Travel + Leisure

April 2004, Travel + Leisure

A Capital Offense?

New security measures may protect our monuments, but they may also be turning Washington, D.C., into a city under siege.

Surely this was not what Pierre Charles L’Enfant intended when the Frenchman proclaimed that he would create an American capital “worthy of a great republic.” Raw concrete barricades now mar the vista between the Ellipse (in back of the White House) and the Mall beyond. Security huts have mushroomed at other key points. Still more barriers are being hastily erected in front of various federal agencies around town. Washington architect Arthur Cotton Moore bemoans the new security infrastructure as a “trashing of the city.”

Few would dispute that increased security is necessary. The fortification of Washington began after the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal courthouse in 1995, and intensified following the 1998 terrorist strikes on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Then came September 11 and the attack on the Pentagon. Suddenly, the need for a permanent security apparatus inside the capital’s core gained new urgency.

These measures—which could permanently alter images that occupy a central place in the American consciousness—have sparked a lively debate over how best to preserve Washington’s iconic cityscape without compromising security needs. The city’s aesthetic watchdog, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), a government advisory panel, are struggling to mitigate the visual impact of the security steps. The NCPC has drawn up its own schemes, arguing that the current ones “communicate fear and retrenchment, and undermine the basic premises of an open and democratic society.” Even the conservative Weekly Standard recently commented that “the Capitol and Washington Monument visitor center designs read as unwitting memorials to Timothy McVeigh and Al Qaeda.” But the Secretary for the Commission of Fine Arts, Charles Atherton, acknowledges that obsessing over appearances may be risky. “We’ll be the first hung in effigy if anything ever happens,” he admits. “They’ll say, ‘We told you so.'”

A hole 60 feet deep and the area of five football fields has been dug outside the federal legislature’s eastern façade. One of the planes hijacked on September 11 is believed to have been headed for the Capitol, and the hole is the first stage in a plan to safeguard against such attacks. Within this cavernous gulf, hundreds of workers scurry to construct an underground visitors’ center that will also provide a place of refuge for lawmakers in the event of a crisis. The three-level center will house exhibition spaces and auditoriums, but primarily it will serve as a screening point for the 3 million to 4 million people who tour the building each year.

Designed by the corporate architectural firm of RTKL Associates and due to be completed by spring 2006, this project is the largest expansion of the Capitol since it was built, more than 200 years ago. Critics contend that it will spoil the Capitol’s 19th-century landscape plan, drawn up by architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also co-designed New York’s Central Park.

The center is expected to cost $421 million, nearly twice the estimate given in 1999 when the plans were first approved, following the murder of two guards by a deranged gunman. An additional $38 million worth of security features was added after 9/11, including elements to help thwart a chemical or biological weapons assault on Congress. Some legislators have started to balk at the escalating price tag. “No one is better at throwing money into an endless pit than the U.S. Congress, and this time we’re doing it in our own front yard,” says Rep. Joel Hefley, a Colorado Republican.

More digging is expected near the White House. For some time after 9/11, the executive mansion was closed to the public, although tours have now resumed. A plan was put forward to funnel visitors in and out of the historic residence through an underground tunnel. This subterranean passage, which authorities prefer to call an underground corridor, would link the mansion with a White House Education Center in a nearby building. Pains will be taken to make the tunnel’s interior resemble that of the stately presidential home.

Another sort of cosmetic action is in the offing in front of the White House, which is protected by unsightly concrete barriers. In the past few years the barriers have been dressed up somewhat, but Washington Post architecture critic Benjamin Forgey likens the scene to a “prettified Maginot Line.” Understandably, many people now avoid that stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, which was closed to vehicular traffic in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing.

In early 2003, as the United States went to war in Iraq, the Secret Service restricted pedestrian access as well. Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh is redesigning these key blocks to make them not only secure but also inviting and dignified, by using discreet bollards, granite paving, and allées.

Until recently, the National Park Service had wanted to require visitors to enter the Washington Monument through a 500-foot-long tunnel leading into the basement. The NCPC approved the plan, but Congress scrapped the funding last October, after the project was widely criticized. Opponents argued that the monument was designed to be entered through its base and that the proposed tunnel would be not only inhospitable but also a security risk.

For the time being, the Park Service continues screening visitors at a temporary facility just east of the structure and the monument remains surrounded by makeshift plywood walls, while the Park Service begins construction of new pathways and a series of low stone walls, designed by Laurie Olin. Her scheme is meant to prevent vehicles laden with explosives from getting within 400 feet of the monument, which is currently guarded by a ring of concrete Jersey barriers; critics object that the low-slung walls will make the soaring obelisk look as if it were sitting atop a giant cupcake.

Security considerations are also behind a secretive construction project at the official residence of Vice President Richard Cheney on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in northwest Washington. In recent months, loud blasts—often in the middle of the night—have made the entire neighborhood quake. Residents say they assume a bunker is being built, but the government has kept a tight lid on the project so far. According to a letter from the observatory’s superintendent printed in the Washington Post, the construction is related to “national security and homeland defense.”

A nonprofit preservationist group, the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, warns that all the barriers “reflect fear, not the optimism inherent in a democracy.” The coalition’s president, art historian Judy Scott Feldman, sees a kind of hysteria at work. Her group argues that more should be done to integrate security needs into existing designs and to allow the public access. “The Secret Service and the Park Service think in terms of the worst-case scenario,” Feldman says. “Our capital was designed as a symbol of democratic government and the openness of our society. The security measures have a symbolism that becomes oppressive.”

The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued a similar warning as long ago as 1999. “The task is to keep our nerve in the face of obvious but scarcely overwhelming threat,” he said in an interview about heightened security at federal structures. “We begin to look as if we are afraid, and we ought not.”