“Meet me at the Capitol South metro stop. That’s the only way I’m going to be able to let you in. I’ll be wearing a black coat.” That’s when I knew I had the appointment to visit the superintendent’s office at the United States Capitol. I laughed into the phone and told my potential client, “Well, I’m about five foot four and I’ll be wearing a black coat too.” As if we’ll recognize each other! Almost everyone wore black wool coats in the winter. In spite of the odds, the two of us actually found each other at the Capitol South stop.
After exchanging pleasantries, my contact pointed toward the glistening white dome and my heart jumped knowing my visit to the Capitol was a rare opportunity these days. He said, “Sorry we had to meet this way, but escorting you all the way in was the only way you could visit with me.” We walked past the guard and my contact waved to him. I reached for my ID and while he walked, he said out of the side of his mouth, “You won’t need that, you’re with me.” I looked at him with raised eyebrows and he said, “Look, I’m here practically eighteen hours a day. I was standing next to the guard when that crazy guy came in and started shooting at the guards. They trust me.”
We walked to the lower level into his “office.” The space was like working in a dank, dark basement. The ceilings were low and the pipes exposed. There was nothing glamorous about it. “This is where it all happens. I know it isn’t beautiful, but we’re renovating and we’re working inside history here.” At that point, a gentleman stuck his head in and asked a couple of engineering questions. This was typical for “facilities department discussions” and I felt at home.
It’s so interesting selling all across America and finding the similarities of my clients. Selling in the facilites business, my customers were responsible for the safety, comfort and efficiency of space in their particular businesses. Why would the U.S. Capitol be any different? Even the facilities team had to work in the basement. This is no glamorous job. Since many see the Capitol as the most important building, symbolically speaking, in the free world, the responsibility of maintaining and protecting the facility weighs heavily on everyone’s shoulders. My contact seems to take it in stride — like a soldier protecting his post. However, this post requires a significant amount of sense of pride and ownership. “I practically live here.” He goes on to say that he can take a break at any time — as long as he’s not needed. I realize that this is a rare opportunity to meet because he’s already had to reschedule this appointment two other times due to sudden minor “situations.”
Compared to the facility managers and superintendents I’ve known in Chicago over the years, this gentleman would be considered a “kid.” By the way he carried himself, it was apparent he earned his position. He told me, “I started here at 20-years old. I’ve loved every minute of it. I can’t imagine being anywhere else. It just wouldn’t compare.” Sitting in this musty, dirty basement, I would’ve begged to differ. I’ve been to some of the most beautiful buildings in the country and have met their facility and property managers. They all had amazing views of Chicago, LA, and San Francisco. However, in comparison, I could see the profound sense of pride in his eyes.
“Let’s leave your stuff here and we’ll take a little tour,” he says. I followed him down a basement corridor and as we passed people we practically had to turn sideways to let them through. “Hi ya,” they’d say. He would give me quick credentials on everyone we passed. “That guy has been here since President Carter.” We walked up the stairs and into the Capitol Rotunda area. The Architect of the Capitol’s website describes the Rotunda as “a large, domed, circular room located in the center of the Capitol on the second floor. It has been used for ceremonial functions, such as the unveiling of statues, inaugurations, and the lying in state of distinguished citizens. Its lower walls hold historic paintings, and a frescoed band,, or “frieze,” depicting significant events in American history rings its upper walls. The Rotunda canopy, a 4664-square-foot fresco painting entitled The Apotheosis of Washington, depicts the first President of the United States rising into the clouds in gl ory.”
My contact gave me his quick review of this massive structure. “You could fit the Statue of Liberty standing in here and it wouldn’t touch the ceiling.” I was astounded by the sense of history I felt. “There’s another 10 stories above the ceiling to get to the dome you see outside.”
I couldn’t help but ask, “Can you take me up there?”
“I wish,” he said.
He continued to show me around to his favorite spots and paintings. We walked past several blockades with signs stating something like, “Absolutely no one past this point.” I felt like a kid wandering the school halls without a pass. But, instead, it was a tour of the United States Capitol! Today, I love my job.
As we toured, he told me the Capitol is like a city. It has a hospital, stores, food and clothing for people to live there in “lock-down mode,” if necessary. Being in the business, I asked him about his furniture and he told me that they build it all themselves. He said, “This building is so historic that we are constantly in a state of repair here, so we have to maintain a full-time staff.” He then told me to look down at my feet. I did so and found myself standing on beautiful mosaic tiles. I later found out the floors are known as “Minton tile floors” and are renowned for their beauty. (See http://www.aoc.gov/cc/capitol/minton.cfm for more information). “Everyone gets lost in the Capitol because the building is a perfect mirror of itself. When people call me for directions, I ask them to describe the tiles beneath their feet and I know exactly where they’re standing, so I can give them exact directions.” He has such a pragmatic use for such a beautiful, historic floor.
The impact of this building is overwhelming. I can’t fathom the ultimate responsibility this gentleman and his fellow team members carry. As a contractor, I knew if I wanted his business, I would need to make an internal commitment to follow through and deliver no matter when I got the call. After the tour, we went back to his “office but before he entered, he said, “Check it out — this is what the caskets laid on when Presidents Kennedy and Lincoln laid in state at the Capitol.” The catafalque was enclosed in glass with a black drape laid across the top. “Pretty cool, huh?” (Government employees are people too. I keep having to remind myself of that.)
I thought of this light-hearted moment when watching President Reagan’s somber funeral the following year. That same afternoon, I was reminded of the seriousness of his job when the Capitol was evacuated due to a stray private airplane venturing into the Capitol’s restricted airspace. Thanks to this Unsung hero and his fellow teammates at the Architect of the Capitol superintendent’s office, America’s capitol remains beautiful and safe.
When you’re a contractor for the federal government, you’ll have opportunities of a lifetime – so take the tour!
Have you been to the Capitol since the visitors center has been restored? I had a chance to take my husband back to the Capitol Visitor Center as a tourist. All you need to do is reserve a ticket a couple of days in advance and you’ll be given a time to arrive. Of course you’ll have to go through a lot of security measures, but the Capitol Visitors Center website explains how you need to prepare. After our visit, I walked up to the security desk and they had an internal phone. I asked for my contact who had taken me on the tour and they were happy to connect me with him right away. It was an honor to tell him what a beautiful job his team did on the renovation. It is an incredible addition to anyone’s visit to DC. When we left the Capitol, I looked back at this majestic building and I saw some contractors working up on the dome with a ladder which couldn’t quite reach the top. I thought that was an interesting metaphor for contractors who don’t know how to play the game. They’re always close, but they can’t quite reach the “win” because they didn’t understand the scope of work, or they didn’t fill out the bid properly or they didn’t have the right partner. Hopefully, on the Federal Sales Sherpa Show here on Linked Local Network, we’ll help you with extending that ladder to the ultimate goal – a “winning” opportunity with the federal government.