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Iconic obelisk presents a monumental security issue

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.

Line says the Park Service will use studies done in 2003 and, if necessary, new studies to be sure that exposing the monument's foundations and creating a new entrance won't destabilize the structure.

"The Washington Monument has been where it is for quite a number of years, and I'm not aware of any movement or instability," he says.

Danger and public spaces

The problem with all of the Park Service proposals, however, isn't just their acceptance of security mania - that's the default thinking everywhere in Washington - but rather the importance they place on keeping access to the monument's interior elevator and viewing platform. A century ago, a view of the world from 555 feet was a rare thing, and part of the monument's power was its height and the bird's-eye view that offered. Today, the important thing about the Washington Monument is its simple, unadorned and queer simplicity. Skyscrapers are a dime a dozen, but the monument's aesthetic impact as a pure sculptural object is priceless. Its small elevator also means that huge and costly changes are being proposed to accommodate a relatively small number of people. Perhaps this is the one monument that should be closed to the public.

Closing the interior of the monument, the construction of which was suspended during the Civil War, would remind the public of the effect that fears engendered by the current war on terrorism have had on public space. Closing it as a symbolic act might initiate an overdue discussion about the loss of even more important public spaces, including the front entrance of the Supreme Court and the west terrace of the Capitol. It would be a dramatic reminder of the choices we as a nation have made, and perhaps an inspiration to change our ways in favor of a more open, risk-tolerant society that understands public space always has some element of danger.

Other groups have other ideas for the monument's security, including embedding magnetometers directly in the stone walls of the door at the obelisk's base. And the tunnel idea might be revisited for two reasons. First, if the tunnel were extended slightly (across 15th Street NW) to the site of the future Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, there would be a powerful symbolic connection between the founder of the country and the slave system that nourished and molded him. It would also drive traffic to the new museum, including visitors who might otherwise not cross its threshold.

But mostly, the idea of a tunnel from the forthcoming museum is appealing because it would be impractical for all of the reasons the 2003 tunnel was impractical. Which is a good thing.

The longer it takes to get approval and funding to execute this project, the better. Like the ghastly plan for an unnecessary visitors center at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, delay is welcome. When it comes to permanently remaking established landscapes and diminishing beloved icons, gridlock can be your friend.

The public comment meeting on the Washington Monument security options will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the National Park Service's National Capital Region Headquarters, 1100 Ohio Dr. SW.

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