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Alex Villaseran "A Summer on Capitol Hill"

In addition to the usual pre-internship planning of securing a place to stay and stuffing three months of clothes into a suitcase, my preparations for this summer included an FBI background check and obtaining a federal security clearance. While others were heading to the beach to soak up the sun or hiking through mountain trails, I spent my summer hiking up Capitol Hill. As a curatorial intern for the Architect of the Capitol, I got to work alongside the curators and archivists responsible for the preservation and care of the architecture and art of the Capitol Building.

The summer months are intern season on the Hill. For twelve weeks, the basement tunnels and frescoed hallways of the Capitol building are bustling with college students from far-flung Congressional districts carrying trays of coffee and stacks of paperwork alongside harried staffers glued to their Blackberries. My first couple weeks on the Hill were spent hanging the artwork of Congressional Art Competition winners in the Canon tunnel. One winner is selected annually from each Congressional District, which meant that the curatorial staff and I hung over 400 pieces of artwork in total. Though the work was physically draining, the people watching opportunities in the Canon tunnel were fantastic. Connecting the Capitol building with Congressional offices, the underground tunnel was always crowded with Members rushing to meetings and constituent tour groups en route to the Rotunda. More than once, I spotted Paul Ryan, white earbuds in place, pushing past the sea of staffers.

I spent roughly half the week in the archives of the Architect of the Capitol, which is the depository for historic architectural and design plans, department correspondence, and paper artwork. While I worked on many typical archival projects like creating finding aids, scanning documents, and re-foldering, the materials and artifacts I was cataloguing were anything but typical. I would open interior design accession boxes to discover Ted Kennedy’s carpet samples, John Boehner’s furniture selections, and handwritten thank you notes from Joe Biden to the design staff. Other boxes and drawers held the original hand-drafted floor plans to the Senate chamber renovation, or declassified photos and plans of Project Casper, the bunker beneath the Greenbrier Hotel. In addition to being committed to historic preservation and conservation, the Architect of the Capitol also features a full-service in-house architecture and engineering firm, whose employees often frequented the archives to reference past renovations and historic construction documents when preparing to propose new projects on Capitol Hill.

When I wasn’t in the archives, I was working in the Curator’s office in the basement of the Capitol Building. Resembling a museum with its shelves of artifacts and walls covered in paintings, no two days in the office were ever exactly alike. While much of my time was spent reviewing Congressional Records and newspapers for mention of Architect of the Capitol projects, I also accompanied Dr. Barbara Wolanin, the Capitol curator, on tours she gave to special constituency groups, when we would visit rooms and corridors not open to the general public. Later in the summer, I got to climb on the scaffolding surrounding the Grant Memorial when the curatorial staff was reviewing the conservation work, and met with conservators restoring the gilding of the ornate Senate Reception Room just outside the Senate Chamber.

The Office of the Architect of the Capitol was instrumental in arranging special tours and lectures for their summer interns. On the interns’ tour, we broke into small groups and visited the President’s Room, where LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act, and the Senate chamber, where Orrin Hatch was speaking on the floor and Shelley Moore Capito was acting pro tempore. Other mini field trips included visits to the Capitol’s paint department, where master gilders and tromp l’oeil painters demonstrated their incredible artistic skills. We even got a hands-on lesson in gilding with real gold leaf.

My summer on Capitol Hill is memorable for, of course, the opportunities to be in spaces and rooms few others get to see, but more so for the opportunity to work with people who truly loved what they did. What struck me most about the environment of the Capitol was how friendly and outgoing everyone was. Staffers on the Hill were always genial, greeting me in the hallways, remembering my daily lunch order, and wishing me good luck with my studies when it came time for me to head back home. I mentioned this to a coworker in the curatorial office, who nodded and said, “We all wake up knowing that the day might not be easy. But we wake up knowing that we’re going to love the work that we do.” Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from working with the curators, archivists, and preservationists on Capitol Hill was that in order to do great work, you must love what you do. At the very least, I certainly loved spending my summer working with them.