Memoirs of a U.S. Capitol Tour Guide

A McLean resident remembers the summer job of a lifetime—before September 11.

GAME ON. I’m sitting on a bench under John Trumbull’s famous Declaration of Independence painting in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda when I receive my cue from the chief tour guide. He’s standing at the head of a line that stretches partway around the 96-foot-diameter room, through its massive doors and down the East Front steps as he counts out 50 sweaty, patient tourists.

I rise and position myself beside the white disk in the center of the Rotunda’s floor. As the visitors surround me, I’m resplendent in my official scarlet blazer and regulation navy-blue skirt that skims the knee. The year is 1982, long before the events of Sept. 11, subsequent shootings and building renovations will leave public access to these hallowed halls tightly restricted.

I’m 20, home for the summer from Indiana University, and enjoying what has to be one of the best seasonal jobs in Washington. I’m about to engage the group that surrounds me in a 45-minute guided tour through this landmark building and emblem of democracy, describing its art, architecture, and purpose in the country and in the world. I am a U.S. Capitol Tour Guide.

The House moved into new quarters in 1857, and the old chamber was given a new purpose in 1864 when it was designated as the National Statuary Hall. At that point, each state was invited to send two statues representing its most prominent citizens to display there.

Today, the statues that once filled Statuary Hall are dispersed throughout the Capitol. One of the more stunning (and heaviest) is now located in the underground U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, which opened in 2008. It depicts King Kamehameha I of Hawaii, whose June 11 birthday is annually commemorated by constituents with leis and hula dancing.

Most memorable to me, though, is the sculptural figure that presides above the entrance to Statuary Hall—a representation of Clio, the Greek mythological muse of history, on her chariot with a working clock as its wheel. Clio represents past, present and future as she oversees the millions of tourists, staff and members of Congress who pass through her portal, year after year.

The summers that I served as a guide—1982, ’83 and ’84—were, in many ways, the “golden years” of the Capitol Tour. During that time, access to the Rotunda, Statuary Hall, the congressional galleries and other areas of the Capitol was unrestricted, save for the metal detectors that visitors were required to pass through upon entering the galleries.  It was a time of innocence, both in terms of building security and in my relatively young life. Preppy culture had swept Washington, and our leisure hours were spent in Georgetown establishments where, decked in madras and pearls, we would dance the Carolina shag.

Those of us who were lucky enough to land jobs as tour guides were hired through the office of the Senate Sergeant at Arms. (A reference from a member of Congress was always helpful, and I had one from the House Minority Leader’s office.) Generally, summer guides served from mid-May through mid-August, brought in specifically to augment the permanent staff during high-volume tourist season. Most of my fellow student guides hailed from elite schools such as the University of Virginia, Georgetown, Stanford, Amherst and Yale.

Little did I know at the time that my experience as a guide would lay the groundwork for a lifelong career. I was a history-loving product of the Arlington and Fairfax County public school systems (Jamestown and Nottingham Elementary schools, Williamsburg Junior High and Langley High) and I settled back into Northern Virginia life after college.

In 1995, I took a job with the National Archives, where I still work today in the research support branch. Now, during my daily commute, I round the northeastern corner of the National Archives Building, where Robert Aitken’s statue of a seated, anthropomorphic Future is inscribed with the Shakespearean maxim, What Is Past Is Prologue.  

The highlight of my tenure as a Capitol tour guide came on the day I accompanied a group led by a member of Congress on a Capitol “Dome Tour.” We met at daybreak and resolutely climbed the catwalk that winds its way around the Great Rotunda. The steps were extremely narrow, and it was hard not to glance sideways at Constantino Brumidi’s fabulous Apotheosis of Washington, painted in the fresco style into the eye of the dome, depicting our first president rising to the heavens.  

Soon, we found ourselves stepping through a small door and onto the exterior balcony that rests just below the U.S. Capitol’s crowning Statue of Freedom. Gradually the light shifted over the National Mall, setting it awash in fingers of bright pink, silvery pearl and magnificent gold. It was an extraordinary experience.

The view, in fact, was immortal. And at 20, I thought I was too.

McLean resident Alison M. Gavin received her M.A. in history from George Mason University in 2004. She was the 2003 E. Geoffrey and Elizabeth Thayer Verney Fellow with the Nantucket
Historical Association.

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