Tours of Capitol Hill and the theatre where President Lincoln was assassinated but only a distant glimpse of the White House
05.06.2013 27 °C
Tours of public buildings tend to be free in the USA but often have to be booked up a long time ahead (as I found out to my cost when trying to visit the US Mint in Denver). I was chuffed therefore to find only a couple of days beforehand that there was still a tour slot available for the US Capitol during my stay in Washington.
The entrance to the Capitol is via the large underground Visitor Center at the back of the building opened in 2008. Having cleared the airport style security you enter Emancipation Hall dominated by the original plaster model for the bronze Statue of Freedom which stands on top of the Capitol's Dome.
Emancipation Hall is the large central space in the Visitor Center where you pick up your tour passes from one on the information desks situated at either end and then queue for one of the two Orientation Theatres - this place is designed to cope with numbers as politely as possible with lots of volunteer guides on hand offering help. While waiting there is a rather impressive Exhibition Hall with models and exhibits describing the history of the building; there is also looking up a rather unusual and impressive view of the Dome itself.
The Capitol Building and Visitor Center is cluttered with statues as each US state is entitled to donate 2 statues honouring persons notable to their history to the national collection which they can change over time. Twenty four of the 100 statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection are in the Visitor Center.
The tour itself begins with a short film in one of the Orientation Theatres where you are allocated to a tour group; ours was large containing perhaps 80 people but all linked to the tour guide by a radio earpiece so everyone could hear her. We were then taken into the Rotunda and had its marble painted frescos, friezes, paintings and statues explained to us as we looked up at the inside of the impressive 288 feet (88 metre) high and 96 feet (29 metre) diameter Dome. The Rotunda is where John F Kennedy and ten other US Presidents have lain in state after they died.
Next we entered the semi-circular shaped National Statuary Hall; this where all the state statues were displayed from when they were first inaugurated in 1864 until 1933 by which time the hall had become rather cluttered (the statues were 3 deep!) and their weight threatened to fall through the floor. The statues were instead distributed throughout the building and today only 38 statues remain in the National Statuary Hall itself including Rosa Parkes (Civil Rights Pioneer 1913-2005 who refused to give up her bus seat to a white person) and Ronald Reagan (40th US President 1981-1989).
National Statuary Hall was originally where the House of Representatives met from when it was completed in 1807 until 1857. It has peculiar acoustics which mean you can't hear someone speaking quite close to you while being able to hear someone whispering on the opposite side of the room - a phenomenon demonstrated to us by our guide. It is rumoured that John Quincy Adams (6th US President 1825-1829) took advantage of this while a congressman 1831-1848.
Our official tour ended with a trip down to the crypt, but not before I managed to get sneak photo through the main backdoor of the Capitol along Capitol Street East with the US Supreme Court on the left and Library of Congress on the right. Down in the crypt we saw amongst the massive columns and arches supporting the Rotunda the White Compass Stone which marks the zero spot from which all of Washington's streets are numbered and where it was originally envisaged that George Washington (1st US President 1789-1797) would eventually be buried.
I then managed to get a pass to the House of Representatives Visitor's Gallery to sit and watch the Senate in session for ten minutes or so discussing the finer points of a new bill concerning the War on Terrorism (Congress was not sitting out of respect for a New Jersey Congressman who had died the previous day). It was then time to move on and I took the underground tunnel to the Library of Congress across the street.
The Italian Renaissance-style Library of Congress Jefferson Building directly behind the Capitol was built in 1897 and is the oldest of the four buildings housing the Library. Entry to the building is via its stunning Great Hall which has a 75 foot (23 metres) high stained-glass ceiling, marble floor and marble staircases. Branching off from the Great Hall are several impressive exhibition galleries on such topics as the American Civil War and American Explorers. Although we were only allowed a fleeting glimpse from the Main Reading Room Overlook, the centrepiece of the Building is the Main Reading Room with its ornate domed 160 feet (49 metres) ceiling and wood panelled desks.
It was now time for some external shots; the Library of Congress was fine but the US Supreme Court across the road was undergoing refurbishment and cloaked in white sheeting - Sydney Town Hall, Denver Capitol, St Patrick's Cathedral New York... I'm beginning to lose count of the number of landmarks that been obscured by scaffolding while I've been on my trip! At least they had the good sense to put an image of the building on the taupaulin so it wasn't an eyesore while undergoing the restoration work.
Walking back across the street and around to the west front of the Capitol I got a close up of the classic view of the building where it looks down the National Mall towards the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. A short distance in front of the Building is the mounted Ulysses S. Grant Memorial (18th US President 1869-1877 and Civil War General) and the Reflecting Pool, again with great views of a very photogenic building.
The White House is 1.2 miles (1.8 kilometres) from the steps of the Capitol on the north side of the National Mall facing the Washington Monument. On the way there I stopped at the National Archives Building on Constitution Avenue and queued to see original copies of the US Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in its central Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom with an original copy of the British 1297 Magna Carta on display in a case close by. Unfortunately photography inside the building was not allowed.
Carrying on to the White House, it has been the home of all US Presidents ever since it was completed in 1800 although it needed to be rebuilt after it was burnt down by the British during the War of 1814 (apparently in retaliation for the destruction of some public buildings by American troops in Canada). I had hoped to do a tour of the White House but these had been stopped indefinitely in March 2013 because of staff shortages following the 2013 budget sequestration (a casualty of US brinkmanship party politics!). Even the Visitors Center was closed for refurbishment temporarily replaced by a Portakabin in the Park to the front of the South Lawn.
I did however manage to book a slot to visit the Ford Theatre 5 blocks away which is where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching a performance of the play "Our American Cousin" shortly after the end of the American Civil War in April 1865. It's still a working theatre with a museum in the basement containing Lincoln artifacts such as the gun John Wilkes Booth used to shoot the President and then a trip upstairs to the theatre auditorium to see the Presidential Box beside the stage where the fatal shot was fired.
After he was shot President Lincoln was carried across the street to the small back bedroom of the Petersen Boarding House where he died in the early hours of the following morning. As with the theatre itself while the building has been restored to look like it did in 1865 very few of the furnishings are originals. Upstairs their is a museum describing how the assassins were tracked down and hanged and a book shop with an impressive tower of 15,000+ books claiming to contain every book ever written about Abraham Lincoln.