Iconic obelisk presents a monumental security issue

The iconic obelisk in the nation's capital presents a security issue; currently, the method of screening individuals who want inside the Washington Monument involves an unsightly temporary security hut. The National Park Service is offering five ideas for a permanent replacement facility that are open for public comment.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; 12:26 AM

The Washington Monument is unlike any other in the capital, so austere and abstract that creating security arrangements for it has dogged the National Park Service for a decade. Fortunately, plans to build a large, underground visitors center, floated in 1993 and renewed in the security panic after Sept. 11, 2001, never came to fruition. So far, the only permanent security installed at the site - a vehicle barrier made from an artful arrangement of low granite walls, careful landscaping and attractive benches designed by landscape architect Laurie Olin - is one of the extraordinarily rare examples of aesthetically pleasing anti-terrorism designs in the United States.

But Olin's work hasn't solved the problem of how to screen individual visitors seeking access to the monument's interior. Currently, this is done in an unsightly, temporary security hut at the monument's base, a provisional structure that disfigures the striking geometry of the obelisk. Monday night, the Park Service will present the public with five ideas for replacing that temporary facility with something permanent. These proposals, designed to hold the magnetometers that have become ritualistic intrusions at so many federal sites, have made the rounds of the main design oversight bodies in the District for preliminary comment. Now it's the public's turn to weigh in on radical changes to one of the most iconic monuments in the world.

Unfortunately, the bureaucratic gears are already grinding, and what will be presented to the public Monday doesn't include important options, including what became known as the "tunnel" in previous discussions of the issue. Nor does it include the choice of more minimal visitor screening - simple wanding or visual bag inspection - that might not require costly and intrusive changes to the structure. The choice to accept risk isn't on the table, either. Finally, and although it might seem paradoxical given how important resisting security authoritarianism is to preserving the symbolism of freedom, it doesn't take seriously the idea that perhaps the monument's interior should be closed altogether - a small concession that might have collateral benefits.

Of the five Park Service ideas, sketched by architect Hany Hassan of Beyer Blinder Belle, four would require a new, below-grade entrance. The fifth would create an above-ground glass security pavilion.

The below-grade options differ in where the door is placed, how it is approached and how much it would change the character of the plaza around the monument.

Two of Hassan's ideas might be considered "least worst" options. One proposal would sculpt out the earth on the east side of the monument to create an underground entrance. The other would carve a discreet, semicircular ramp out of the main plaza surrounding the memorial, allowing visitors to descend to an underground door.

Both of these are better than a plan to build a glass security pavilion at the base of the monument, which would clutter its simple, formal lines. And both are superior to the two plans in which the underground entrance would be approached via long paths from the east, which would disrupt the highly effective and simple oval-shaped plan of Olin's 2006 walkways and security walls.

These bad ideas each have a rationale: The glass security building is an honest acknowledgment of security hysteria, and the two walkway proposals would keep the visual distraction of an unwanted new entrance to the monument away from the structure itself, preserving some of its purity of design.

A way not taken

The walkways also are echoes of a problematic but intriguing idea that died in 2003, when the Park Service yielded to congressional pressure and abandoned plans for a long tunnel beginning at the Monument Lodge, an outbuilding near 15th Street NW. Visitors would have entered the tunnel through the lodge and proceeded underground to the obelisk. Concerns about cost, changes to the lodge (which has its own, preservation-worthy charms) and the safety of the 400-foot concourse led Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) to kill funding for the idea.

In retrospect, given the huge cost overruns of the $621 million U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, another underground facility that was promoted as a security enhancement, those worries weren't reasonable. The Park Service has long been interested in building a large underground visitors center at the Washington Monument; the idea was discussed in 1966, 1973 and 1993. Concerns that the Park Service is planning an over-scaled, 10,000-square-foot facility (which would amount to a new visitors center) still dog plans for a new security facility.

Bill Line, spokesman for the Park Service, denies that the agency is looking for something that big and insists there are no plans for an orientation or welcome center. But visitors centers are a kind of fungus in Washington; if not subject to the sunlight of perpetual scrutiny, it seems, every monument or memorial eventually grows one.

Worries about the stability of the monument shouldn't be discounted, either. When Thomas Casey was given the task of finishing the incomplete stub of a monument in 1878, his first priority was to shore up its inadequate foundations. The engineer's fantasy of the Platonic solid we know today exists because of Casey's careful analysis and strengthening of the monument site.

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