Capital come-ons

Shine and substance add allure to the Capitol, National Museum of American History, Ford’s Theatre

Some of the 960 pieces of mirrored polycarbonate in “Abstract Flag,’’ a 40-by-19-foot reflecting installation at the National Museum of American History. Some of the 960 pieces of mirrored polycarbonate in “Abstract Flag,’’ a 40-by-19-foot reflecting installation at the National Museum of American History. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Ron Driscoll
Globe Staff / October 18, 2009

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WASHINGTON -- At its dedication last December, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada wryly described how the US Capitol Visitor Center would improve air quality around the seat of American government.

“In the summertime, because of the high humidity and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol,’’ said Reid of the previous system, which forced visitors to wait in long outdoor queues, rain or shine, for the daily allotment of passes, which were frequently depleted by 10 a.m.

Rest assured, lawmakers’ sensitive noses were not the chief impetus for construction of this grand entryway to the nation’s enduring symbol of democracy.

“The great success of the new visitor center is that we have turned no one away,’’ said Terrie S. Rouse, the CEO for visitor services at the Capitol. “With the previous system where we funneled visitors through a single small door into the building, we often turned away thousands of people each day. It was antiquated and congested.’’

We flew into the capital for a weekend last month to explore the new visitor center, along with the recently renovated National Museum of American History and Ford’s Theatre and Museum.

At 580,000 square feet (roughly three-quarters the size of the Capitol), the space that visitors now enter for tours warrants its own tour. The expansive foyer, Emancipation Hall, is dominated by the nearly 20-foot-tall plaster model for the bronze Statue of Freedom that stands on the Capitol dome. The casting, which weighs some 13,000 pounds, was created by sculptor Thomas Crawford in 1856 and is an allegorical figure of “Freedom triumphant in war and peace.’’ After being used to cast the statue, the model had sat disassembled and forgotten.

“The model had been in storage for years before it was displayed in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building starting in 1992,’’ said Tom Fontana, spokesman for the center. “Unfortunately, it was inaccessible to 99 percent of the public. We wanted to display it in an appropriate, prominent way.’’

On each side of the hall are bookended information centers, and visitors can explore the center’s exhibits, statuary, gift shops, and restaurant, or embark on a one-hour tour of the Capitol, starting with a 13-minute orientation film that steers them toward a red-coated guide.

It all moved so seamlessly that we were taken aback by the numbers: A record 19,400 people toured the facility in one day this summer, and it welcomed its 2 millionth visitor in late September, which Rouse said is roughly double the attendance over the same time last year.

“Now, a 20-minute wait is a long wait,’’ she said. “The whole process is orchestrated: A group of 250 people comes out of the film six times an hour [there are two theaters]; they’re split into tour groups of 35 to 40 people. The choreography is critical; mind you, not everyone takes a tour of the Capitol.’’

Those who stick around find 24 statues moved over from the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. The collection began in 1864 when Congress invited each state to donate a statue of a distinguished citizen, and later each state was allowed to contribute a second. Where to display them all became a big problem.

“At one point there were more than 70 of them in that one hall,’’ said Fontana. “They were three deep in there. Now that some of them are displayed in the visitor center, it ties the spaces together visually. And they’re not just lawmakers; there are educators, missionaries, scientists. They represent the regions and diversity of our country.’’

Thus King Kamehameha of Hawaii is joined by astronaut and Coloradan John L. “Jack’’ Swigert and Chief Washakie of Wyoming and the Shoshone tribe. Massachusetts is represented by John Winthrop and Samuel Adams. A statue of Helen Keller, dedicated Oct. 7 in the Capitol rotunda, is the first depicting a child: She is 7, at her home in Alabama, where she first learned to communicate.

Exhibition Hall on the center’s lower level is dedicated to educating visitors about the legislative branch, and it boasts 20 interactive stations, an 11-foot cutaway model of the Capitol dome, and original historic documents, such as Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Congress requesting money for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the draft of a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia that Abraham Lincoln had written as a congressman in 1849. That document was among many artifacts we encountered at the three venues to honor the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1809.

“We plan to rotate the documents on display every six months, with help from the Smithsonian and the National Archives,’’ said Rouse. “That will allow us to capture our audience again and again.’’

Congress was chided in many quarters for the visitor center itself, which cost $621 million (some $350 million over early projections) and opened four years behind schedule.

“I think when people see the results, they’re pretty satisfied,’’ Rouse said. “They see what has been accomplished, see how the space is used. . . . The key thing is that more people now have access to this historic site.’’

Good thing, considering that Dan Brown’s latest potboiler, “The Lost Symbol,’’ kicks into gear in Statuary Hall.

National Museum of American History
A poignant reminder of Lincoln’s legacy is a lunch counter from a Woolworth’s store in Greensboro, N.C., where in 1960 four black men were refused service because it was “whites only.’’ Nearly a century after the Civil War, and less than 50 years ago, segregation was legal in the United States. A six-month sit-in attracted national attention, and protests like it ultimately led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which ended segregation in public places.

That counter is one of the “landmark objects’’ installed after a two-year renovation of one of the cornerstones of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex. The $85 million project created a five-story atrium with “artifact walls’’ to display items from the museum’s collection of some 3 million objects, but most importantly, it produced a proper home for the Star-Spangled Banner, the nearly 200-year-old flag that inspired our national anthem by Francis Scott Key.

