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A remodel to make Bob Vila drool

By James N. ThurmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 10, 1999



WASHINGTON

The driveway in front of the West Wing of the White House is jammed with a bulldozer and enormous steel plates. It's part of a messy project to rip out ancient steam pipes.

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Across the street, a team of plumbers is hard at work at Blair House, where presidential guests stay.

And at the New Executive Office building, part of the White House complex, brick sidewalks are being torn out and replaced.

Despite the perpetual dust cloud at America's center of power, most here who pick their way past all the construction to get to their offices are accustomed to the renovations. Since the early 1980s, workers in one form or another have been remodeling something.

But the ubiquitous "Pardon our dust" signs probably won't come down anytime soon. A new White House construction project, currently on the drawing board, calls for changes so dramatic they would make even the godfather of Washington architecture, Pierre L'Enfant, whistle.

From a cavernous underground parking lot to a Ping-Pong tabled recreation area for future first families, the remodeling plan represents the most fundamental change to the White House since its cornerstone was laid in 1792.

"The focus is to be sure the president who comes in 20 years finds history preserved with a modern infrastructure in place with a historic landscape reclaimed," says Ann Smith, project coordinator at the National Park Service.

The main goal is to carve out more space for working, living, and storage. Because engineers can't expand up or out, they're going the only place they have left, down.

In coming years, bulldozers will conduct one of the largest underground excavation projects in recent capital memory. They'll burrow, mole-like, until they've carved out a 1,100-car parking garage under the South Lawn leaving a car-free, pedestrian-friendly mall. To the north they'll dig under the White House driveway near Lafayette Park to create office space and additional room for the press corps.

Cramped quarters

The White House complex is currently one of the most crowded pieces of real estate in town. In addition to the day-to-day work at the Oval Office, the press elbows for space.

"One of the most exciting things about this ... is the effect of the quality of life on the first family as well as visitors to the White House," says Chief Usher Gary Walters, who oversees the daily workings of the complex.

The park service, after gathering public feedback, has been revising and putting final touches on the plan. Congress and nearly a dozen federal agencies must still sign off.

When the $300 million plan is finished in roughly 20 years, the chief usher will no longer have to call in a moving van to bring tables and chairs when heads of state come to visit, or when the president throws a party or a state dinner.

The same is true for the president's motorcade with accompanying Secret Service Suburbans. The entourage, now kept in a Georgetown garage, would be housed in a second underground parking lot.

The plan also includes a rec room for first-family relaxing and expanded storage space for press-corp cameras, ladders, and spools of cable. "We have a dearth of storage space here for the things we use daily," says Mr. Walters.

Amenities for tourists

The 1.2 million tourists who visit the White House each year will also have a covered entryway and an underground visitors' center - a big upgrade from the sidewalk on which they currently wait, rain or shine.

The mega-remodel marks a comprehensive approach to restoration, which has occurred in a piecemeal fashion in the past.

During the Truman administration, the main residence underwent a wholesale remodeling. To keep the four original walls of the White House intact, a bulldozer was disassembled, carried into the basement, and reassembled to excavate underground space.

After creating two new sub-basements, the complex went from 60 to 132 rooms and became "a machine for the modern presidency with the symbolism of the old," says William Seale, author of "The President's House."

Long before the Truman era, other renovation efforts were mounted, but quickly fizzled.

President Chester Arthur had a plan for tearing the White House down and replacing it with a huge new building.

President Benjamin Harrison's wife devised an expansion plan. She envisioned an enormous quadrangle linked by greenhouses, guest rooms, and entertainment suites. It didn't get far.

Then in 1900, the corps of engineers proposed adding wings to the sides of the White House. President William McKinley's wife, who had little patience for construction dust, could be heard saying, "There will be no hammering while I am here!" says Mr. Seale.

Not included in the current plan is what to do along Pennsylvania Avenue. The broad passageway in front of the White House has been closed since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Understanding the controversial nature of the decision to keep the street closed, planners are reluctant to talk about it. But those who have examined security concerns believe it would be almost impossible to reopen the street.

"You have to make the distinction of protecting the integrity of the White House with the plans to expand and beautify the park," says William Webster, former head of the FBI.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society