Sharon Gang, Communications & Marketing Manager for the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) lists some lesser known highlights not to miss when you visit the United States Capitol.
Most visitors are drawn to admire the obvious “big ticket” items at the U.S. Capitol Building – the Rotunda paintings, the acoustics in National Statuary Hall, the Statue of Freedom. Here are a few U.S. Capitol details you might NOT have noticed. The next time you tour the Capitol Building or look around the Capitol Visitor Center, take a moment to check out these features that you might’ve missed.
Statue of John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr.
Swigert’s colorful statue (pictured above) is a popular meeting place for groups as it stands out so much from all of the other statues. His resume includes pilot and astronaut – he was one of three crew members on the Apollo 13 moon mission. But did you know that he worked on Capitol Hill as the executive director of the House Committee on Science and Technology? Take a close look at the helmet Swigert holds on his right side. You can see a beautiful reflection of the Capitol Dome through the skylights.
The Lincoln Catafalque
The catafalque is the platform that supports the caskets of the distinguished Americans who have lain in state in the Rotunda. Hastily constructed in 1865 to support the casket of Abraham Lincoln, the catafalque has since been used for all those who have lain in state in the Rotunda – most recently Senator Daniel K. Inouye. The catafalque may also be used elsewhere in the Congress such as in the Senate Chamber to support the casket of Senator Lautenberg which lay in repose on the floor of the Senate on June 6. It has been used at the Supreme Court and even at the Department of Commerce in 1996 for the lying in state of Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown. The catafalque is truly a piece of “living history.” Don’t miss it in its specially constructed display area in Exhibition Hall where a sliding bronze gate allows it to be removed when needed.
Statues of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan
These two statues in the Rotunda are among the newest in the National Statuary Hall Collection, and they are unique in different ways. If you look closely at the statue depicting former president Gerald Ford, you’ll see that he is leaning forward suggesting onward motion. The sculptor stated that this posture is "meant to embody the idea of someone standing up to serve their country when called." Serve he did -- on the right side is part of a tribute by Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, speaker of the House during Ford’s presidency: "God has been good to America, especially during difficult times. At the time of the Civil War, he gave us Abraham Lincoln. And at the time of Watergate, he gave us Gerald Ford—the right man at the right time who was able to put our nation back together again.”
Former president Ronald Reagan is depicted as he looked during his time in office, 1981 to 1989. He appears to stand tall but relaxed, a genial and confident smile on his face. The Tennessee Rose marble pedestal of the statue includes a narrow band of concrete pieces from the Berlin Wall, the scene of the 1987 speech in which Reagan famously demanded of the Soviet Premier, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
“Behind the Scenes” displays in Exhibition Hall
On the back walls in the north and south corners of Exhibition Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center, you’ll find the “behind the scenes” sections. They display historical and contemporary images that tell the story of the staff who keep Capitol Hill working, and they provide vivid examples of the wide variety of stewardship performed by Architect of the Capitol (AOC) staff. From Capitol pages to United States Capitol Police officers to AOC groundskeepers and flag office staff, to historians and curators, this section gives you a window into the operation of the “city within a city” that is Capitol Hill. If you are an AOC employee, you might even recognize some of your colleagues in the more contemporary photographs.
The Orientation Film
Everyone’s tour of the Capitol starts by watching the 13-minute orientation film in one of the Capitol Visitor Center’s two orientation theaters in Emancipation Hall. Three words: don’t miss it. While the Capitol Visitor Center receives at least one request a day for copies of the film, Members of Congress have directed that it only be shown at the Capitol Visitor Center. It is not available online or anywhere else but at the Capitol Visitor Center. When I first saw it in 2008, I was struck that it was a perfect introduction to the tour of the Capitol. It serves to remind us of how we come together as a nation to govern ourselves, and it reminds the thousands of visitors to the Capitol why they made the trip to Washington to see the Capitol. Beautifully filmed, the movie offers everyone a scene or a moment that will remind them of their home or their roots.
Interested in visiting the Capitol in-person? Tours of the U.S. Capitol are free, but tour passes are required. The Capitol Visitor Center is open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and Inauguration Day. Tours of the U.S. Capitol are conducted from 8:50 a.m. to 3:20 p.m., Monday through Saturday. For more tour infomation visit www.visitthecapitol.gov
My favorite thing to see in the Capitol is Statuary Hall (aka, the Whisper Room!)