Washington Monument Subtly Fortified

Preparing the grounds for the Fourth of July, workers do some last-minute landscaping at the Washington Monument, which has undergone a security overhaul.
Preparing the grounds for the Fourth of July, workers do some last-minute landscaping at the Washington Monument, which has undergone a security overhaul. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 1, 2005

For years, Jersey barriers, dump trucks and mud dominated. There were proposals for bollards, walls and even a moat. This holiday weekend, though, the nation's capital will get its first look at a monument permanently fortified against a terrorist attack on the Mall.

The defenses will not be obvious. Fourth of July revelers who stop to rest on curving, low-slung granite walls that encircle the Washington Monument will be sitting on a $15 million security project.

"If people look at it and say, 'Gee, it looks like it's always been here,' or if they say, 'Where is it? What did they do? I don't see anything,' then we did it right," said project manager Allan Spulecki, who was on the monument grounds yesterday, dodging front loaders, backhoes and tractors to inspect some last-minute touches on the work site.

The primary feature of the project is a series of interlocking rings of ash rose granite wall, standing just 30 inches above the ground. They reach deep enough into the ground and overlap at just the right points to stop an explosive-laden Humvee.

The walls are augmented by retractable posts that can be lowered for maintenance vehicles at four entrances. Atop the mound of earth that is the pedestal for the monument, solid benches of Georgia white marble surround the plaza. To lend some aesthetic beauty, lighting has been installed to better highlight the geometry and stones of the monument, Spulecki said.

The subtlety of the design is its triumph, said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, one of the groups that had to approve the design.

"Part of the issue in these security measures is a philosophical debate. This is supposed to be a free and open society. Do we want these precious monuments to look embattled?" Luebke asked. "The Washington Monument doesn't, and it's a tribute to the design of the project."

Gone is the haphazard ring of concrete Jersey barriers and the temporary screening trailer that embodied security precautions at the monument for nearly a decade, a hasty setup erected after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. That was a stopgap measure in a decades-long argument over development of the monument's grounds.

"It was an unfinished site before," Spulecki said. "The monument was just a hill, a mound of earth with a monument on top of it."

For years, federal officials agreed with Spulecki's assessment. But exactly what to do with the unmanicured mound was the subject of great debate.

The idea of an underground visitors center was introduced in 1966 and rehashed for years as lawmakers debated whether it was necessary, was dangerous or would compromise the stability of the 555-foot monument. Congressional budget constraints and security concerns buried the plan two years ago.

A new round of discussions centered on security as federal agencies were peppered with reports that the Mall's monuments were vulnerable to attack and that something had to be done.


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