When author Dan Brown spoke about the underlying messages encrypted in the architecture of the US Capitol building in his novel The Lost Symbol, he wasn’t kidding. Many of his descriptions including the layout of the Capitol Building are accurate and more than a figment of Brown’s imagination. Public and private tours of the US Capitol bring this to light and give Lost Symbols a sense of reality.
On private tours with a Congressman’s aide, visitors are taken downstairs to the basement where George Washington’s tomb is encased. It is not really where the first President of the United States is buried but the tomb is meant to be a symbol of the cornerstone of the nation’s Capitol. References to the tomb are pertinent to Brown’s story. From the outside, the Capitol building may seem like a rectangular structure with a cone on top of it, but it’s actually built on a vertical line that runs from Washington’s tomb in the basement straight up to the Statute of Freedom on the top of the Capitol’s dome. This continuous line is reflective of a needle that threads through the center of the building. The invisible obelisk extends from Washington’s tomb in the basement to the Rotunda on the main floor, which again has pertinence to Brown’s story, and right up to the Statue of Freedom on the Capitol’s dome.
Branching off from the obelisk are the four quadrants of the Capitol, which is significant to the plot in Brown’s novel. Of course, before visitors can enter the Capitol building they must go through the metal detectors at the opening of the Visitor’s Center, which Brown provides a terse description of in his novel. The novel’s nemesis, Mal’akh, doesn’t take off his jacket before going through the metal detectors. It’s a minor flaw in the book, but Brown does accurately portray the roominess and lure of the Visitor’s Center’s atrium with its glass paneled skylight in Emancipation Hall allowing visitors a unique view of the Capitol building as they look up at the building. The Visitor’s Center is heavily lit, which Brown is not remiss is detailing. Its décor pervades a subtle extravagance with museum-like statues and thick neoclassical columns. The atrium is flanked by Emancipation Hall and Exhibition Hall. The exhibits in these halls contain a wide breadth of documents signed by past presidents, in addition to glass-encased models displaying the construction of the US Capitol along its gradual stages.
In the novel, Brown quickly moves from the Visitor’s Center to the National Statuary Hall, which is located on the main floor of the Capitol Building and separated from the Rotunda by a corridor that connects the two. The National Statuary Hall is where Brown’s main character, Robert Langdon, is deceived into thinking that he is scheduled to speak at a lecture. The hall is structured like an amphitheatre that harks back to the 1800’s. The chamber was once the meeting place for the members of the House of Representatives where they participated in deliberations. The dome-shaped ceiling affected the acoustics in the room so someone on one end of the chamber could hear the party on the corresponding side. Thus making the hearsay story about John Quincy Adams plausible as the dome ceiling enabled him to eavesdrop on the opposing party’s conversations while sitting on the opposite side of the chamber. Where Adams’ desk was situated is a plague that marks the spot where he listened in on his opponents conversations. Today, the chamber is no longer used by members of Congress but houses sculptures of important American figures, some of whom include Samuel Adams, Sequoyah, and Robert Fulton.
Following Brown’s novel, he takes his character Robert Langdon from the National Statuary Hall to the most publicized part of the Capitol Building, the Rotunda. The mammoth sized dome ceiling is overwhelming as well as the humongous eight oil paintings that decorate the walls of the chamber. Brown briefly mentions the oil paintings which portray eight significant events that formed America. The earliest ones being: The Baptism Of Pocahontas by John Gadsby Chapman with Pocahontas garbed in a white gown and being the only woman visible in the eight paintings, Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America in The Landing of Columbus by John Vanderlyn, The Embarkation of the Pilgrims by Robert Walter Weir displaying the Pilgrims landing in Plymouth, and John Trumbull’s representation of the Continental Congress in the Declaration of Independence. The figures in the paintings are all shown in action and dominated by earthy tones.
A significant aspect about the Rotunda which Brown doesn’t mention in his novel are the 19 panels that adorn the middle rim of the dome entitled the Frieze of American History, and the parapet which allows people to walk along the perimeter of the dome. It’s an arena that is only accessible by special invitation. The panels lead up to the gigantic fresco The Apotheosis of Washington made by Constantino Brumidi. It is situated at the apex of the dome in the Rotunda. This artwork is central to Brown’s novel whose main character, Robert Langdon discovers his friend’s severed hand in the Rotunda with the index finger positioned upward towards The Apotheosis of Washington. Langdon must decipher the riddles behind the fresco in order to figure out what his nemesis Mal’akh wants from him. The fresco is an allegory that depicts George Washington as a god-like figure flanked by the Roman goddesses of Victory and Liberty. From the floor of the Rotunda, the images on the fresco are very difficult to make out, but it still stimulates the mind nonetheless with its swirling colors and striking frame.
In The Lost Symbol, Brown broaches the secret chambers entombed in the basement of the US Capitol designated for the individual members of Congress. Although tours are not permitted into the subterranean level of the building, the history behind the upper floors are immortalized in Brown’s book including the Old Supreme Court Chamber and the present-day chamber for the House of Representatives. Brown mentions the House of Representatives chamber where C-Span cameras are located on the upper tier to tape the convening committees. There are doors on both sides of the dais where representatives are interviewed by members of the media in an anteroom.
Brown’s novel touches on the impressiveness of the US Capitol Building as every aspect of the structure reveals a historical fact about America, many of which have been buried over the years and have been exhumed in Dan Brown’s book. Walking along the Capitol’s invisible obelisk allows visitors to enter the mindset of the building’s architects and make connections that can only be awakened by experiencing the US Capitol Building for oneself. Brown’s The Lost Symbol inspires readers to find symbols that are right in front of them, displayed in the entails of the US Capitol.