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.
The center also featured two 175-seat movie theaters, multilingual information desks, an exhibit on first ladies, a Hall of States and a bookstore.
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.
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". 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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