The proposal for a Capitol Visitor Center began to crystallize in the mid-1970s with the issuance of the Architect of the Capitol's report "Toward a Master Plan for the United States Capitol." In 1991, Congress authorized funding for conceptual planning and design of a visitor center. In 1995, the design report was issued.
Changes in security needs, as underscored by the tragic murder of two Capitol police officers in 1998, and other safety and accessibility considerations required revisiting and revalidating the 1995 report. The updated plan was presented to the U.S. Capitol Preservation Commission in October 1999. Decisions by the Capitol Preservation Commission led to the start of pre-construction activities in the fall of 2001.
The events of September 11, 2001 necessitated additional design changes and prompted Congress to provide the necessary funding to move the project into construction. Actual construction began in 2002. By the fall of 2003, excavation was essentially complete and build-up of the structure began. Personnel began to occupy the building in July 2008 and it was dedicated and opened to the public on December 2, 2008. Since opening in 2008, millions of people have visited the Capitol, entering through the Capitol Visitor Center.
The excavation for the Capitol Visitor Center required the removal of 65,000 truckloads of soil or 650,000 cubic yards of material and workers set more than 400,000 pieces of stone some weighing as much as 500 pounds. The stone used in the Visitor Center was selected based on how closely it matched the existing colors and textures of the stone in the Capitol. Sandstone, which was the principal material in the original Capitol, is the dominant stone in the Visitor Center, with nearly 200,000 square feet of coverage on interior walls and columns.
The Capitol Visitor Center was designed to incorporate as many sustainable and low-impact features as possible within the constraints of its unique requirements. The Center was built below an existing parking lot, and is a “redevelopment” of an urban site which has not increased the amount of hard surfaces relative to run-off. The East Capitol Grounds are greener now that landscaping is completed with a total of 85 new trees have been planted (more than were removed for construction) to revive the scenic views envisioned in Frederick Law Olmsted’s original landscape plan of 1874.
Additionally state-of-the-art high-efficiency fans and motors were used for mechanical systems and use outside air for cooling in place of chilled water when the outdoor temperature is 60 degrees and below. Light fixture occupancy sensors have been installed throughout office spaces and restrooms and compact fluorescent fixtures are used wherever possible.
Other features include low-flow bathroom fixtures and automatic faucets and toilets; low-emitting materials including paints, solvents and carpets were used during construction; recycling of 50 percent of construction waste; and six skylights allow natural light to fill many public areas thereby decreasing the need for electric lighting during daytime hours.