On Capitol Hill

Many years ago our family was at the Vatican and naturally went to see the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, the pièce de résistance, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, was being restored and thus completely hidden from view. To compensate (or perhaps as a cruel joke) officials had put up a small picture to show what we were missing! What does this have to do with the Washington D.C., you might ask? Well, that experience came flooding back to me as I approached the United States Capitol and saw that its dome is currently covered outside (and in, as I was to learn) with scaffolding. Oh well, I suppose it makes for an even more memorable visit. 

Luckily, I had read in advance that sightseers wishing to have a guided tour should have “timed passes” which are easily obtained online. So, I just walked up to the desk at the Visitors’ Center and was off for my tour in no time. I was really impressed, in fact, by how quickly people are moved through the building. It was especially good to see the effort made to help out all of the foreign visitors—subtitling short films in English and using headsets to understand clearly what the guide was saying.

The first room we saw, which has forty sandstone Doric columns supporting the Rotunda above it, was the Crypt. Strangely enough, as we found out, no one is buried there. It was originally intended to be George Washington’s final resting place but he died before the room was completed. Not surprisingly, his family didn’t care for the idea of digging him up later for reburial at the Capitol. On the same floor as the Crypt is the old Supreme Court Chamber. This semi-circular room is really quite beautiful with its arches and umbrella vaults. During the fifty or so years it served the Justices, many landmark cases took place there, including the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

Next, we climbed the stairs up to the Rotunda. Our guide explained to us that the reason for the aforementioned scaffolding was the need to repair the cast iron dome encasing the room. No small job, either, since there are over a thousand cracks in it! High above on the ceiling we were able to glimpse the fresco portraying Washington ascending into heaven surrounded by characters from classical mythology. The rest of the room, however, was a jungle of metal framework and drapery which didn’t allow for much of a view of what’s behind. Guess I’ll just have to settle for the virtual tour… 

Finally, we were brought into the Old Hall of the House, now called Statuary Hall. For nearly fifty years members of the House of Representatives met in this small amphitheater which they outgrew as the number of states increased. Another drawback was that the room’s acoustics allowed for some dead spaces (where nothing could be heard) plus other areas which permitted eavesdropping from many feet away. Not exactly ideal in political circles! We saw the spot where former president and longtime congressman John Quincy Adams had a stroke at his desk and died a few days later in a neighboring room.

Despite having to fight the scaffolds for a view at times, the tour of the Capitol was quite informative and enjoyable. I recommend it!


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