National Visitor Center
The National Visitor Center was an ill-fated attempt to repurpose Washington, D.C.'s Union Station as an information center for tourists visiting the United States Capitol and other Washington attractions. It opened for the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, but it never was able to attract enough crowds to sustain its operating costs, and it closed in 1978.
Conception and construction
As American railroad travel declined in the years after World War II, Union Station fell into financial and physical disrepair, losing much of its former glory as "one of Washington's grandest public spaces" and leading to discussion of alternative uses for the building. In 1958, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) and the Pennsylvania Railroad considered giving away the station or tearing it down and replacing it with an office building. In the early 1960s, government proposals for turning the station into a cultural center or railroad museum were rejected.
In 1967, the chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission expressed interest in using Union Station as a visitor center during the upcoming U.S. Bicentennial celebrations. The notion found a strong supporter in U.S. Representative Kenneth J. Gray. In 1968, Congress passed the National Visitor Center Facilities Act toward this end. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law to create a "central clearinghouse where a visitor can gather information about our many monuments, museums, and Government buildings". On March 12, 1968, the center was authorized into the hands of the National Park Service.
Funding for this was collected over the next six years, but progress was slowed by lawsuits, issues with contracts, and battles among Amtrak and the other railroads involved, Congress, the National Park Service, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Transportation. Construction began in May 1974, and was rushed due to being behind schedule.
Reconstruction of the station included outfitting the famous Main Hall, with its 90-foot ceilings, with a recessed pit to display "Welcome to Washington", an expensive slide show presentation. This was officially the PAVE - the Primary Audio-Visual Experience, produced by the joint output of 100 Kodak Carousel slide projectors behind 100 screens, but was sarcastically referred to as “the Pit”.
Opening and quick decline
Time did not help; due to a lack of publicity and convenient parking, the National Visitor Center was never popular. To some, the problem was more basic; Senator Daniel Moynihan said, "What is the point of looking at slides of the U.S. Capitol when you can walk out the front door and see it?" By May 1978, the parking garage was still only half complete. On some days there were only a few dozen tourists who used the center. Two 175-seat movie theaters in the center played the film "Washington, City Out of Wilderness" to small handfuls of people. Total National Park Service expenditures for the National Visitor Center eventually ran to over $100 million, and some 20 congressional hearings were held about the project. The Pit, whose slide show was by now frequently turned off, became emblematic of the whole center's failure.
The lack of crowds meant the center could not sustain its operation. Following a 1977 General Accounting Office report indicating Union Station was in danger of imminent structural collapse, the National Park Service closed the presentation in “the Pit” on October 28, 1978.
Union Station afterward
With the visitor center closed, the physical condition of the structure got worse. Parts of the roof collapsed and rain damage ensued, toadstools grew inside the main hall, and the whole station was sealed shut in 1981. Congress decided to save it by act, and control over the entity was transferred from the National Park Service to the Department of Transportation on December 29, 1981. Contractors soon covered over the unloved Pit, completed and expanded the unfinished parking garage, and refurbished the basement movie theaters. Union Station was eventually restored, expanded, and viably reopened in 1988 as both a busy train station and a popular commercial retail area.
In retrospect, the National Visitor Center was viewed as a classic case of "federal tinkering" gone bad, "one of Washington's major embarrassments" and an idea that "failed miserably ... [and] closed in disgrace". Along with the new parking garage, one National Park Service historian later wrote sardonically that the primary legacy of the National Visitor Center was "100 surplus Carousels".
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