The State-of-the-art Visitor Center (opened Dec 2, 2008), including new spaces for the House and Senate,
encompasses 580,000 square feet, approximately three-quarters the size of the Capitol,
which stands at 775,000 square feet.
The footprint of the Visitor Center is larger than the footprint of the Capitol by 18,000 square feet. The largest previous addition to the Capitol in its 215-year history, was the construction of the new House and Senate Wings in the 1850s. Combined, the wings comprise 330,000 square feet. Therefore, the Visitor Center is, by far, the largest addition to the Capitol in its history. New books about the Capitol will reflect the building as being 1.35 million square feet.
The decision to locate the Visitor Center below ground was to preserve the historic views of the Capitol and, to the extent possible, restore and revive the pedestrian-friendly historic landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1874. Putting a three-story structure on the East or West Front of the Capitol was not an option. Six skylights (including two that measure 30 by 70 feet) provide direct, natural light, and connect visitors visually to the picturesque Capitol dome.
Improving the security of the Congress, the Capitol, and visitors was one of the fundamental goals driving the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center. The fatal shootings of two U.S. Capitol Police officers in July 1998 and the events of September 11 underscored the degree to which the Capitol and its occupants are at risk. Therefore, Congress directed the Architect of the Capitol to design and construct a visitor center to “provide greater security for all persons working in or visiting the United States Capitol and to provide a more convenient place in which to learn of the work of Congress.” The Visitor Center will now provide a secure public environment to welcome and manage the millions of visitors annually and protect the Capitol Building, its occupants, and guests.
Dedicated to the citizens of the United States, the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center will offer visitors an enhanced educational experience as they tour the historic U.S. Capitol building and explore the legislative branch of government.
Located on the lower level of the Capitol Visitor Center, the 16,500 square foot Exhibition Hall is the only exhibition in the world dedicated to telling the story of the United States Congress and the U.S. Capitol. The Exhibition Hall will feature original documents and artifacts, videos, computer interactives and two theaters, providing visitors with an in-depth look at how Congress works as well as information on their own Representatives and Senators.
Just inside the Exhibition Hall entrance stands an eleven-foot-tall touchable model of the Capitol Dome whose interior contains a scale model of the Rotunda in all its architectural and artistic glory. The dome model will provide visitors with an intimate look at this iconic symbol of representative democracy. The polyurethane model is tough, durable, easily cleaned, and it never needs to be painted since color is impregnated into the mold. The front of the model shows the exterior of the dome from its base to the Statue of Freedom. The back side of the model depicts a cutaway showing the construction of the inner and outer cast iron dome and the interior of the Rotunda, from the fresco depicting George Washington to the sandstone blocks of the Rotunda floor. The lighting on the dome will simulate a day/night cycle, showing how the light in the tholos (the ring of columns below the Statue of Freedom) will come on when Congress is in session. Visitors can peek through the windows on the front of the model and see inside to the artistic treasures in the Rotunda, including paintings and bas-reliefs that were carefully color-matched to the actual paintings on the east side of the Rotunda. Even the fresco masterpiece in the Rotunda ceiling, the “Apotheosis of Washington” by Constantino Brumidi, was carefully replicated using a combination of photographs and hand painting.
Also in the Exhibition Hall, a virtual tour of the Capitol provides unique views into many beautiful and historic rooms, some of which are usually off-limits to the public. Six history alcoves housing artifacts, documents, images and videos bring to life the fascinating story of the House of Representatives and the Senate. In each alcove, highly detailed architectural models trace the evolution of the Capitol Campus from a rural landscape to a small “city within a city” and the home of the world’s most recognizable symbol of democracy.
The Wall of Aspirations, comprised of two 93-foot-long curving marble walls is the Hall’s most dominant feature. The Wall of Aspirations houses original historic documents that highlight the efforts of Congress to move the nation “toward a more perfect Union.” Among the treasures included in the wall are President Thomas Jefferson's confidential letter to Congress asking Members to fund the Lewis and Clark expedition, President John F. Kennedy's speech to Congress vowing to put a man on the moon in 10 years, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "Day of Infamy" speech to Congress, the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, the Medicare Act in 1965, and many other precious documents.
