- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2001

Special Report

On a recent cold, drizzly spring day, the rough consensus of the tourists standing in the two-hour-long line to get into the Capitol building is that there must be a better way. The visitors from Denmark and Switzerland, South Carolina and Bucks County, Pa., all agreed that waiting inside would be better.
And that is what Congress wants them to do, having recently given the green light to the initial steps to building an underground 588,000-square-foot, $265 million visitors center.
"The Capitol is one of the top 10 destinations in the United States, but we are among the worst of how we treat out visitors," Alan M. Hantman, the Capitols 10th architect, said in an interview in his office last week.
The project, which could be completed as early as the presidential inauguration in 2005, is intended to provide visitors with a more comfortable and more informative experience while increasing security for the building and its occupants.
But so far only $135 million for the project has been raised, $100 million of that appropriated by Congress. And like every other construction project attempted in the buildings 200-year life, this one comes with its own set of controversies. Some question what the center will really accomplish. Others complain of the parking that will be lost or the ancient trees that will be cut down.
The current system for tourists wanting to see the Capitol or sit in on a session of the House or the Senate is a simple one. Tourists form lines just inside the Capitol plaza on either side of East Capitol Street, one for guided tours, one for unguided tours. When they get to the head of the line, they walk the 200 feet across the asphalt parking lot and drive that forms the immediate eastern approach to the building. They walk up the buildings central staircase, through a security checkpoint and into the Rotunda.
In waiting, they endure snow and bitter winds in the winter, rain in the spring and fall. But summer is the worst. Hardly a day goes by in the dog days of July and August when someone doesnt pass out from the heat.
And when visitors get into the building, there are few places to sit, bathrooms are hard to find and often overcrowded, and the three restaurants open to the public are small and hidden in the buildings labrynthian corridors. While it has become a living museum, almost every change to its design has been with Congress, not visitors, in mind.
"There have never been adequate facilities," Mr. Hantman said.
Making matters worse, the number of visitors is only expected to grow.
Nearly 4 million will visit the building this year, Mr. Hantman said. During the peak season from March to August, up to 20,000 people a day will enter the building. And, beyond the lawmakers and staff working there, the building can only safely hold 2,200 at a time — making the waits even longer.
"We just had a record wait of 31/2 hours," Mr. Hantman said. "Fortunately, the weather was fine, but people will wait for hours in the snow, the rain, and the heat," he said.
The solution, he says, is a visitors center.

Plans reconsidered

The idea, or some variation of one, has been under consideration for decades.
For most of the Capitols life, the buildings front door has been the East Front. Whether they arrived by foot, by horse-drawn carriage, or by trolley, visitors came to the east side of the building. Inaugurations happened on the East Steps, not the west. And when the British stormed the Capitol to burn it, they came to the east.
The East Front is still the entrance, but it has become a service entrance.
Towering trees and green lawns remain on two-thirds of the eastern plaza, but the other third — the part closest to the building itself — has long since been given over to the automobile.
Lines designating parking spaces have come and gone. Four-foot diameter concrete "planters" have been placed around the perimeter to prevent a vehicle from crashing past guards and onto the plaza.
After a lawmaker recently ran over a tourists foot while driving across the asphalt portion of the plaza, cars werent banned, but white and yellow traffic lines were painted across the plaza and Capitol Police offices were told to keep people out of the way, making it clear that pedestrians are tolerated but not appreciated.
In 1960, the Capitols architect considered an underground parking lot for the eastern plaza, with the hope of landscaping the asphalt lot above. That idea was reiterated in the 1970s and 1980s in the "master plan," an outline of foreseeable changes to the Capitol and surrounding buildings in the future.
Then in 1991, Congress commissioned a plan for a visitors center, a final design for which was completed in 1995. But opposition to the cost — then estimated at $71 million — killed legislation to build what would have been a three-level, 446,000-square-foot tourist center underneath the eastern plaza. The plan sat on the shelf until July 1998.
Thats when a deranged man wallked into a staff entrance at the Capitols East Front, killed two police officers and barged his way into the offices of one of the Houses most powerful leaders. The incident left the Capitol stunned.
Within days senators, including Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, began pressuring their counterparts in the House to resurrect the visitors center plan.
Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican, was one of the few willing to buck the tide, saying he would not endorse the plan until someone could prove it was needed.
But House and Senate Republican and Democratic leaders side-stepped Mr. Thomas by wresting jurisdiction over the project from the House Administration Committee, which Mr. Thomas then chaired, giving it to the newly created Capitol Preservation Commission. Mr. Thomas was a member of that commission, but had only one vote.
Congress quickly appropriated the seed money to redesign the visitors center with safety in mind. And a year later, it appropriated $100 million to help defray the cost of building the redesigned center.
From a security standpoint, the center is ideal, proponents say. Former Capitol Police Chief Gary L. Albrecht said he supported the plan from the start.
Visitors will no longer walk directly into the Capitol to a security checkpoint shoehorned into a 200-year-old building. Instead they will walk down a gently sloping ramp into a below-grade entrance more than 300 feet from the Capitol. That entrance will be equipped with the most recent security technology and designed with the safety of the officers in mind.
When completed, the center will contain 588,000 square feet on three levels.
The outer perimeter of the excavation required will contain 196,000 square feet. The center will sit beneath the portion of the eastern plaza currently covered by asphalt.
Two-thirds of the eastern plaza is currently cut into three sections by roads that previously served as carriage paths. These sections include oval parks north and south called the "eggs" and a wedge between them that surrounds East Capitol Street.
The eggs will be left largely intact, but the wedge will be regraded and landscaped to form a down-sloping ramp into the center.
Critics note that about 175,000 square feet of the 588,000-square-foot space, or about one-third, will not be used for visitors but will instead remain as unfinished empty space to be used in the future by the House and Senate.

