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Travel: Touring the United States Capitol
The U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.
When I was a legal intern with the federal government, I was fortunate enough to be invited for a tour of the U.S. Capitol. I visited Washington, D.C. numerous times and appreciated the beautiful, white edifice from the outside. I longed to see the inside, the home of American democracy, and finally had the chance to do it. There would be no way I would miss this opportunity.
I was totally surprised that beneath Washington, D.C., is a labyrinth of tunnels that have absolutely nothing to do with a subway system but rather were designed to shuttle politicians around from building to building without them ever having to see the light of day.
Beneath the Capitol
We interns met at the House of Representatives at the office of a California representative. It took me 30 minutes to walk the two blocks and get up to Representative McDonald's office. The halls go on forever! Pretty cool offices, though. Each doorway is framed by two flags, one is the respective state flag and the other is the American flag. The tour leaders took us down in small elevators into the bowels of the earth to go to the Capitol. I thought I would have a claustrophobia attack.
After getting through the dimly-lit mole tunnels, we entered the area where the Capitol began, though I would not have known the difference except for a huge bust of "Honest Abe" to my right and George Washington to my left. The original bronze doors of the Capitol are located there. I do not know why they call these doors "original" since they were created in the 20th century, circa 1910. To my left, was an elaborate, winding staircase going up to God-knows-where (the tour guide did not know). We continued walking and zig-zagging through narrow hallways until we came upon the center of the Capitol (mind you we were still underground) to find tall pillars in a circle. I thought, "Really, pillars in a basement?"
The tour leader announced, "You are standing on the crypt of George Washington but he's not buried here. He's at Mount Vernon." It turns out the crypt really was not suitable for any burial - the President or anyone else. Congress was a little idealistic at the time when they created it. The crypt is too damp. How damp is it? It is so damp that the dampness that rose from the crypt ruined some paintings upstairs. When that happened, the Washington family decided against accepting the offer of a crypt burial. Phew! Lucky for George! Besides, who would want to spend eternity in the basement?
But this area is not dismal. The historical society of the Capitol has created a little museum around the crypt with artifacts, history about the construction of the Capitol, and even a small gift shop. Life-size statues of Calhoun, Sakakawea and others are placed along the circular walls.
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Old Supreme Court Chambers
Learn more about the infamous decision made in Old Supreme Court Chambers at the U.S. Capitol
- Dred Scott v. Sandford: Primary Documents of American History
Library of Congress
The Original Supreme Court Chambers
Many may be surprised to know that the Supreme Court of the United States did not have its own building until 1935 (located on First Street NE between East Capitol Street and Maryland Avenue, adjacent to the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress). Without an official "home," Court was held in different locations within the U.S. Capitol building. But, at least for 50 years, from 1810 to 1860, Court was held in what is now known as the "Old Supreme Court Chambers."
A modest wooden plaque is placed over the doorway. Immediately to the left are the coat hooks for the last Justices to serve in those chambers: Nelson, Campbell, McLean, and, of course, the fifth Supreme Court Justice of the United States, Roger B. Taney. Taney's black robe is inside a glass case, ironically, draped atop a headless mannequin. The justice left a stain on the Supreme Court with his decision in the Dred Scott case. Taney opined African-Americans were not citizens of the United States because, history dictated African-Americans as:
"beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.." (Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857).
I could not help but stare at the robe for what was probably only a few seconds, though it felt much longer. Yes, the headless mannequin was appropriate.
I remembered that Justice John Marshall had served in here as well. The courtroom beyond the cloakroom was still impressive, like walking back in time. The judicial bench and the leather chairs, in fact, most of the furnishings are original. The ceiling is a half-dome, with rosettes carved into the ceiling; the ceiling is painted with the Lady of Justice. The room has been restored beautifully with red carpeting throughout.
Before the Court was placed in this location, the room was the original Senate Chambers. I was in awe, especially when I learned it was where Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as President – twice.
The History of the U.S. Capitol - from Architect of the Capitol
The Rotunda and More
After exiting the Old Supreme Court chambers, we came upon a gorgeous rotunda with a fantastic chandelier (by the way, there are tons of chandeliers in the Capitol) and another carved rosette ceiling, this one with teal and rose backing. The floor was a beautiful mosaic – a geometric pattern that reminded me of a patchwork quilt. Brass sconces hanging on stone walls are dimly lit.
When you enter the main rotunda it is an amazing sight. Bronze statutes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington, Jefferson, Eisenhower, Po Pay, Andrew Jackson and more outline the circle. The dome (copied from the Vatican) is beautifully painted with scenes of Washington in an almost “heavenly” setting which is, to me, odd to see Washington interpreted as a celestial being.
In the old Senate Chamber, the ceiling a half-dome and the room shaped like an ellipse. Red and gold curtains hang to improve the acoustics. The acoustics are so unique in this room because you can hear whispering from one side of the room to the other. Not only can you hear the whisper but it sounds like the person whispering is on a speaker! A brass plate in the floor marks John Q. Adams’ desk location.
We did get to go on one of the terraces, which gave us a close view of the dome from the outside. The Statue of Freedom is impressive on the blinding dome.
We reached the House Chambers after climbing what seemed to be 10 million flights of marble stairs, which is where the President gives his State of the Union addresses.
The U.S. Capitol Rotunda
There are other places to visit within a short walking distance of the U.S. Capitol.
- Supreme Court of the United States
- Library of Congress
- U.S. Botanical Gardens
- Sewell-Belmont House
- National Gallery
- American Indian Museum
- Air and Space Museum
- Smithsonian Castle
- African Art Museum
- Natural History Museum
Map of Capitol Hill and the National Mall
At the end of the day...
There is so much hustle and bustle inside the Capitol; it's like a mini city inside there. People were running to and from offices including lobbyists and assistants. But I thoroughly enjoyed the visit. After 3 hours of walking around I was left for dead. Still, it was worth every minute.
Every American citizen should take a tour of the U.S. Capitol. It is inspiring testimony to the commitment of our ancestors to work to establish "a more perfect Union," the necessary evolution to create one, and the work that remains.
Book a Tour
- U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
U.S. residents can go directly through the offices of their Representative or Senators. Many Congressional offices offer their own staff-led tours. Tours can also be arranged directly with the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center via an online reservation.
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By Liza Lugo, J.D.
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