Why the Capitol is my Happy Place

We start in the Capitol Visitor’s Center or CVC for short, where they have the original plaster mold for Lady Freedom who’s atop the Dome. I look right and see the bronze statue of Jeanette Rankin, the first female elected to Congress, which occurred before women even had the right to vote. I look left and see the gold-adorned statue of King Kamehameha, the only statue in the entire collection made of something other than bronze or marble. I walk up to the Helen Keller statue and run my fingers across the braille, this is the only chance I’ll have to touch a statue while in the Capitol because of the braille letters. I also admire the fact that she’s the only child in the collection.

We walk up the first flight of stairs above the small museum, where Lincoln’s catafalque can be found, then up the escalator where we are finally above ground (the CVC is 40 feet below ground) and can look right and see the House side and look left to see the Senate side. We are finally in the Capitol, this is when it becomes a kind of religious experience for me.

We start the tour at the original doors for the building, one of the few things not destroyed by the fire of 1814. I close my eyes and can see Presidents like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison walk through those doors. We turn right and walk into the original Supreme Courtroom which is dark and lit only by lamps to recreate the original lighting of the room. We exit and walk toward the Crypt.

The first things I notice are the thirteen large round columns that are supporting the ceiling above us. Our tour guide tells us that the dome is directly above us and the columns are supporting its weight. The second thing I notice is the white star-like floor tile in the center of the room blocked off by velvet ropes. This is the exact center of DC, the heart of the nation. There is a hole in the floor beneath us where George Washington was meant to be buried. He was supposed to be the glue that held this nation together. He was meant to lie directly in the middle of the House side and Senate side, reminding everyone where we came from. But, he’s not there. That’s just the problem, that tomb below my feet is empty. That glue isn’t there. I question why Washington didn’t want to reside there after death, even with the possibility of his wife Martha lying beside him. Perhaps he didn’t want that weight on his shoulders if things failed he didn’t want to be at the literal center of it all.

We move onward. We head upstairs and into the Rotunda. I felt my chest get tight. No words come to mind, my mind is completely blank. I can feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up and I get chills throughout my whole body. The Frieze is black and white and shades of grey, perhaps another metaphor for our government, depicting everything from Christopher Columbus to the birth of aviation with the Wright Brothers. I tilt my head further back to look at the Apotheosis of George Washington. Washington is flanked by Lady Freedom and Lady Liberty. Then I notice the Greek gods and goddesses around him. I see Poseidon holding the transatlantic cable. I wonder why the artist chose to mix electricity with the God of the Ocean, water and electric current don’t mix well together, again perhaps another metaphor for our government.

We move onto the Old Senate chambers where we can see the desks and the original Vice President’s desk. I notice the books on the desk and realize that is where Senator Stephen Douglas sat, famous for the Lincoln-Douglas debates. I look toward the back of the room to see another desk with a book on it. This is how the Architects of the Capitol have marked the important occurrences in this room, with books on desks and a spittoon on the floor next to another desk. The second book I notice symbolizes the exact spot the Caning of Charles Sumner took place. He was beaten almost to death by Representative Preston Brooks. He was beaten because of a speech he gave on abolition, which many disagreed with. This moment showed how divided our country was and the argument even created a Civil War. Again, more symbolism for what the future held for our government, perhaps an even greater division than our founding fathers had envisioned.

After the Old Senate Chambers, we went to National Statuary Hall which is where the Old House met. This room is full of statues from different states, even one of Rosa Parks. Above the doorway is the personification of Liberty. In her hands, the Constitution, looking down at what would have been the Representatives to remind them of their duties. An eagle to her right and a serpent to her left meant to symbolize wisdom. I can feel her eyes follow me, it feels like my mother is watching me and I mustn’t do anything to disappoint her. Women everywhere overlooking what were originally all men, reminding them of morality and ethics.

We head back into the Rotunda for one last photo-op and then we head back downstairs. We head down the escalators again and I look at the handrail in the middle of the stairs, quite literally separating the House side from the Senate side. With a physical barrier between both sides, it’s no wonder none of us can come to a compromise or meet in the middle. The hand railing is just the physical representation of the barrier in all our minds. We need to learn to go to the other side once in a while and head to the center in hopes of remembering where we came from. We mustn’t forget that even though that tomb is empty and the ‘glue’ that held us together is elsewhere there is still a center. That spot is the very center of DC and the very center of our country.

The statues like angels, the paintings with white fluffy clouds, and George Washington on a throne. The religious symbolism is everywhere. It feels as if I’ve walked into heaven, angels are everywhere with God at the highest point (George Washington in the center of the dome). It was meant to feel religious, it was designed before the official separation between church and state, despite the argument that there still isn’t a true separation. Will there ever be a true separation? Will there ever be a time where we can get past the physical barrier to work together? We can only hope.

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