'Timber!' on the historic lawn

The century-old grounds of the Capitol are on the chopping block. The nation's welcome mat is being rolled up, its landscape and trees hatcheted, and the historical legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted, who created this sacred place, obliterated.

As antiterrorist fervor infects Washington, the architectural fate of the place that says "America," is under assault. The nation's front lawn is succumbing to an excavation for a tourist center that destroys its historic and aesthetic past.

While the plan to re-contour the Capitol was hatched before the terrorist attacks, fears for national security have expanded its scope and $265 million budget into an overblown congressional concoction.

Its workers are proceeding from axing the likes of the "Abigail Adams" memorial tree to bulldozing 68 others as they replace the historic entry and view with a stairway plunging l8 feet below the earth to an elephantine visitor center three stories below the Capitol. Talk about your evil axes!

In its origins, this makeover met genuine needs. It supplied more security after the shooting of two Capitol guards in l998 and more space for waiting visitors. But the post-terrorist priority for surveillance has inflated that idea into a bunker-cum-theme park as a visitors center. This bloated tourist trade show, the size of 10 football fields, burrowing into the earth, will destroy "America's front lawn," the grounds of its greatest landscape architect.

Slowly, as word leaks out, Washingtonians, historians, and Olmsted fans have begun to rouse themselves to campaign against the desecration of decades of work by the founder of the profession and the altering of the sacred space and postcard place that elevates their Capitol. Many deplore the three-story, 588,000-square-foot structure with its pricey potpourri of orientation theaters, interactive elements, auditorium, and educational arenas, complete with restaurants and restrooms, and other big-ticket bric-a-brac enfolded with state-of-the-art surveillance.

To serve these Disneyesque antics, tree-chopping and "landscooping" will dismantle the best preserved, "most intact landscape" of the nation's premier placemaker, says Ellen Schillinglaw, project director for the Cultural Landscape Foundation. Olmsted's graceful double allée, where visitors could glimpse and promenade toward the dome that shelters their Congress, will become this "gaping hole," as landscape architects at Sasaki Associates follow orders to submerge the ceremonial, classical space and architects at RTKL build the bunker.

Today, the walks, the drives Olmsted executed after finishing Central Park in New York, endure. The paths and terraces remain. Its procession of harmonious spaces embrace the Capitol building. Not for long.

Even those who concede the need for security, circulation, and shelter are dubious about the potential 5,000 people an hour pouring through this space; about ancillary staff for theaters and shops, restrooms and restaurants; about goods and foods and services trucked in; about security devices rayed at visitors and other devices from the store of security goodies that the massive firm of RTKL ("humbled and gratified," to be the architects of the Pentagon) have devised.

But, in fact, do bigger crowds plus the circus of employees and deliverers, scrubbers and servers coming and going in trucks, make a safer place? Is a faux view of Congress what we want? Is ravaging the look and feel of America's major icon the price we care to pay?

"Freedom without Fortresses," was the title of a recent event sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and project architects at RTKL, who take their mission of "securing safe places" all the way to the bank, with a "portfolio of secure places" including embassies in friendly and unfriendly nations. The Mussolini Modern image of their cutaway, high-columned space for the Capitol bears that stamp. Welcome to America, the home of the free and the bunkered. Hello, potted history; goodbye, governmental edification.

This is not the only attack by would-be barricaders. The Capitol steps on the west side, where loungers take their ease and their view, also suffers from the reign of antiterror. Closed in late January, the steps remain wrapped with Jersey barriers and concrete-laden trucks. "They're definitely playing the security card, with some validity," says one Park Service preservation officer, "but they're playing that thrust to the hilt." Security reigns. No people need apply.

If this sacrosanct site where Americans once ascended through a masterwork of Olmsted's shaped communal space is vanishing, what of the rest of the nation's public legacy? Not only here but everywhere, these issues - or excuses - test our sense of public citizenry and artistry as we address the wounds of war.

Will the past - will history and public architecture and access - coexist or will they concede to privatism and a police mentality? "How unpatriotic can you get?" one dismayed environmentalist observes sardonically. "Cutting trees in the name of national defense is 'no vice,' " he says. "Neither is destroying tundra up north. Sacrifices must be made and trees and stone steps don't vote!" Or do they?

Beyond anxious arborists, does this sacred place and space have a larger constituency, though? That remains the question for those who value the placemaking and communal history of a nation under siege.

• Jane Holtz Kay is a former architecture critic of the Monitor and author of "Asphalt Nation" and "Lost Boston."

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