt and throughout the corridors of the Capitol. Statues include Ethan Allen, the Revolutionary War hero who founded the state of Vermont, and Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton—not the 20th-century artist famous for his rambunctious murals, but his namesake and uncle, who was one of the first two senators from Missouri and whose antislavery stance in 1850 cost him his Senate seat. Nine women are represented, including Alabama-born Helen Keller and Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress.
As of June 19, 2013, the District of Columbia now has a statue representing it: a full-sized bronze depiction of abolitionist Frederick Douglass stands in Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center. Congress has yet to recognize the District as its own state, but at least granted its constituents this representation!
The Crypt of the Capitol lies directly below the Rotunda and is used mainly as an exhibit space for the Statuary Hall collection.
In slow seasons, usually fall and winter, your public tour may include a visit to the Old Supreme Court Chamber, which has been restored to its mid-19th-century appearance. The Supreme Court met here from 1810 to 1860. Busts of the first four chief justices are on display—John Marshall, John Rutledge, John Jay, and Oliver Ellsworth—and so are some of their desks, believed to have been purchased in the 1830s. The justices handed down a number of noteworthy decisions here, including Dred Scott v. Sandford, which denied the citizenship of blacks, whether slaves or free, and in so doing precipitated the Civil War.
You will not see them on your tour, but the south and north wings of the Capitol hold the House and Senate chambers, respectively. The House of Representatives chamber is the setting for the president’s annual State of the Union addresses.
A note on the area right outside the building: Immediately surrounding the Capitol itself are 59 acres of beautifully kept grounds, originally landscaped in 1892 by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also planned New York City’s Central Park. Stroll these winding paths and admire the flower plantings and memorial trees.
Procedures for Touring the Capitol: Tours of the Capitol are free and take place year-round, Monday through Saturday between 8:50am and 3:20pm. Capitol Guide Service guides lead the hour-long, general public tours, which can include as few as one or two people or as many as 40 or 50, depending on the season. Here I must sing the praises of these guides, who are often historians in their own right, repositories of American lore, traditions, anecdotes, and, of course, actual fact. Got a question? Ask away. These guides know their stuff.
You and everyone in your party must have a timed pass, which you can order online at www.visitthecapitol.gov. During peak spring and summer sessions, you should order tickets at least 2 weeks in advance. But same-day passes are also available daily from the “public walk-up” near the information desks on the lower level of the visitor center—in limited supply during peak times, but plentiful at off-peak times, particularly in January and February. You can also contact your representative or senator in Congress and request passes for constituent tours, which are usually limited to groups of 15 and conducted by congressional staff, who may take you to notable places in the Capitol beyond those seen on the general public tour. No matter what, call 202/225-6827 in advance of your visit; that way you’ll know for sure whether the Capitol is open.
The Capitol has quite a list of items it prohibits; you can read the list online at www.visitthecapitol.gov or listen to a recitation by calling the phone number above. Items ranging from large bags of any kind to food and drink are prohibited; leave everything you can back at the hotel.
The Capitol Guide Service also offers other special tours and talks on an ongoing basis, though the specific topics might change. Recent offerings included tours of the Brumidi corridors and tours that focused on the Capitol and Congress during the Civil War. Look online or ask at the visitor center information desk for details about these presentations.
Procedures for Visiting the House Gallery or Senate Gallery: Both the Senate and House galleries are open to visitors whenever either body is in session ★–★★★, so do try to sit in. (The experience receives a range of star ratings because a visit can prove fascinating or deadly boring, depending on whether a debate is underway and how lively it is.) Otherwise the Senate Gallery is open to visitors during scheduled recesses of one week or more, Monday to Friday 9am to 4:15pm, and the House Gallery is open to visitors year-round Monday to Friday 9am to 4:15pm. Children 5 and under are not allowed in the Senate gallery. You can obtain visitor passes at the offices of your representative and senators, or in the case of District of Columbia and Puerto Rico residents, from the office of your delegate to Congress. To find out your member’s office location, go online at www.house.gov or www.senate.gov and follow the links to find information for your congressional representative or your senators, or call tel 202/225-3121 to speak to a Capitol operator. You must have a separate pass for each gallery. Once obtained the passes are good through the remainder of the Congress. Note: International visitors can obtain both House and Senate gallery passes by presenting a passport or a valid driver’s license with photo ID to staff at the House and Senate appointments desks on the upper level of the visitor center, near the main entrance.
The main, staffed offices of congressional representatives and delegates are in House buildings on the south (Independence Avenue) side of the Capitol; senators’ main, staffed offices are located in Senate buildings on the north (Constitution Avenue) side. You should be able to pick up passes to both the Senate and House galleries in one place, at either your representative’s office or one of your senators’ offices. Visit the Architect of the Capitol’s website, www.aoc.gov, the visitor center website, www.visitthecapitol.gov, or call your senator’s or congressperson’s office for more exact information about obtaining passes to the House and Senate galleries.
You’ll know that the House and/or the Senate is in session if you see flags flying over their respective wings of the Capitol (Remember: House, south side; Senate, north side), or you can visit their websites, www.house.gov and www.senate.gov, for an in-depth education on the legislative process; schedules of bill debates in the House and Senate, committee markups, and meetings; and links to your Senate or House representative’s page.