On the Hill, a Heap of Trouble

The statue
The statue "Freedom," viewed from inside the still-unopened Capitol Visitor Center. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 27, 2007

The new Capitol Visitor Center, which may or may not open sometime in the middle of next year, has become our Long National Home Renovation Nightmare. Just read the congressional transcripts and remove about five zeros from the numbers.

Addressing a House committee last month, a representative of the Government Accountability Office said: "Because of inadequate communication and coordination, some above-ceiling fire protection equipment has to be inspected, even though the ceilings are already in place, risking damage to ceilings and additional work if the inspections reveal deficiencies."

In other words, the GAO, which has been called in to babysit a project that has ballooned from an estimated $265 million to about $600 million, was telling the Congress of the United States that the contractors redoing their basement had somehow managed to slap up drywall without getting the plumbing inspected first. And so it goes.

The growing distress and frustration with the project, which has been depicted in the media as a classic example of feckless oversight, bureaucratic incompetence and congressional narcissism, may now have major architectural consequences. With Congress vetting names for a new Architect of the Capitol -- a 10-year, presidentially appointed position -- there is growing momentum to appoint a "turn-around artist." For the first time in decades, that person may not be an architect.

Needless to say, the American Institute of Architects is deeply concerned that the next Architect of the Capitol may not be a degreed member of their profession. The title has come and gone over the centuries, but at times, especially during major expansions to the building, the job has been done by some of the most storied names in the evolution of the District's federal look: William Thornton, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Charles Bulfinch. In recent decades, the job has come with huge managerial responsibilities, including a budget pushing $400 million and almost 2,250 employees. The purview of the architect includes things you might expect, including conserving the historic integrity of the nation's most recognizable government building. But it also has some wild cards, such as running the Senate cafeteria (an annual budget buster).

The job has gotten so big, and includes so many things that don't have anything to do with blueprints and design, that there is momentum to appoint someone from a primarily managerial background. But mostly, it's frustration with the performance of Alan Hantman, the previous Architect of the Capitol who left in February, that is driving Congress to consider looking beyond the field of architecture. Howard Gantman, staff director of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which is overseeing the search -- they've hired a headhunting firm -- says the candidates emerging include both architects and people with experience running large campuses and other operations. There are also candidates from the military. The search began in earnest last December, though Gantman is unsure when a list of names will be forwarded to the president. An initial list could emerge from the committee in the next few weeks, but it's unclear if any of the recommendations from the architects institute -- they sent up four names -- will be on it.

"To be frank, it did not appear that the AIA had done as far-ranging a search among their members as we would have liked," Gantman says. "Nor did the candidates they recommended seem to have the managerial experience needed to provide for the full needs of the job at the Capitol." Gantman and the AIA say they're still talking.

Hantman, the man at whose doorstep many people are happy to lay the blame, says the notion of hiring a non-architect would leave the Capitol and other historic buildings without a proper steward, someone senstive to historical issues and the balance between security and access. He argues that the cost overruns and delays came from changes made to the Visitor Center as it was being built, to incorporate post-9-11 and post-anthrax security concerns, and demands for more space from Congress. He also says he greatly improved work conditions in the office, and fairness for minority employees.

"Have we hit it all, all the time?" he asks. "No. But I am very proud of all the changes that have been made."

The job is a classic federal conundrum, relatively low pay for a workload that would draw top dollar in the private sector. On the agenda for the next architect is finishing and opening the new visitor center, and suffering regular and theatrical abuse from Congress until the oohs and ahs of happy constituents, who will no longer have to wait in the blazing sun for tours, start coming in. There's also a long-simmering issue of asbestos in the tunnels of the Capitol that poses a threat to the health of the workers who must go into them. Then there's the drive for perhaps a million square feet of new office space for the House. With a new Democratic Congress, there are also efforts to reduce the environmental impact of the entire federal hill complex (the coal-fired power plant is one of Washington's most egregious emitters of pollution and an ugly blot on its skyline).

But Marshall Purnell, president-elect of the AIA, argues that frustration with the visitor center or past management of the architect's office is no reason to hire someone from outside the field of architecture.

"It's like saying, I went to the dentist and he pulled the wrong tooth, so the next time I'm going to go to a dental hygienist," Purnell says. Only an architect is qualified to deal with the technical health and safety issues of buildings, sit on oversight bodies such as the National Capital Memorial Advisory Commission and properly oversee the preservation of historic spaces. Purnell recounts an anecdote of a member of Congress who wanted better access to a balcony and proposed poking a new entrance through the fabric of the building.

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