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.
St. E's never has been terribly accessible to the public, and has been shut down tight in recent years. The abandoned historic buildings of the west campus are going slowly to ruin behind boarded-up windows. Thus, this extraordinary view is not familiar to many outsiders.
But once you've seen it (as I did for the first time perhaps 20 years ago), you don't forget. From there, a viewer can get a true understanding of the ring of hills that frames downtown, as well as of the monumental core -- the famous "topographic bowl" that Pierre L'Enfant utilized so brilliantly in his plan for Washington 205 years ago.
Furthermore, it is a place of inestimable potential when admired from other sites in the city. Today, you have to know where to look. (Search for the two striped smokestacks that peek above the green ridge.) But, as foreseen several years ago by the National Capital Planning Commission in its Memorial and Museums Master Plan, the Point is an ideal location for a "large-scale, dramatic commemorative feature, to be appreciated from afar."
For years, politicians, planners and citizens have discussed ways to bring the city's "forgotten half," east of the Anacostia River, into focus. And this is the perfect place to make the point indelibly. Nothing too elaborate, mind you -- just an elegant marker we could all learn to love.
Alas, none of that will happen if the federal government, which owns the 176-acre west campus, continues with its plans. The basic proposal: to transform the west campus into a headquarters compound for the Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security.
Carrying out such plans would involve developing 4.5 million square feet -- a Pentagon-size allotment. Although most of the older buildings would be renovated as common facilities for eating and meeting, adding so many buildings would alter the bucolic character of the place -- and not for the better. And although federal planners emphasize the economic benefits to needy neighborhoods nearby, one has to wonder how much good such a self-enclosed compound would do.
But the worst aspects of the federal plans -- from the point of view of public access to the Point and its future as a symbol of Washington's unity -- are the proposed military-style security arrangements.
There would be no public access to the Point. Much of the compound would be surrounded by fences (incorporating the historic brick and stone wall along Martin Luther King Avenue), and buildings would be set back a minimum of 100 feet from the borders. (Or, if built within that line, they would be "hardened" to withstand explosives. In other words, they'd be bunkers, designed to look sort of normal.)
As a sop to the public, the plans show a public viewing point about halfway up the hill, to which visitors would climb by foot. Without substantial cutting, the second-rate view from this non-point would be blocked by trees. Fundamentally, this is an outrage, and we shouldn't stand for it.
There is a whole lot, in fact, we shouldn't be standing for these days. Security consultants are riding high outside and inside the government. Security studies and guidelines abound. The process of providing physical security to our buildings predictably has become bureaucratized. We put up a fence or a row of bollards in one place, and suddenly everybody wants the same.
The Office of Personnel Management, for instance -- housed in the Theodore Roosevelt Building at 1900 E St. NW -- not too long ago devised an idea for a perimeter security system: Surround the building with an eight-foot-high fence.
Not quite so drastically, the General Services Administration has proposed a system of bollards and hardened benches to surround the Lafayette Building, on several busy downtown streets (L, H and 16th and Vermont Avenue NW). The building houses the Export-Import Bank and several bureaus of the Department of Veterans Affairs, though most local strollers know it because of the popular Loeb's New York Delicatessen at 15th and H.
Fortunately, such proposals are subject to review by the National Capital Planning Commission and the Commission of Fine Arts. The NCPC, in particular, is armed with its own 2002 National Capital Urban Design and Security Plan, giving the commission the muscle to curb excesses -- that eight-foot fence, for example, was turned down flat.
But the wrestling continues about those and many similar proposals at meetings of both agencies, neither of which has the power to just say no.
Yes, there have been design successes. The stone walls that oval the Washington Monument protect it from vehicle-delivered explosives, and yet lie lightly in the land. The stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House remains closed to traffic but, thanks largely to the NCPC, it is much more attractive and open than it was for almost a decade after President Bill Clinton shut it in 1995.
Those successes, though, are far outweighed by dramatic examples of fortification. The Capitol and its grounds are ringed by permanent bollards. The building's great west esplanade, with its nonpareil views of the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue, remains closed to the public. South of the White House, E Street -- an important crosstown connector -- stays firmly closed to traffic.
And here we are, thinking about turning St. Elizabeths, with its great potential, into a closed camp.
Security creep remains alive and well in our fair city, week by week making it less open and fair.