History in stone: The United States Capitol

You might not see a fist fight on the Senate floor, but a guided Capitol visit is still a must when you're in Washington. Photo: The Apotheosis of Washington (Photo: James Picht)

WASHINGTON, June 15, 2013 ― When you go to Washington, you should tour the United States Capitol. You can do it two ways: Just go to the visitor center and join a huge tour group; or call your Senator’s office ahead of time (if you go in the summer), and a Senate intern will give you a great tour with just a few people. And you’ll get to ride a train. We got our tour through Louisiana Senator David Vitter’s office.

Beneath the Senate office buildings. (Photo: Jim Picht)

Beneath the Senate office buildings. (Photo: Jim Picht)


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Our tour started at Vitter’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building. He has 30 people working for him in the summer, and ten of them are interns. Paxson and Clay, the interns who led our group, took us down to the basement, to a long corridor that led to a small underground train. The Senators can go from their offices to the Capitol without ever going outside. The train took us straight to the Capitol building. It was pretty neat. They searched our bags before we got on (and also when we went into the Hart Building), and made us leave our water behind.

Off the train, we went into the visitor center. It’s new and modern, with skylights you can see the Capitol through, a restaurant, a gift shop, and a huge theater where you start your tour with a film. The theater was packed.

Capitol dome from the visitor center. (Photo: Jim Picht)

Capitol dome from the visitor center. (Photo: Jim Picht)

Congress is over 200 years old, and it is housed in the Capitol building. Built from the designs that our founding fathers created, the U.S. government grew eventually into the most powerful government in the world. Everything about the Capitol represents the government and the country, from the 19 1/2 foot tall statue of Freedom on the top of the building, to the huge rotunda, the paintings, and the 100 statues chosen by the various states. Some of those statues are in the visitors’ center.


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The Capitol was started in 1793, and George Washington laid the first stone. The original building wasn’t as big as the one that’s there now, and it wasn’t used the same way. The original meeting place for the Supreme Court was there, and the old Senate chamber is smaller than the one today. Now there are rooms with statues in them (two statues for each state), and a huge underground visitor center with a theater. There are meeting rooms, and rooms that we can’t visit.

From the rotunda basement. (Photo: Jim Picht)

From the rotunda basement. (Photo: Jim Picht)

We went from the visitor center to the old Supreme Court chamber. Now it’s just for show because the Supreme Court has its own building. Next we went to the basement under the rotunda. There was a stone that marks the very center of Washington. There was a braille model of the Capitol and the National Mall, and a solid gold copy of the Magna Carta.

We went upstairs to the rotunda. The Rotunda was filled with old paintings of things that happened throughout America’s history. One of the paintings, The Apotheosis of Washington, is a really huge painting at the top of the Capitol dome. Below it on the dome is a painting that goes all the way around, and starts with the arrival of Columbus and shows events that happened until the painting was created. There are also paintings on the walls all the way around the rotunda. They show things like Columbus and the baptism of Pocahontas. There are also statues of former presidents, like President Reagan.

At the center of the rotunda is where presidents lie in state. After they die, people come by to pay their respects to them. Capitol police officers who were killed also got to lie there, though it isn’t called lying in state.

From the rotunda we went to the statuary hall. Statuary hall is really worth visiting, because all the statues tower over everyone, from eight to 15 feet high. Some of the statues are very old, but some are quite new, including the one of Rosa Parks for Alabama. It was added just this year. The new bronze statues are shiny; the old ones are dark. The Huey Long statue for Louisiana is shiny bronze. The Brigham Young statue is made out of marble, so the years hadn’t made an impact on him.

Senate Intern Paxson Guest at the Capitol visitor center. (Photo: Jim Picht)

Senate Intern Paxson Guest at the Capitol visitor center. (Photo: Jim Picht)

The old Senate chamber is mostly reproduction. It was still fascinating because we got to see where Representative Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner half to death with a cane. A lot of the original furniture was either lost or destroyed. Only the clock and the desk in front are original.

From there we went to the new Senate chamber to watch from the gallery. You can’t take cameras, electronic car keys, phones or note pads into the gallery. There’s no sleeping, clapping, waving — no distractions. Just watch quietly. We got to see Patty Murray from Washington talk about the budget. She said a lot of nice things about John McCain, from Arizona, who was also there. He got up to talk and seemed to be in an angry mood at the other Republicans. He talked about how many mistakes the senator from Utah had made, and said that his colleague from Utah didn’t seem to know anything about how the Senate works.

The old Senate chamber. (Photo: Jim Picht)

The old Senate chamber. (Photo: Jim Picht)

And then he said he didn’t want to talk about the budget anymore and stomped out. That was interesting. At least he didn’t beat his colleague from Utah with his cane. Then Marco Rubio from Florida stood up to talk and said he was glad his friend from Arizona at least defended his right to disagree, but we left right then so we never got to hear the rest of it.

The tour ended after we left the Senate gallery, but it was a really great experience. Paxson and Clay knew a lot and were very friendly. They gave us a great tour. You can learn a lot of stuff while taking a tour of the United States Capitol. Thanks to Paxson, Clay, and Senator Vitter.

Senate interns on the train. (Photo: Jim Picht)

Senate interns on the train. (Photo: Jim Picht)

 


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Harlan Picht

Harlan is a student at the NSU Middle Lab school in Natchitoches. He enjoys travel, plays the cello, and plans to start raising rats.

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