A meaningful experience

The center will include space for exhibits, restaurants, restrooms, theaters, and telephones. Following the example of the White House and Holocaust Museum, visitors will likely be issued a timed ticket for entrance to the Capitol itself, and will enter via the rotunda.
The centers exhibits are being designed by Ralph Applebaum, who also designed the exhibits for the Holocaust Museum. The Smithsonian Institution, National Archives, and Library of Congress are all working together to discuss themes for the exhibits, Mr. Hantman said.
The goal, Mr. Hantman said, is to provide a more meaningful experience than what many go through now: following an umbrella-wielding tour guide fruitlessly trying to be heard over the next group. Tour guides would still lead visitors through the Capitol, but the hope is that the exhibits would contribute to and enhance the tours.
The project will also provide underground vehicle access to the Capitol, loading docks for trucks entering the eastern plaza via the underground tunnel from New Jersey Avenue, mechanical facilities, and storage. It will accommodate about 4,000 visitors at any given time, allowing about 1,500 people per hour to tour the central Capitol and another 700 per hour to visit the House and Senate galleries.
The facility will be built from the top down. Before any major excavation begins, a perimeter slurry wall, foundations, columns and roof for the upper level will be built. Once the roof is in place, the dirt beneath can be mined to make room for the lower levels.
Top-down construction allows the slurry wall and roof to stablize the existing building during construction. It also means people could start using the eastern plaza again in about two years, instead of four.
Mr. Hantman said the center will be underground to minimize its visual impact on the Capitol building itself. The only sign of the center above ground will be the ramp leading to its below-grade entrance, and skylights in what will be a granite paved plaza.
"What were trying to do is solve the same problem the French had at the Louvre," where architect I.M. Pei built an underground expansion.
The hope is to maintain the feel of the plan established for the plazas 125 years ago by landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted. With skylights and fountains, Mr. Hantman hopes to give the now-asphalt covered third of the plaza a more human scale. And replacing asphalt with granite pavers will give the plaza a more finished look.
There is nothing to prevent lawmakers from continuing to use the plaza as a driveway, thoroughfare and parking lot.
But Mr. Hantman said he has been "very pleased and a little surprised" to hear lawmakers express sympathy to making the plaza more visitor-friendly and less overrun by cars.

Alternative solutions

Clarence Brown, a former congressman from Ohio, is one of those who is less than enthusiastic about the project. Mr. Brown, former president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Socieity, agrees that the Capitol is too crowded, but he disagrees with the solution.
The first role of the Capitol should be to provide a place for the deliberations of the nations legislative bodies. The second should be as a museum for the edification of visitors. And the third, Mr. Brown said, should be to provide room for lawmakers offices and the various administrative functions of Congress.
"They really come third," Mr. Brown said of his former colleagues.
Faced with the same overcrowding problem, some states have given up much of their capitol as a museum and moved their offices to outlying buildings, Mr. Brown said.
Mr. Hantman disagreed with that approach. He said the Capitols first architect, William Thornton, wanted the design of the building to reflect stability and purpose. To that end, Congress should use the Capitol as it has been used in the past, Mr. Hantman said.
"We need this not just as a museum but as a link between our past and our future," he said.
Mr. Brown countered that even if you dont turn over the building to tourists, creating a visitors center will only exacerbate the problem of crowding.
"They are going to attract more people to the Capitol with this Disney-like visitors center," Mr. Brown said.
And while there may be room in the visitors center, all those people will not fit in the Capitol building, leaving Congress the almost inevitable choice of rationing access.
If the visitors center becomes a surrogate for seeing the building itself, if C-SPAN becomes the proxy for actually watching elected representatives deliberate, Mr. Brown said, then "we will have lost something."