“The flag was much too fragile to display it as we previously had,’’ said Valeska M. Hilbig, the museum’s deputy director of public affairs. “But we also didn’t want to attempt to restore it to look like new - it would have looked like a patchwork quilt. It is frayed and worn in spots; it reflects our history. And people don’t know about the War of 1812 and how much our nation was in jeopardy.’’

The city of Baltimore was under attack in 1814 when Fort McHenry survived an assault by British warships, the first signal being Key’s observation “that our flag was still there.’’ The first stanza of the national anthem is projected above the 30-by-34-foot flag, which sits under low light to ensure its protection. Attention is called to the display by an enormous “Abstract Flag’’ in the atrium, which is made up of 960 pieces of mirrored polycarbonate that reflect the light - and the people - in the atrium and together form the image of a waving flag.

Among the museum’s more popular displays is the 14-by-20-foot kitchen that served as a set for three of Julia Child’s cooking shows, and which the famous cookbook author donated to the Smithsonian in 2001. Spurred in part by the recent Nora Ephron film, “Julie & Julia,’’ visitors linger in the “Bon Appetit!’’ exhibit, transfixed by the displays of Child’s pot and pans and the continuous video loop of her shows.

“Everybody watches cooking shows; I saw a recent story that said cooking is a new spectator sport,’’ said Hilbig. “People really engage with the exhibit and with each other; they talk about how they watched the show when they were growing up.’’

The museum pulled together all of its Lincoln holdings - more than 60 objects, including the hat he wore to Ford’s Theatre on the night he was shot - for “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life.’’ An iron wedge he used to split wood in the 1830s is echoed in his political career when he became touted as Honest Abe, the rail splitter. A series of photos shows the toll that the events of his presidency took on him, as does a life mask made two months before his death.

The recent renovation is part one of a three-stage process. The museum’s west wing will be closed next, reopening in 2012 with expanded space to display its entertainment, culture, and sports holdings, which currently occupy meager quarters on the second floor.

“We’re sympathetic to that - in fact, we’re right there with them,’’ Hilbig said. “We’re very much at the beginning of the museum’s renovation. We had to take a breather after completing the central core, but the rest of the work can be done without closing the museum.’’

Ford’s Theatre & Museum
You enter here to the sound of a ticking clock, through a hallway marked “Lincoln’’ on one side, “Booth’’ on the other. Events from April 14, 1865, are noted as you make your way: John Wilkes Booth’s visit to the theater at 11 a.m., where he overheard the news that Lincoln and his wife planned to attend the performance of “An American Cousin’’ that evening, setting into motion the event that would send a nation reeling, just as it was starting to recover from a devastating civil war.

The basement museum doesn’t feel like a basement; it offers ample space to reflect as you move through the chronology of Lincoln’s presidency, including frank assessments of the men who served in his cabinet and as Union generals. One revelation to us was the tumultuous window of time he was chief executive: He took office during the siege of Fort Sumter that precipitated the war, and he was mortally wounded at the theater just five days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered, effectively ending the war.

We saw the presidential box, hung with the same lithograph of George Washington that was there that night. We could imagine Booth’s leap from the box to the stage after he had fired his derringer, which is displayed in the museum, and stabbed one of Lincoln’s companions. Booth become tangled in the box’s curtains, landing awkwardly and probably breaking his leg before he scurried away. (A 12-day manhunt tracked him to Virginia, where he was shot and killed.)

Lincoln died the next morning at the Petersen House across the street, where the overnight vigil ended with the words of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “Now he belongs to the ages.’’

For a lighter view of history, a branch of Madame Tussauds wax museum, which features a gallery of presidents, is just a block away at 10th and F streets.

Ron Driscoll can be reached at

If You Go

How to get there
Flights into Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) on AirTran, JetBlue, and Southwest start at $39 each way, a big savings over flights into the Dulles or Reagan airports. Two of us flew for $188.38 round trip, including all fees. The BWI B30 express bus ($3.10) departs every 40 minutes for the Greenbelt Metro station, which connects to downtown D.C. (

What to do
US Capitol Visitor Center
Capitol’s East entrance (First Street and East Capitol Street NE). Metro stations: Capitol South, Union Station
Open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day. Free admission, ticket not required. Tickets (free) required for one-hour tours of the Capitol; available through your US senator or representative, or through advance reservation system at website above.

National Museum of American History
14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Metro: Federal Triangle, Smithsonian
This Smithsonian museum is on the National Mall and is open every day except Christmas, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Free.

Ford’s Theatre
511 Tenth St. NW. Metro: Metro Center, Gallery Place
Visit is free but requires a ticket. Box office opens at 8:30 a.m. for same-day, timed tickets first-come, first-served with a six-ticket limit. Advance timed tickets available through the above website at $1.50 per ticket. Since it is a working theater, check ahead for availability. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, except Christmas.
Where to stay

The Fairfax at Embassy Row
2100 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Metro: Dupont Circle (Q Street exit)
Opened in 1926, this upscale hotel near Dupont Circle boasts the renowned Jockey Club restaurant and doting service. Booked online for $136 a night including taxes.

Where to eat
Afterwords Café (inside Kramerbooks)
1517 Connecticut Ave. NW. Metro: Dupont Circle (Q Street exit)
At the back of a bookstore, hence its “latte to the literati’’ motto. Breakfast from 7:30 a.m. ($6.75-$11), Sunday brunch ($14.95-$17.75, includes coffee or tea, juice, breads). Also open for lunch and dinner.

News Café Italian Kitchen 3056 M St. NW. Metro: Foggy Bottom
Affordable, traditional approach to pizza and pasta dishes in the heart of Georgetown, entrees $11.50-$24.95.