The visitor experience is an intellectual and emotional encounter comprised of highly personal moments that inform, involve and inspire those who come to see the U.S. Capitol.
The United States Capitol is a monument, a working office building, and one of the most recognizable symbols of representative democracy in the world. Visitors are welcome to enter the building through the Capitol Visitor Center, located underground on the east side of the Capitol. The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center provides an increased focus on visitor comfort, safety and security resulting in a seamless, positive visitor experience at the U.S. Capitol.
Visitors can begin their Capitol experience at the Visitor Center by visiting the Exhibition Hall, perusing the Gift Shops or dining in the Restaurant. There are also a number of special tours and activities offered beyond the general tour of the Capitol Building. All visitors wishing to tour the Capitol start at the Capitol Visitor Center.
The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is the newest addition to the historic Capitol Complex. At nearly 580,000 square feet, the Visitor Center is the largest project in the Capitol's more than two-century history and is approximately three-quarters the size of the Capitol itself. The entire facility is located underground on the east side of the Capitol so as not to detract from the appearance of the Capitol and the grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1874. Since opening on December 2, 2008, the anniversary of the placement of the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome in 1863, millions of people have visited the Capitol, entering through the Capitol Visitor Center.
From its inception, the Capitol Visitor Center was conceived as an extension of the Capitol. The materials used to construct the Visitor Center were selected to match the colors, textures and materials seen throughout the historic building.
This care is evident in Emancipation Hall, named to recognize the contributions of the enslaved laborers who helped build the U.S. Capitol, the central gathering place for visitors coming to see the Capitol.
Rising 36 feet above the floor, the walls and columns of Emancipation Hall are lined with sandstone slabs marked by a variety of color and texture similar to the sandstone seen in the Capitol. Also in Emancipation Hall visitors can see the plaster model of the Statue of Freedom, 18 of the statues donated to the National Statuary Hall Collection and the POW/MIA Chair of Honor.
There are two orientation theaters in the Capitol Visitor Center where visitors will start their tours of the Capitol by watching a 13-minute orientation film that introduces them to the Capitol and illustrates how government was initially established in the United States. There are also two small theaters in the Exhibition Hall where visitors may watch the proceedings in the House and the Senate chambers.
The Exhibition Hall, where visitors may explore the only exhibition in the world dedicated to telling the story of Congress and the U.S. Capitol, is 16,500 square feet. Highlights include rarely seen historic documents from the National Archives and the Library of Congress, artifacts from around the country, and an 11-foot-tall touchable model of the Capitol dome.
There is a 530-seat restaurant in the Capitol Visitor Center serving soups, salads, entrees and a variety of other items. There are also two Gift Shops in the Visitor Center.
For more information about the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, please go to visitthecapitol.gov.
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.