If you're visiting Washington D.C., there's no doubt that a tour of the U.S. Capitol is on your itinerary. Perhaps you've contacted your Senator or Representative in advance to secure a reservation - which I highly suggest because you get to skip an often long line.  Or maybe you don't mind the wait for tickets in the daily public tour line so your agenda can be more flexible.  Either way, your tour will start out with a film, after which a red-coated guide takes you to the Rotunda, the crypt, and the old meeting room for the House with its less than ideal acoustics.  If they are open, you may also be taken to the Old Senate Chamber and the Old Supreme Court room.

While seeing these rooms is impressive and not to be missed, having been on the tour before with red coat guides and with interns from the offices of Representatives, I definitely know when fun facts and locations are omitted.  So, after the tour, I approached the guide with my visiting family members to see if we could somehow gain access to the Rotunda so I could show my cousin the piece of the Berlin Wall that is on the base of the Reagan statue, as well as take a peek into the Supreme Court room that was skipped on our tour.  Little did I know that we were about to get an hour-long private tour of both the Senate and the House wings! Thankfully Congress was not in session, otherwise this would not have been an option.  I can safely say that I have never been in the Senate wing before because I would certainly remember the gorgeous details - from floor to ceiling.  Every turn was a new visual adventure!

Here's where I have to stop and thank my cousin for allowing me to use her photos on this post since I did not have the good sense to bring my own camera, thinking this would be just another ordinary Capitol tour.  I did get some decent shots with my new phone, though...

Many of the rooms on the Senate wing are decorated with hand painted landscapes, medallions, murals, and friezes by Italian artist, Constantino Brumidi.  Arriving in the United States in 1852, he started painting the U.S. Capitol interior in 1855 and continued until his death in 1880.  While Brumidi designed all of the artwork, he did have a team of painters who assisted him with the actual painting. Over time, Brumidi's work was slowly hidden under layers of paint, dirt, and varnish from subsequent redecoration of the Senate walls.  A restoration project is currently underway that is, thankfully, returning the rooms to their 19th century beauty.  

The landscape medallions in the Senate Reception Room are all inspired by the Pacific Railroad congressional report, published between 1855 and 1861, proposing routes for the future transcontinental railroad.   Within the report were lithograph landscape scenes done by artists who traveled with the railroad surveyor party.  These scenes are great representations of the western United States before convenient transportation allowed for more rapid settlement.

And here is a bust of the man, himself - Constantino Brumidi.

When we finally made our way back across the Rotunda to the House wing, after the opulence of the Senate, it was a little disappointing with its black and white marble.  Don't get me wrong, it was still beautiful, especially the details on some of the iron stair railings, just less colorful.

If Brumini was the Senate's art highlight, the highlight of the House wing for me was this retro painting of the first African-American woman in Congress: Shirley A. Chisholm.  I love the pose she chose for her portrait that depicts her as a no nonsense leader ready to make a difference.

So, to sum it up...

  • Never assume you can't be surprised by something that you've seen many times before.  Every event is a new adventure.  
  • Try to see the U.S. Capitol when Congress is not in session, perhaps arranging a private tour with a Congressional intern just in case you aren't lucky enough to get a red coat guide like we did.  No, you won't see any activity on the floor, but you will see much, much more!  Watch CSPAN if you think you missed out on legislative events.  
  • If you can, book ahead with your Congressman or Congresswoman to skip the line.