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Capitol Visitor Center Opens Dec. 2

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Capitol Visitor Center Opens Dec. 2

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Capitol Visitor Center Opens Dec. 2

Capitol Visitor Center Opens Dec. 2

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The long-awaited, $621 million underground Capitol Visitor Center opens to the public in three weeks. It's lush — made out of Pennsylvania sandstone, Tennessee marble and Virginia granite. It's also behind schedule and way over budget. It's the biggest expansion in the Capitol's history.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Washington, D.C., is a city of monuments, but there always seems to be room for one more. And the newest one is the Capitol Visitor Center which opens three weeks from today. It was planned as a way to provide creature comforts for the three million visitors each year to Congress, although critics say it's evolved into a monument to congressional inefficiency. NPR's Brian Naylor takes us on a tour.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Our guide is Stephen Ayers, the acting architect of the Capitol. We're standing inside the Visitor Center looking up.

Mr. STEPHEN AYERS (Acting Architect of the Capitol): What you're looking at is an awesome view of the dome of the Capitol building.

NAYLOR: Ayers has overseen the project for the past two years.

Mr. AYERS: Any many people say that looking through the skylights, it actually magnifies the dome and you feel a little closer to it. Though you're a little further away, you'll actually feel closer looking through those wonderful skylights. Why don't we walk on down the stairs now?

NAYLOR: The Visitor Center is surprisingly light and airy considering you're underground, and striking. The walls are lined with sandstone that replicates the original stone inside the Capitol. There's Tennessee marble on the floors and dark wood accents. There are statues, including the plaster model for Freedom which sits atop the dome, and a model of the dome Ayers says is designed for touching.

Mr. AYERS: During our test and adjust period, we have had a couple of four-year-olds actually climbing on it, and it hasn't broken yet.

NAYLOR: There are also interactive displays on topics such how a bill becomes a law and the role of the House and the Senate. And there are artifacts.

Mr. AYERS: President Lincoln's second inaugural address. You see that table right there that held his glass of water is the same table that's in that glass-enclosed case, actually made from scraps of iron from the dome of the Capitol building.

NAYLOR: Visitors will also be able to watch a slickly produced movie about Congress from one of two comfortably appointed theaters.

(Soundbite of movie)

Unidentified Announcer: Woven into the Great Seal of the United States is a phrase, a motto, a rallying cry. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

NAYLOR: With lots of restrooms and a new restaurant, the center will provide some much-needed amenities to Capitol visitors, but the costs have been staggering. Originally projected at $265 million, by the time the first visitor enters through the blast-proof doors and metal detectors, taxpayers will have invested $621 million in the facility. The building was supposed to open three years ago. Ayers, who inherited the project after construction was largely complete, concedes there have been challenges.

Mr. AYERS: Doing an excavation on a project with 60,000 dump loads of soil on the rainiest season in ten years. Adding additional scope, whether it's 170,000 square feet of expansion space to a project that's already been designed or under construction.

NAYLOR: What Ayers didn't say is that most of the Visitor Center's many changes and additions have been ordered by the 535 foremen and women, the members of Congress who work next door. Lawmakers decided they wanted more meeting space, so there is an elaborate hearing room with rich wood desks, booths for translators, but no room for hearing witnesses or the public. Senators got state-of-art digital TV and radio studios, the better to record electronic press releases and conferences with their constituents back home. Needless to say, visitors to the Visitor Center won't see all that. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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