Historians have described the United States Capitol building as “the most recognized sign of democratic government in the world.” By taking a walk though this historic building, visitors can understand why. I’m Sarah Long.
And I’m Steve Ember. The United States Capitol building in Washington, D-C is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.
American lawmakers have held their meetings in the United States Capitol building since Eighteen-Hundred. The two houses of Congress gather in this building to write and pass laws for the nation. American presidents are sworn into office on the steps of the Capitol. And they give their yearly “State of the Union” speech in the Capitol.
For more than two-hundred years, the Capitol has grown as the country has grown. New parts of the building have been added to provide space for lawmakers representing new states in the Union.
Several million people from around the world visit the Capitol each year. The building is open to the public every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Recently, however, the building was closed to the public two separate times because of security concerns. The closures were linked to the September eleventh terrorist attacks and the anthrax crisis.
Since the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, officials have taken great steps to increase security around the Capitol. Many roads around the building have been closed to traffic. In addition, visitors are now required to walk through special devices before entering the building. The devices detect metal weapons.
Guided visits of the Capitol are free. However, visitors must have tickets to enter the building. Tours are offered Monday through Friday. Groups of twenty-five people are led through the building every thirty minutes. To get a ticket, visitors must wait in line several hours before the first tour begins.
The Capitol is a popular and interesting place for visitors to Washington. For example, Mike and Joan Rolles (RAWL-ess) from Hershey, Pennsylvania, visited the Capitol last month. They described the building as a national treasure. They said they were happy to see the increased security measures because of the importance of the building. They said they believe additional security steps should be taken at other important federal buildings in the Washington area.
After visitors have passed through the security area, they are welcomed into the Capitol building through the historic Columbus Doors. These doors are made of bronze metal. They are about five meters tall and weigh about nine-thousand kilograms.
American artist Randolph Rogers designed the doors. They were placed at the main entrance of the Capitol in Eighteen-Seventy-One. They are considered a lasting memorial to Christopher Columbus who arrived in America in Fourteen-Ninety-Two. Mister Rogers designed eight squares on the doors representing events in the life of Columbus.
Visitors then walk straight into the heart of the Capitol building – the Rotunda. This is a large, round room that connects the north and south parts of the building where the Senate and the House of Representatives meet. Visitors can always tell if the House or Senate is meeting if a flag flies over the north or south part of the Capitol.
The Rotunda is the ceremonial center of the Capitol. State funerals have been held there for presidents, members of Congress, military heroes and important citizens. This honor is called “Lying in State.” Nine presidents have lain in state in the Capitol Rotunda. They include Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Only one foreigner has received this honor – Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant. He planned the city of Washington, D-C.
The Capitol building is filled with beautiful, historic works of art. One of the greatest pieces was painted fifty-four meters above the Rotunda on the top of the rounded ceiling. An Italian-American artist named Constantino Brumidi completed the ceiling painting in Eighteen-Sixty-Five.
The painting is called “The Apotheosis of Washington” in honor of America’s first president. It shows George Washington rising to heaven. He is surrounded by historical people representing freedom, victory, knowledge and technological progress. The painting covers an area of about four-hundred-thirty square meters. Visitors are permitted to take pictures of the painting. However, because of its size, the whole painting usually does not fit into one picture.
From the Rotunda, visitors walk into Statuary Hall. This room was once the meeting place for the House of Representatives. However, it became Statuary Hall in Eighteen-Sixty-Four after the number of lawmakers grew too large to continue meeting there. Another name for Statuary Hall is the “Whisper Chamber.” This is because when a visitor stands at one end of the room, he or she can hear what people at the other end are saying. The shape of the room with its high ceiling creates this unusual movement of sound waves.
Many years ago, Congress invited each state in the United States to send two statues of its most famous citizens to the Capitol. Today, these statues are shown in Statuary Hall and throughout the building. North Dakota, New Mexico and Nevada are the only states that have sent just one statue. Most of the statues are made of marble stone or bronze metal.
From Statuary Hall, visitors walk to the Capitol crypt directly below the Rotunda. Capitol designers built the crypt to be a memorial over the burial place of President Washington. It was to be seen through an opening in the Rotunda floor.
However, when President Washington died, he was buried instead at his farm in Mount Vernon, Virginia. The Capitol crypt was left unused.There are forty sandstone structures, or columns, surrounding the crypt. These columns also support the floor of the Rotunda. There is a star in the center of the crypt floor that marks the point from which all streets in Washington are laid out and numbered. Visitors like to stand on the star because it is considered the very center of the nation’s capitol.
From the center of the crypt to the very top of the Capitol building requires a big jump. However, the Statue of Freedom has made the top of the Capitol her home since Eighteen-Sixty-Three. The statue is made of bronze metal. It was designed by artist Thomas Crawford. Freedom weighs almost seven-thousand kilograms. The statue stands almost six meters high. She is the tallest statue in the District of Columbia. No statue is permitted to be taller. The statue faces the east overlooking the city of Washington. Historians say this position was chosen so that the sun would never set on the face of Freedom.
(( MUSIC BRIDGE ))
The United States Capitol was first built on wetlands. In Eighteen-Seventy-Four, a Senate committee asked garden expert Frederick Law Olmsted to design the grounds around the Capitol. Mister Olmsted was a leader in the development of public parks in America. He came to Washington from New York City, where he had designed the famous Central Park.
Today, more then one-hundred different kinds of trees grow on the Capitol grounds. Many have signs identifying their historic importance. For example, more than thirty states have given trees to the Capitol grounds. Visitors often spend time walking around the area looking for their state’s tree.
They also look for the historic “Cameron Elm” near the entrance to the House of Representatives. This tree is one of the oldest on the Capitol grounds. It was named in honor of a senator from Pennsylvania. He protected the tree from being cut down while the area around the Capitol was being designed.
The Cameron Elm remains part of America’s treasure -- the United States Capitol -- the most recognized sign of democratic government in the world.
This program was written by Jill Moss. It was produced by George Grow. I’m Sarah Long.
And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.