One of the perks of being a Senate staffer is that my badge allows me to go anywhere in the Capitol other than areas identified as “Senators only” or “Members only.” Thus I blithely ignore the signs reading “Authorized Personnel Only,” or “Corridor Closed.” It is obvious that my family has bought into this privilege as well. During their recent visit, we had just entered the Capitol Visitors Center coming from the Senate Office Buildings, and I was explaining that we had the ability to pass back through the “Authorized Personnel Only” door. A young woman who had brought through a group behind us called out, “You have to have an escort!” One of the Darling Daughters pointed at me and said, “She’s our escort!” I was proud of the DD for omitting the “idiot” part of the comment; there’s no way we could have come through the door in the first place without someone having a staff badge. I suspected the young woman was a green-badged intern so my blue staff badge outranked her, and thus she was beneath my notice.
While I retain my staff badge, I thought I’d share a short tour of the parts of the Capitol that most people never see. For this post, I’ll focus on everything underground or “beneath the surface,” and we’ll start in the Crypt, which our only stop from the regular tour.
Part of the original Capitol building, the circular Crypt is built of the rough unpainted sandstone that characterizes the oldest corridors. The forest of sandstone columns in the Crypt supports the massive weight of the Rotunda and Dome above. In the center of the Crypt, a white marble star is inlaid into the floor marking the center of Washington DC where the four quadrants (NW, NE, SW, and SE) all come together. I’ll take a moment to point out that the center of DC is in the Legislative branch of the government, just in case you didn’t notice. The Crypt got its name because the original intention was for George Washington to be buried directly beneath the star. His wife, Martha, was not particularly pleased with this concept, and eventually Congress gave up on that bright idea and both George and Martha are buried at their home, Mount Vernon.
I’m not sure how I expected Washington’s remains would be placed beneath the star. I think my brain mentally opened up a space in the solid rock, but it turns out that the real configuration is much more interesting. On a recent exploring trip, one of the other staff in our office navigated us to the space in the basement directly beneath the marble star from the Crypt above, and it all made much more sense that there was a nice chamber and a wrought iron gate to allow visitors to look but not touch. Since the space was never used for its original intention, it seems to have stayed empty for many years until President Lincoln died. It was decided that Lincoln would lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, and a catafalque was hastily assembled to support Lincoln’s casket. (My best translation of catafalque is “fancy box on which to rest a casket.”) The catafalque became an important historical object, and it has become tradition to use it to support caskets for someone who is lying in state. It has been used twice during my time on the Hill; once for Senator Inouye and once for Senator Lautenberg. For many years, the catafalque occupied Washington’s intended tomb, but more recently it has been on display in the Capitol Visitors Center.
One of the perks enjoyed by Senators is that each one has a hideaway somewhere in the Capitol. These rooms may be as fancy as Senator Harkin’s space in the former Library of Congress with a share of the Rotunda balcony or may be as humble as a tiny room with space only for a couch, chair, and desk. They can be used for private meetings or when Senators do not want to walk all the way back to their offices, especially between votes. I decided that I was determined to see my Senator’s hideaway, so my fellow Bennet Fellow and I enlisted the support of the Senator’s driver and we set off. (No, we didn’t drive. The Senator’s driver makes sure that the Senator is in the right place at the right time, so the driver both knew how to get to the hideaway and had the key.) Hideaways, like offices, are chosen based on seniority, so many Senators chose new hideaways at the start of this Congress. Apparently our Senator’s new hideaway represented a significant upgrade, and it was surprisingly large and comfortable.
My Beloved Husband has been particularly fascinated with what he refers to as the soft underbelly of the Capitol. These are the areas that most visitors never get to see, so they are less polished and seem to represent all the behind-the-scenes contributions to the job of the government. The rest of our tour will highlight those areas.