At one of two small theaters, visitors can watch short films that explore the unique histories and cultures of the House and the Senate which are complemented by live television feeds from each chamber when Congress is in session.
The Capitol Visitor Center, the new main entrance to the U.S. Capitol, is located on the East front at First Street and East Capitol Street, NE. Getting to the Capitol »
The Capitol Visitor Center is open to visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday except for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day and on Inauguration Day.
Admission to the Capitol Visitor Center is free and does not require a ticket. However, tickets are required for tours of the historic Capitol and may be needed for other special events. All visitors to the Capitol are required to go through security screening.
Tours of the U.S. Capitol need to be scheduled in advance through the Advance Reservation System or through the office of one of your Senators or your Representative. Book a Tour »
The Capitol Visitor Center is fully accessible to people with disabilities. Listening devices with audio description of the films and exhibition are available at the Information Desks. All films have open captioning. In addition, there are a variety of other services for visitors with disabilities, including adaptive tours of the Capitol, wheelchairs, and sign-language interpreting services for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. More Information on Accessibility »
The issue of enslaved labor in the construction of the U.S. Capitol is presented in a number of ways in the Capitol Visitor Center. In the Exhibition Hall, reading rails include text accompanied by images that discuss the contributions of enslaved laborers who cleared grounds, quarried stone, sawed timber, and labored on the Capitol’s structure. Reading rails around the plaster model for the Statue of Freedom highlight the contributions of Philip Reid, an enslaved laborer whose talents were instrumental in the casting of the Statue of Freedom In addition, the importance of enslaved laborers is discussed in the 13-minute orientation film that will be shown to all visitors at the beginning of their tour of the Capitol. Educational information on the role of enslaved labor is also incorporated into the script for guide-led tours and staff-led tours of the Capitol. The topic also will be covered in a brochure that will be available in the Visitor Center, and it will be included in the Capitol Visitor Center’s on-line exhibition on its Website.
Tour buses will continue to be allowed to drop off visitors on the West Front of the Capitol. For people with mobility issues, there are shuttles driven by Visitor Assistants available to take them to the Visitor Center entrance at the East Front. City buses, including Metrobus, will be able to drop off passengers at the East Front near the Visitor Center entrance.
There are no storage facilities at the Visitor Center for prohibited items.
It is therefore critical that we communicate to visitors what will not be allowed in the facility.
The Official Website (Visit The Capitol, see link furtehr below) will be an essential tool to communicate this and other important visitor information. The list of prohibited items is included in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Guide brochure.
With the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center, there is a more convenient, more efficient and easier system for scheduling all Capitol tours that will allow more opportunities for constituents and other visitors to experience tours of the historic U.S. Capitol. The new, free, user-friendly, 24/7 Web-based Advance Reservation System is what constituents, Members of Congress and international visitors will use to schedule guided tours of the Capitol. Visitors may book tours through the offices of their Representative or Senators, or they may book tours themselves. The Advance Reservation System is accessible through the new, content-rich Website, www.visitthecapitol.gov. Whether booking through their Representative or Senator’s office or on their own, visitors will automatically receive email confirmations with their preferred tour time and tips for visiting the Capitol. When they arrive at the Capitol Visitor Center, they will exchange that email confirmation for tour tickets at one of two Information Desks in Emancipation Hall or at a Visitor Services kiosk outside. Visitors who do not have Internet access may book tours by calling the office of their Representative or Senators or through the Office of Visitor Services at 202-226-8000. Walk-in visitors may check up-to-date LCD screens located behind the Information Desks regarding tour availability as there will be a limited number of same-day passes. No ticket is required to enter the Capitol Visitor Center or to enjoy its amenities. Tours begin in one of two Orientation Theaters where visitors will watch a 13-minute orientation film.