The United States Capitol Building is, for me, the iconic building of Washington D.C., even more so than The White House. It is the symbol of power in America, and to some extent of power in the world.
It is familiar to us from news shows and movies on our TV screens, and when you visit it for yourself, you feel you already know it well.
Yet there is so much to the Capitol Building that only a long visit can reveal.
The building sits 88 feet above the level of the Potomac river, thus elevating it to a grandiose position in the city, fitting to its purpose. It commands a magnificent view across the Reflecting Pool on the west front, and on down the National Mall to the Washington Monument at a distance of 1.4 miles, and to the Lincoln Memorial 2.2 miles away.
Over the years, the building has suffered from fire damage and has been rebuilt and restored to become what it is today.
The capitol houses both the House of Representatives and the The Senate. It is the place where national policy is discussed and debated, and laws are made.
The Capitol is often referred to by people who work there as a campus of sorts. It is in some way like an ecosystem within which the politicians and the journalists who spend their days there have a codependent relationship.
I visited the Capitol for the first time this year, and had an extensive tour of the main building, the two chambers, the office buildings, and the underground world below them all.
To kick off the tour, we were taken to see an amazing 15 minute-long video, called “E Pluribus Unum” which means, “Out of many, One”. The video is powerful and inspiring and is a great introduction to the history of Congress and the importance of the very building in which you are sitting.
I particularly enjoyed visiting the two chambers and seeing the politicians in debate, picking out the faces I knew. It feels surreal to be there while they were in session, so if you’re planning a trip, try to arrange it this way.
The magnificent Capitol Rotunda is awe inspiring. Seeing the incredibly beautiful works of art and sculpture in the Rotunda was amazing. In Statuary Hall, make sure you check out recently unveiled statue of Rosa Parks.
The underground world of the Capitol campus fascinated me, partly because I never knew it existed in such an extensive form. It is home to shops, a bank, a post office, dry cleaning services, many restaurants and cafes selling very good food at reasonable prices.
We had breakfast in the Longworth Restaurant (under the Longworth House Office Building), surrounded by staffers, politicians and journalists, and some very famous faces, all meeting, greeting and eating, as part of a typical day on Capitol Hill.
Almost 30,000 people work on Capitol Hill, and many of them use a separate subway system which runs between buildings, enabling them to get around more quickly in this vast labyrinth of corridors. Here is a link to a video of the subway system.
Walking along these corridors was fascinating, passing each door and reading the names of the Congressmen and women on the plaques outside, seeing the flags from their particular state hanging outside each door, and becoming excited when passing a door of someone particularly famous and well known to us.
Between the House Buildings and the Capitol runs a main tunnel, and the walls on each side of the tunnel are lined with art work from winners of the Congressional Art Competition open to all High School Students. They are replaced each year with a new batch of winners. They are a very pleasant distraction in an otherwise boring long tunnel walk.
When we think of the Capitol we think of the politicians, and the journalists all working away, but we forget about the vast array of staff that it takes to keep such a place ticking over.
Electricians, gardeners, painters, plumbers, masons, architects, engineers, plasterers and janitors are employed here. The grounds of the Capitol extend to over 90 acres of grass, and 30 acres of flower beds.
The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same person who designed Central Park in New York. It takes an army of gardeners to keep everything ship shape and befitting of such a remarkable building. Between 50 and 70 thousand “annual” flowers are planted each year, and about 70,000 tulips and spring bulbs.
The quirky interesting facts about the capitol would take up an entire article in itself, but one that struck me is the fact that there are over 100,000 light fixtures on Capitol Hill. The electricians regularly get notification on their wireless devices when a light bulb outage occurs, and they then get to work replacing them before the office in need even has to call them.
For me the Capitol Building delivers at every level, it is architecturally magnificent and impressive, it is symbolically one of the most important buildings in the world, and you tend to get that feeling as you walk around it.
Its elevated dominant position in the city draws you to it like a beacon. Even walking around on the roads surrounding the Capitol feels kind of special. You know you are somewhere immensely important. You see the powers that be moving about, armed guards standing about brandishing lethal weapons, and yet there is a lovely sense of peace about the place despite the business of it all.
Take time to sit by the Reflecting Pool and do just that, reflect on your surroundings, and on all that goes on and has gone on inside the walls of this revered building. You could not possibly fail to be hugely impressed by Capitol of the United States of America.
The Capitol is also just a stones throw away from the outstandingly beautiful Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the National Botanic gardens, and Union Station.
Some Advice: When booking your tour, you can book through the Capitol Visitor’s Center, or if you know someone who works there like I did, get them to organize a tour through one of the congressional offices — that way you’ll be given a more personalized tour with just the members of your group and you’ll get access to both the House and Senate chambers.