Years ago when the Senators and Representatives decided that their desks did not provide enough work space, office buildings were built on either side of Capitol Hill for the Members. Even before the advent of modern security scanning and the resulting delays, the architects decided that connecting the office buildings to the Capitol via underground tunnels would facilitate the Members shuttling back and forth from office to chamber floor, especially in inclement weather. The tunnels to the Senate side have always featured some form of assisted transportation. In the early years, cars referred to as the “chariots of democracy” were available to drive the Senators back and forth. The cars were replaced by a train system, and when a second and third office building was added, a second tunnel and train system was built as well. The ride through the Russell tunnel takes all of maybe 45 seconds, but for older Senators and especially for all Senators when dashing to votes, the trolleys speed up the transit time. Besides, they are incredibly fun. A common meeting point for the Fellows has been where the trains converge on the Capitol side, and that spot is also becoming quite popular for the Press to have a short conversation with the Senators as they come back and forth.
The subject of another Fellows’ quest was to find the legendary marble bathtubs that are tucked away in a mechanical room at the end of several twisting halls. These tubs, carved of single blocks of Carrera marble, were installed to promote the new trend for bathing, and the set up included fancy tiles on the floor and opulent towels. The tubs on the House side have long since been removed, but the one on the Senate side is visited by staffers who know the story and who have found someone to show them the way.
The softest part of the underbelly is the east hallway through the basement, which one of the Capitol tour guides showed me via the secret passage on the House side. Through an innocuous-looking alcove, you walk beyond the ATM machine and see an opening on the right. Following that hallway around reveals a narrow stone staircase that leads down to the basement. It all has a very clandestine feeling to it. Once in the basement it is possible to access the tunnel to the Longworth and Cannon House Office Buildings or to traverse the Capitol in the direction of the Senate side. I usually return to the Senate by this corridor.
There are two landmarks on this route. The first is a pair of panels where the floor has obviously been dug up and then repaired. My guide informed me that although there is a plaque in one of the Senate corridors stating that the cornerstone of the Capitol lies beneath it, that location is incorrect. The Southeastern corner of the foundation was not the foundation of the original chamber shared by the Senate, House, Supreme Court and Library of Congress since the foundation for the entire original block was constructed at the same time. At some point, the Architect of the Capitol discovered that someone had been doing some illicit digging under our basement spot, and as long as the area was already opened up, they did some exploring. They located the hexagonal white cornerstone described in the official records of the construction, so it is actually under that unassuming spot that the cornerstone lies.
The second landmark in the basement hallway is a glassed-off area where the original foundation wall of the Capitol is visible. It was built by piling stones and then pouring in mortar, so it looks quite unimpressive and of somewhat questionable integrity, but it has done the job for nearly 200 years, so I assume that it is stable.
One of my proudest accomplishments in navigation has been learning the triple tunnel route from the Russell Senate Office Building to the Madison building of the Library of Congress (LOC). The first segment to the Capitol via the trains is easy, and it wasn’t too difficult to find the passage from the Capitol Visitors’ Center to the Jefferson LOC. That route is well-used by visitors, so it has nice marble and is decorated with images of the LOC architecture and collections. I do enjoy going through that tunnel since my explorations have made me familiar with the original perspectives in most of the images.
The third tunnel is the major challenge, not least because the sweet ladies at the information desk seem very reluctant to give those directions, even to a staff member. I learned the route during the winter when I needed to run back and forth very quickly. The ladies encouraged me to go outside because it was easier, but I explained that not only did I not want to have to pass through security again, since my experience is that the process is particularly slow at the LOC entrances, but I also didn’t want to take a coat. To other people, I describe the connection as popping up in the Jefferson Building, spinning around three times, clicking my heels together saying, “There’s no place like the Madison Building,” and then diving down into the next tunnel (which happens to be right behind those sweet ladies at the information desk!)
It is in this staff tunnel and in the Capitol basement tunnel that the massive infrastructure required to run the Capitol and the LOC is apparent. The ceilings are characterized by huge trays of cables in a bewildering array of colors and textures. My BH particularly loves walking these routes that even many staff don’t know how to navigate.
I will certainly miss my badge and being able to explore all of the hidden underground gems of the Capitol, but I can’t complain about taking advantage of that privilege while I’ve been here.