Even in other states, there’s a connection to West Chester architecture.
Did you know that there is a tunnel that goes under the U.S. Capitol Building? I had heard rumors of this tunnel and attempted to get detailed information, only to be given a vague description of a subway only used by members of Congress. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to follow the footsteps of the leaders of our country through the private corridor underneath our nation’s most symbolic and architecturally impressive building.
A few weeks ago, this was my reality.
Only accessible to members of Congress and their staff, the tunnel system is used to move between the Capitol and Library of Congress securely and secretly. During a recent visit to The Hill on “official business” advocating for the travel industry, I was fortunate to score an escort from Congressman Dwight Evans’ office to take me through the tunnel, so I could make a meeting in the Russell Senate Office
Building on time. Lining the walls of the corridor was artwork submitted by schools across the nation. Midway through, we boarded a tram that took us to the end of the line, where we entered the heart of the Capitol building. Steephen, my escort, paused beneath a glass ceiling to point out the closest vantage point of the Statue of Freedom.
The statue is part of Thomas U. Walter’s design for the dome, approved in 1855, and it has crowned the cast iron dome since 1863. We continued on through private corridors until we reached the north wing, and I said farewell to Steephen.
Little did I know the connection between the U.S. Capitol and our hometown.
Upon returning to West Chester, I wanted to know about our own government buildings. In a previous life, I worked in the Annex of the Historic Courthouse, but only made it into the actual historic courtroom a handful of times. I always envisioned the trials and decisions that would cross the bench.
I reached out to Malcolm Johnstone, executive director of West Chester BID for some insight into the history of our town, and he shared some incredible information with me, including his own self-guided walking tour of Historic West Chester. Among the links Malcolm sent was a familiar name: Thomas U. Walter, the same guy that designed the dome of our nation’s Capitol Building.
Upon further reading, I learned that Walter designed West Chester Presbyterian Church, The Bank of Chester County, Horticultural Hall, Chester County Prison, and our very own Chester County Courthouse.
Even though it is not easy for the general public to experience the Capitol as I did, there are exclusive behind-the-scenes options that can be arranged if you know the right people. Access to the tunnel is limited, but getting a privately guided tour that shares secrets and takes you in where most tours pass, is possible.
Malcolm has spearheaded the movement to keep our local history alive and accessible to those who want to learn more about it. With a little bit of research and connecting, learning about our local history as near as West Chester and as far as Washington D.C. is something we all should do.