The sacrifices

What Congress will certainly lose is dozens of trees, many more than 100 years old.
From across the street, too far away to see the asphalt that immediately surrounds the building, the Capitols eastern plaza appears to remain largely unchanged from the plan envisioned by Mr. Olmsted in 1874: a graceful park filled with majestic trees and fringed by low-lying granite walls.
About a third of those trees stand in the wedges of lawn that flank East Capitol Street. Those places are where the entrance ramp to the visitors center will be dug.
In those wedges are 13 species of trees. Yoshino cherry, American linden, red-flowering dogwood, Japanese black pine, London planetree, and gingko can all be found here.
But the undisputed kings are the liriodendrum tulipifera, the tulip tree.
Mr. Olmsted planned a collonade of these, the most handsome of the eastern forest trees, along East Capitol Street.
In the woods, the tulip tree, also called yellow poplar, sends a mammoth-columned trunk to the canopy, topped by a relatively small tuft of limbs and leaves. But at the Capitol, where light is abundant, massive limbs climb their entire 100-foot-plus height.
These 100-year-old trees are leviathans, taller than all but the dome of the building itself. And most will get the ax when crews begin excavating to make the low-sloping entrance to the center.
Dull shock is how the news of their demise is greeted by most. Some, including those standing in the cold rain waiting to get into the Capitol, say the cost is too great.
"This is a grandiose scheme, it is way more than necessary," said Cheryl Arvidson, a senior writer at the Newseum. She is adamantly opposed to the destruction of the trees.
"This is one of the most beautiful, peaceful places in Washington," Mrs. Arvidson said.
But Peter May, project manager for the Architect of the Capitol, says time has already taken its toll on the arboreal arcade. Of the 34 tulip trees originally planted, only 16 remain, and those are already past their 100-year average life span.
Scott Aker, a horticulturist at the National Arboretum, says tulip trees can last hundreds of years, but just about every aspect of city living is hard on them and shortens their average life span.
Those trees that can be saved will be, Mr. May said.
One tulip tree, planted in 1978 from the seedling of Annapolis 400-year-old Liberty Tree, will be moved, Mr. May said. Other smaller trees will also be transplanted, and larger trees closer to First Street Northeast and Southeast will stay.
Still, most of the giants on East Capitol will fall.
Mrs. Arvidson counters that moving the 22-year-old tulip tree and others like it like will almost certainly kill them. She is equally dismissive of the argument that the tulip poplars are near death anyway.
She points to the Cameron Elm as an example.
In 1875, that elm, described at the time as ancient, stood in the way of a promenade planned by Mr. Olmsted on the House side of the Capitol.
One morning, Sen. Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania was appalled to see workers preparing to chop it down. He forced them to forestall their work, ran to the Senate and prevailed upon his colleagues to vote to have the venerable elm spared, according to an official history of the Capitol.
They did, and the tree still stands today.

A problem of funding

A less aesthetic — but equally important — problem for the center is money.
The total cost of the project is estimated at $265 million. Of this, $100 million has been appropriated and the balance is being sought through private fund raising under the direction of the Fund for the Capitol Visitor Center, a nonprofit organization created for the purpose.
So far, $35 million has been raised. A series of three commemorative coins — one gold, two silver — are expected to raise another $30 million, which still leaves the project $100 million short of its mark.
Part of the problem is that, unlike a museum, where a benefactors name might be featured prominently at an exhibit, Congress is unlikely to allow that in the visitors center.
The other part of the problem is that while voters might support the project, $200 million seems a little steep.
Greg Wozniak of Philadelphia, while waiting in the cold to see the Capitol, said he likes the idea of a visitors center but feels that the money should come from private donations.
"There has got to be some tradeoff," he said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide