John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

Capitol tours, part 1

Postcard from my sister

My sister just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., whence she sent me this postcard of the U.S. Capitol. She wrote on the back that I was a much better tour guide of the Capitol than the one she had on this trip. I know this to be true because she said the same thing on Facebook, and as we all know you're not allowed to say something untrue on the Internet.

I was never an official Capitol tour guide, but I sure gave a lot of them when I worked in the Senate, especially during the two years I worked for Senator Riegle. One of the things Congressional offices routinely do for their constituents is arrange tours of the Capitol. Those tours have to be booked in advance, but nevertheless we frequently had constituents drop by the office expecting us to get them a Capitol tour right then.

Sometimes, those people would be told there was nothing we could do for them, but when possible we tried to accommodate them by getting an intern or a low-level staffer to conduct an unofficial tour. And I can't speak for what others did, but the tours I gave were pretty comprehensive. A typical tour went like this:

  • We'd ride the tram from the Dirksen Office Building to the Capitol. For kids, this was sometimes the highlight of the tour.
  • We'd go upstairs to the Senate chamber. If the Senate was out of session, I'd take them onto the Senate floor; otherwise, we'd go up another level and go into the visitor's gallery. Either way, I'd try to point out Sen. Riegle's desk and the desk that is always kept filled with candy. I'd also talk about the vice presidential busts on the perimeter of the chamber, more about which in this old entry.
  • From there, we went to the old Senate chamber on the second level. Occasionally, we were able to get up into the visitors gallery. I didn't always do that; if the group was too large, we weren't allowed up there, but even with a small group we'd skip the gallery if time was an issue, because you had to go beg for a key to get up there.
  • From there we went downstairs to the Old Supreme Court Chamber, located directly below the Old Senate Chamber. We didn't spend long there, because it's dimly lit and a little cramped.
  • From there we went to the Crypt, which is located directly below the Rotunda. It's called the Crypt because a) it looks like a crypt, and b) the original idea was that George Washington would be interred below it. But Washington's will stipulated he be buried at Mount Vernon, so the tomb was never used for that purpose. Nowadays the Crypt just has a bunch of statues and historical displays. It's kind of boring, actually.
  • But the Washington Tomb was built, and that's where the tour went next. Back in those days, the Lincoln Catafalque was kept down there, but once the Capitol Visitors Center was completed the catafalque was moved over there. I have no idea what's down there now.
  • From there, we went up two flights to the Rotunda. I liked to point out the details of The Apotheosis of Washington, the Constantino Brumidi fresco on the canopy hanging above the oculus of the inner dome, which in addition to showing George Washington sitting upon a heaven throne, depicts Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, talking with Benjamin Franklin, Samuel F. B. Morse, and Robert Fulton; Neptune and Venus holding the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable; and Mercury, the god of commerce, handing a bag of gold to Robert Morris, one of the chief financiers of the American Revolution. I always assumed Brumidi was being a bit satirical here, poking fun at America's reverence for Washington and its view of itself as a nation favored by divine providence.
  • From the Rotunda it was on to National Statuary Hall, which was also the original chamber of the House of Representatives. There were three things I also pointed out here: the statue of Lewis Cass, which was one of Michigan's two statues in the National Statuary Hall collection but the only one in the Hall; the spot where James K. Polk's desk was when he was a member of the House; and the Whispering Gallery, a spot where due to the acoustics of the room one can clearly hear what is being said on the other side of the room; and the Whispering Gallery, a spot where, due to the acoustics of the room, one can clearly hear what is being said on the other side of the room.
  • And we ended up in the House of Representatives chamber. As with the Senate chamber, I took people onto the floor if possible, or into the visitors gallery otherwise.

By contrast, my sister's tour visited the Crypt, the Rotunda, and the Statuary Hall. In fairness to the official guides, they have a lot more people to deal with, and security at the Capitol is a lot tighter now than it was twenty years ago when I worked for Sen. Riegle, but I'll bet my tours were more comprehensive than the official ones even back then. I mean, there's no way you could get a large group of people down to see the tomb or even the Old Supreme Court Chamber, and having huge groups filing in and out of the visitors galleries would be really distracting when something was happening in the chambers, and really boring when nothing was, which is most of the time.

Tags: dc, family, halcyon days of yore

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