WASHINGTON — SET within frisbee range of a public street, the White House is a symbol of the kind of accessible democracy Thomas Jefferson envisioned. But its proximity to the people, coupled with the rigors of day-to-day government, have left this 203-year-old sandstone mansion over-used and vulnerable.
Tourists waiting to tour the mansion often complain about crowded conditions. And the Secret Service, jittery after a recent string of shootings and a bizarre airplane crash-landing, is increasingly concerned about security.
In the next few months, the Treasury Department and the National Park Service will reveal plans that may radically change the White House complex. One controversial proposal would bar both pedestrians and cars from passing in front of the mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The redesign could also yield a new underground wing and a state-of-the-art visitor's center for the more than 2 million people who visit every year, many of whom are not able to get inside. But in the end, Jefferson's house of the people could look more like a fortress than ever before.
This week, the Park Service unveiled three concepts for the mansion and its grounds, including Lafayette Park and the Ellipse, known as President's Park.
Among the proposals, the committee suggests adding entrances for official use, upgrading media facilities, and commissioning permanent exhibits to complement the White House tour. Cars would be prohibited from parking on the Ellipse and in the curb lanes surrounding President's Park.
''The goal of the planning is to serve both the people and the presidency,'' Park Service Regional Director Robert Stanton said in a statement. ''Our objective is to preserve the executive residence and its historic park setting while making improvements in the way visitor service and site operations are handled....'
Preservation of public access is important because ''Americans view that house as theirs, and the occupants as tenants,'' says Chris Schillizzi, a Park Service planner. ''The most important tenants perhaps in the nation, and maybe the world, but still tenants. Americans own this building.'' The White House, he notes, is the only chief executive's home in the world that is regularly open free of charge.
''We walk through the president's house and maybe a few hundred feet away, he could be meeting with his cabinet, or sitting with his family,'' says Patricia Valderama, a Bolivian nativeemerging from a tour.
The White House has a long history of public accessibility. When it opened, Jefferson let people walk freely through its staterooms. For his inauguration, Andrew Jackson threw an open party that, by all accounts, got pretty wild.
Yet in times of crisis, including World War II and the Gulf War, public access has been prohibited or restricted. Recently, there has been ample cause for rethinking security.
In September, the pilot of a small plane, apparently distraught, crash-landed on the South lawn just below the president's bedroom. On October 29, a man wielding an assault rifle fired at the White House, causing some minor structural damage. In December, more bullets struck the mansion late one night, and several days later, a homeless man, brandishing a knife, was shot and killed by White House guards. These events prompted the Treasury Department review.
Treasury officials refuse to comment on the plan, due for release this month. But the Secret Service has long wanted to close off the mansion from Pennsylvania Avenue, now separated by a 10-foot iron fence, although President Clinton has said he hopes to keep it open.
Max Contin, a garlic farmer from California, calls the attacks ''isolated incidents,'' and says that ''the worst situation would be that because of security reasons, they restrict the White House so much that no one gets to see it.''
But as violence continues to menace this national symbol, more Americans seem to be warming to the idea that perhaps the president's security should outweigh access for average citizens.
Because the president and his family live there, says Brenda Jones, a tourist from Marietta, Ohio. ''I think it should be at times accessible to the people of the country, but it's his house. It's important for everybody to feel safe at home.''