A view from the West Campus viewpoint on the historic grounds of St. Elizabeths hospital, soon to be the new home for Homeland Security and other military installations.
A view from the West Campus viewpoint on the historic grounds of St. Elizabeths hospital, soon to be the new home for Homeland Security and other military installations.
The Washington Post
Correction to This Article
A photo caption with a June 4 Arts article incorrectly said that Pennsylvania Avenue was closed in front of the White House in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It was closed in 1995, as stated in the article.

Security and the Narrow View

By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

Concerns for the physical safety of people and buildings continue to permeate Washington's architectural atmosphere.

Actually, "pollute" is the more fitting verb.

The concerns, of course, are understandable. We are engaged in a global conflict of ambiguous dimensions, and have enemies whose stated aim is to bring down our nation. Every day, we encounter news of death and destruction wrought by suicide bombers. And memories of the attacks on American targets nearly five years ago do not dim.

Even so, our responses -- defined strictly in terms of physical measures designed to protect Washington's buildings and the people in them -- are vastly out of proportion.

It is impossible to state the cost in dollars, because such costs often are hidden behind other items in construction budgets (though based on visible evidence, it is fair to assume the amounts are high). Even more important, however, it is almost impossible to overstate the damage being done to the beauty and symbolism of the nation's capital. The open city becomes more fortified by the week.

Security is so much on the minds of today's decision-makers that it often overrides aesthetic values -- when they are considered at all. Heck, security often tramples on rationality and good sense.

Take, for instance, St. Elizabeths Hospital. It is about to undergo what can only be described as a terrible transformation.

St. Elizabeths is the 154-year-old institution that almost everybody knows as the final home of poet Ezra Pound, or as the present-day abode of prisoner John Hinckley, who attempted to kill President Ronald Reagan. Others know it as a place of pioneering research into the treatment and causes of mental illness.

Among folks who take pride in the nation's architecture, the St. E's campus is recognized as one of the finest repositories of mid-19th- to early-20th-century institutional architecture in the United States. Splendidly situated on the crest of the Anacostia ridge, the informal layout of buildings and grounds on the west side of Martin Luther King Avenue SE rightfully has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

What far too few people realize, however, is that St. E's -- the west campus, in particular -- is potentially one of the more significant places in the city, simply because it is where it is.

An open glade on a hill's edge there has long been known as the Point because from it, a visitor can experience an astonishing panorama of the capital.

In winter, when the leaves of the tall trees are down, the vista expands north to south from the campanile of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to the Masonic tower on the hill above Alexandria. Even in full-leafed spring and summer, the view of the low-rise city and its principal monuments is exhilarating.

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