If the architects of the Capitol are to be trusted, Ronald Reagan, his striped pants and his entourage will be in grave danger on Tuesday.
Our next president will be inaugurated below the very wall the former capitol architect, J. George Stewart, declared in imminent danger of collapse, and the present capitol architect, George M. White, considers too far gone to repair.
Stewart told a House subcommittee: "I am distressed daily when I hear and feel vibrations of high-speed aircraft flying overhead."
He banned helicopter flights over Capitol Hill and invoked visions of the Capitol dome about to tumble down the Mall any minute unless something was done immediately.
That was 23 years ago and nothing was done.
Well, almost nothing. Actually, a commission was formed, some timber was put up and a big controversy was started.
The commission was formed to realize House Speaker Sam Rayburn's dream of a vastly enlarged Capitol, all done in gleaming white marble -- a Broddingnagian wedding cake in the style of the Rayburn House Office Building.
Called the Commission for the Extension of the U.S. Capitol, and consisting of the architect of the Capitol, the vice president and the House and Senate leaders, it made Rayburn's dream a tenacious obsession.
The timber was placed on the west front of the building at the spot where Mr. Reagan will be sworn in next Tuesday and where everybody can see it. Capitol architect Stewart put it there to keep the wall from falling. A comprehensive investigation of the condition of that wall established, however, that the shoring is "more theatrical than structural," as Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) put it.
Said Hollings: "Those beams were put in place to frighten the members [of Congress and the rest of the human race] into building a new wall that would protrude some 88 feet in places . . . We found that the posts holding up those braces had long ago rotted in the ground, but the wall still stands as a strong part of this national treasure."
White, the present Capitol architect, found the rotten Stewart braces handy for hanging the inaugural bunting.
The big controversy started in 1958 when Sam Rayburn, George Stewart and their extension commission pushed out the east front by some 30 feet, replacing the original sandstone in Georgia marble as white as snow.
They did not say they wanted to turn the whole Capitol into a Broddingnagian sugar confection. In fact, Rayburn promised he would never touch the west front if Congress would just let him fix the east front a little. It needed fixing, the commission argued, because the dome looked out of kilter and the extra marble would give the building better proportions.
A lot of citizens and all of the nation's architects, as represented by the American Institute of Architects, were horrified. While the Capitol had indeed been built in stages, they said, it had, just like the country, reached the last frontier. It needed no further extension, addition or amendment.
It was sacrilege, the opposition said, for mediocre architects to try to improve on a national monument and toy with the architectural integrity of the first building in the land. Besides, the dome looked just fine.
We lost that one.
And then we were told we would also soon-lose the west front at the whirl of a helicopter propeller.
The extenders proposed to replace the entire central portion of the building -- the original portion designed by Dr. William Thornton, with the enthusiastic approval of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and completed in 1800.
The vastly enlarged marble version was to extend the old building by up to 88 feet and to house cafeterias for tourists, truck loading platforms and hideaway offices for deserving members. This folly was to cost $58 million in 1969 dollars.
It would have destroyed not only the Capitol's earliest history, but also its most endearing feature -- the grand terraces that gracefully elevate the building above the Mall and which were designed almost 100 years ago by Frederick Law Olmsted, America's greatest landscape architect.
The controversy seesawed and is unresolved to this day.
Over the years two important points were won by the opposition, led by Rep. Samuel S. Stratton (D-NY.) and Senators William Proxmire (D-Wisc.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Hollings, among others, and including the country's leading historians and historic preservationists and the American Institute of Architects.
One: With the help of one of the country's most respected structural engineering firms, Praeger-Kavanaugh, it established that the old wall was in no imminent danger and that it would be far less expensive to restore it than to build a Howard Johnson version of it. The restoration would require injecting cement grout into the original sandstone structure.
Two: Under opposition pressure, the informed, new architect of the Capitol, who in contrast to the politician Stewart, is actually a licensed architect, considerably shrunk the Rayburn dream.
The "White Addition" or "mini-extension" is not only slightly more modest, but also considerably less offensive. It leaves the Olmsted terraces intact, but adds 160,000 square feet of Georgia marble hideaway offices and restaurant space that a lot of members of Congress want.
Many people suggest that moving the inauguration ceremonies from the east front to the west front the Capitol is another bit of "trickery and gimmickery," as Sen. Hollings calls it, to win support for the Rayburn dream.
Others suggest that the American people might like the original Thornton design on their television screens next Tuesday and would want it not replaced but restored.
Let's hope so.