WASHINGTON — Three years behind schedule and almost $360-million above budget, the Capitol Visitor Center prepares to open its doors to millions of tourists who have had to endure long lines without shelter to catch a glimpse of the halls of Congress.
The underground center, the largest single construction project in the Capitol's two-century history in terms of size and expense, is to open to the public on Dec. 2. The final cost is put at $621-million, more than double the $265-million estimated cost had the center been completed on schedule in December 2005.
For the 3-million tourists who visit the Capitol every year, the facility is long overdue. People now form lines at the bottom of Capitol Hill and wait in the heat, cold and rain to sign up for tours. They then must trek up the hill to enter the building.
With the Capitol Visitor Center, located below ground between the Capitol and the Supreme Court, visits will begin in the vast Emancipation Hall filled with statues moved from the Capitol and a model of the Statue of Freedom that is perched above the Rotunda. The actual Capitol Dome looms overhead through skylights.
Dec. 2 is the 145th anniversary of the raising of the statue atop the Dome.
Before beginning tours of the Capitol itself, people can stroll through an exhibition hall with historic documents, artifacts and interactive computers, see shows in two theaters and eat at a 530-seat restaurant area. There are two gift shops and 26 public restrooms, compared with five inside the Capitol.
Among the artifacts are a letter from George Washington to the Continental Congress reporting the defeat of the British at Yorktown, Franklin Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech and John F. Kennedy's message to Congress proposing travel to the moon.
Also on view is the catafalque, the raised bier first built to support the casket of Abraham Lincoln and since used when presidents and military leaders have lain in state in the Rotunda.
The idea of the visitor center dates to the 1970s, and in 1991 Congress authorized funds for planning.
But momentum for the project did not come until 1998, when a mentally unstable man burst through the doors of the Capitol, killing two police officers. That impressed on lawmakers the need to move security stations for visitors away from the main building.
Security was also a key factor in the cost overruns. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress decided to add two tunnels, one for truck deliveries and one linking the Capitol with the Library of Congress, that could also serve as emergency evacuation routes.
Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers defended the center last week as "a treasure in itself" that would both enhance security and contribute to the experience of visiting the Capitol. "I don't think it's extravagant," he said. "We have built a building that's here to last another 215 years."
Changes were still taking place even as the opening approached. Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, balked at the budget because he said the center's exhibits ignored the nation's religious heritage.
To avoid further delays, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and top Republican Robert Bennett of Utah agreed in principle to several changes, including engraving "In God We Trust" in stone in a prominent place. The cost: an additional $150,000.