WASHINGTON -- Fresno resident Rafael Diaz looks around the new Capitol Visitor Center and thinks he's got his money's worth, all $621 million of it.
The floors are polished. The sun beams through the skylights. Every statue is in its place, inviting questions like: Who the heck is that? Red-jacketed tour guides stand ready with answers.
"From what we've seen, it's worth it," Diaz said.
Not everyone thinks so.
But like it or loathe it, the underground visitors center first conceived in the 1970s is now a Capitol Hill fixture. The three-level, 580,000-square-foot facility opened Tuesday following years of delay, controversy and cost overruns.
Even its ceremonial opening day could not escape some scorn, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid drew raised eyebrows for his observation about why the air-conditioned center was better than making visitors wait outside for their tours.
"In the summertime, because of the high humidity, and how hot it gets here, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol," Reid declared Tuesday.
Then again, awkward words, blown budgets and missed deadlines tend to be forgotten when the building itself works. And, for now at least, the Capitol Visitor Center seems to be working for the taxpayers who bought it.
By Thursday morning, when Diaz and his family became the first San Joaquin Valley tourists to enter, the fact that the visitors center opened four years late and hundreds of millions of dollars beyond original cost estimates seemed almost beside the point.
Now, every one of the 3 million tourists who enter the Capitol annually will be following the same path as the one taken by the Diaz family Thursday morning. It begins aboveground, in awestruck view of the Capitol itself.
"Look at how beautiful it is," Rafael's wife, Maria, exclaims, looking up at the Capitol's iconic white dome. "It actually looks more pretty than it does on TV."
By chance, Rafael and Maria Diaz, along with her sister Rosa, brother-in-law Andreas and a few other extended family members, are the first Valley residents to tour the new visitors center.
Rafael works in a foundry in Visalia, and Maria is a translator with the Fresno Unified School District. Maria's niece is getting married in the area on Saturday, so the family's first D.C. visit just happened to coincide with the center's opening.
They are accompanied, for a time, by staffers of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, who are eager to get their own first glimpses of the visitors center.
The Diaz family entourage walks down the steps from the Capitol's East Front Plaza, which separates the Capitol from the Library of Congress. The Capitol disappears from view. The visitors are now below grade, entering the space created when workers excavated 600,000 cubic yards of soil and rubble.
Once through security, the Diaz family is overlooking Emancipation Hall -- so named to honor the slaves who helped build the original Capitol. The Hall is capacious, enlivened by skylights. Statues of historic personages from each state, unable to fit into the Capitol's more famous Statuary Hall, populate the room.
Beyond Emancipation Hall, too, the place is loaded: 26 restrooms, two gift shops, a 550-seat cafeteria and lots of congressional office space.
"It's fabulous," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. "It's a really remarkable asset for the American people."
Cardoza's praise is telling. Two years ago, Cardoza and other fiscal hawks awarded the still-unfinished visitors center a mocking "Golden Drain Award." As in: money down the drain. Now, while groups like Citizens Against Government Waste still shout "boondoggle," Cardoza said the center has become a fine addition to the Capitol.
The Diaz family must wait 20 minutes or so for an orientation movie. In line, the building's magic fades a little. Then the wait is done, and inside one of the center's two stadium-style theaters the Diaz family sees a 13-minute movie about the Capitol. One scene shows Cardoza rushing on the House floor to cast a late vote.
"It's very informative," Maria Diaz says. "It gives a lot of information you need to know, on how they make their decisions."
The Diaz family exits the movie, and they come into another remarkable place, only instead of very new it is very old. They have, at last, entered the U.S. Capitol itself, the place that matters. And then the prelude is done and the real tour begins.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008