THERE HAVE been various iterations of the White House fence since 1801 when President Thomas Jefferson saw the need to stop wandering livestock from grazing. But the last major change was fifty years ago when a 19th-century iron fence was replaced with one that was about eight inches taller. Given the heightened security challenges of a changed world — not to mention the seeming ease of intruders to jump the fence — it’s time for a new appraisal and possible redesign of the fence.
No change should or need impinge any further on the White House’s historic openness. Security concerns need not block the American public from its heritage. Indeed, any review should seek to restore some of the access that already has been sacrificed in the name of security even while improving actual safety.
The National Parks Service this week selected a design firm, AECOM from Arlington, to conduct a fence study that will produce three options to replace the 7-feet-6-inch fence. The move follows the recommendation for a higher fence from an independent panel that examined operations of the Secret Service in light of a series of security failures. These included the Sept. 19, 2014, incident in which a man scaled the fence and ran deep into the White House through an unlocked front door. Simply raising the height of the fence that encloses the 18 acres of the White House grounds is no panacea for the ills that have affected the Secret Service. Other reforms, recommended by the panel, will be needed.
But a higher fence — the panel recommended at least four to five feet taller — would seem to be one obvious step toward deterring jumpers. The White House and its grounds (and that includes the fence) are a National Historic Landmark, so any alterations must take into account the site’s historic significance. A review process, including the involvement of the Commission of Fine Arts, would be required for any change.
The security of the president and his family must be paramount. But it’s not clear that security depends on or is even enhanced by all of the incremental militarization near the White House, with the spread of concrete bollards, closed roads and walkways and, most recently, the placement of unsightly waist-high fence yards in front of the White House fence. A taller fence might make unnecessary some of these unsightly restrictions.