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Anyone who has taken a ride on Washington’s Metro subway line knows that when it comes to making capital improvements in the nation’s capital, Congress will spare no expense.

The new Capitol Visitor Center, officially opened to the public yesterday, is no exception.

Conceived in 2000 as a modest, secure underground greeting center for tourists visiting the Capitol Building, the project mushroomed into a palatial 580,000-square-foot facility that took twice as long to build at nearly twice the cost of the original estimates.

The final price tag for the Visitor Center came in at $681 million. This includes a 20,000-square-foot, marble-floored plaza with a collection of statues including a gold-embossed representation of Kamehameha, the Hawaiian warrior king.

Also memorialized is astronaut John L. Swigert, who didn’t quite make it to the surface of the moon on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission but later was elected to be one of Colorado’s representatives in Congress. Swigert was a last-minute replacement for command module pilot Ken Mattingly, who was told he had the measles. Mattingly never got sick, but he did play a pivotal role in Houston helping the Apollo 13 crew keep their crippled spacecraft functioning long enough to return to Earth. Gary Sinise played him in the movie, while Kevin Bacon portrayed Swigert, which probably means there is now six degrees of separation between the new Capitol Visitor Center and every actor in Hollywood.

The expansive lobby of the Visitor Center has been given the name Emancipation Hall. Its centerpiece is a 19-foot-tall plaster model of the bronze Statue of Freedom that was placed at the top of the Capitol dome 145 years ago. The plaster replica stands at the entrance to a 16,500-square-foot exhibition glorifying the history of Congress and the Capitol. The Capitol dome is visible through a skylight in the underground Visitor Center.

According to officials, enhanced security requirements enacted after the September 11 attacks in 2001 significantly increased the size and scope of the project. Even before 9/11, security at the Capitol moved front and center in 1998 when a deranged gunman walked through the front doors and began shooting.

Also adding to the cost was a requirement that architects preserve Frederick Law Olmstead’s 1874 landscaping for the Capitol, which mandated that the Visitor Center be constructed underground. Comparisons have been drawn to the tourist entrance for the famous Louvre museum in Paris, which also is underground and is topped by a controversial glass pyramid.

Tourists will now be required to enter the Capitol through the Visitor Center, which has doubled the footprint of the building. More than three million visitors are anticipated in the first year of operation. Here are some fast facts for statistics junkies: the new center has 26 bathrooms, a restaurant with 530 seats, and about 4,000 people can fit into the lobby at the same time.

We assume the seating in the restaurant was capped at 530 so that at least six members of Congress would be available for a quorum call at all times.

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