A massive underground Congressional Visitor's Center designed to accommodate millions of people visiting the U.S. Capitol each year has opened to the public. VOA's Dan Robinson reports the project, which was planned for two decades and took eight years to construct, makes it easier for Americans and other visitors to learn about the U.S. system of government and provides more space for members of Congress.
At $621 million, many times original cost estimates, the new center occupies a huge three-level space beneath the East side of the Capitol building.
With historical displays, auditoriums, congressional hearing rooms, media facilities, and an enormous central space called Emancipation Hall, it is what U.S. Librarian of Congress James Billington calls an inspirational civics lesson.
"This new visitors center that we dedicate today represents a far more expansive attempt to make the Capitol accessible to its citizenry and tells us all about the dedication of our congressmen over the years to the welfare and the liberty of our country," he said.
A few hours before doors opened to the public, congressional leaders gathered for a ceremony in front of a model that served as the basis for the much larger Statue of Freedom that sits atop the U.S. Capitol.
"Today in the midst of very historic changes for our Republic, we begin a new era in the life of this magnificent capitol building," said John Boehner, the House Republican minority leader. "May it ever remain the symbol of democracy and may the light of freedom that shines from here burn so brightly that the glow is visible throughout the entire world."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted that the Capitol building itself has been a work in progress since the cornerstone was laid in 1793 by America's first president George Washington.
She also referred to the historical fact that construction of the Capitol in its earliest years was carried out by slaves, and noted that the center will be fully completed in time for a significant observance next year.
"It is so appropriate that though long overdue this Capitol Visitors Center is ready for 2009, which is the 200th anniversary, the bicentennial, of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator," she said.
President Lincoln's second inaugural in 1865, in which he called for the nation to bind up its wounds from the Civil War, occurred as slavery in the United States was coming to an end, a process begun by his Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1862.
University of Virginia Professor Rita Dove, a Nobel laureate for poetry and the first African-American to be named Poet Laureate of the United States, paid this tribute to the Statue of Freedom.
"Slung one shoulder, she bears the rainbowed layers of charity and murmurs, all of you, even the least of you," she said. "Don't cross to the other side of the street, don't think another item to fit on a tourist's agenda. Consider her drenched gaze, her shining brow, she who has brought mercy back into the streets and will not retire politely to the potter's field."
For all of its magnificence, including such things as large ceiling windows with views of the Capitol dome, the new center and the office of the Architect of the Capitol faced criticism for cost overruns.
The group Citizens Against Government Waste called the center an example of government mismanagement, and alleged that members of Congress used security concerns surrounding the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks as an excuse to justify extravagant add-ons.
The center improves security by streamlining entry into the main Capitol building, to more easily accommodate a sharp increase in visitors, whose numbers now reach some three million each year.
In addition to the huge Emancipation Hall, the center includes live television feeds from the House and Senate when Congress is in session, and interactive virtual computer tours of the Capitol.
Historical objects on display include the hand shovel used by George Washington when laying the original cornerstone in 1793, the table used at Abraham Lincoln's second Inaugural.
Extensive new facilities also include additional hearing rooms, and a large 450-seat auditorium able to accommodate House and Senate lawmakers, as well as upgraded facilities for media organizations.