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"As an architect and immigrant, I believe that nothing better symbolizes my new country than the Capitol. Standing in the Hall of the People, surrounded by paintings telling the story of the Revolution and the creation of the nation, I feel privileged to be in the heart of the world's most enduring democracy."




A Message to the New Congress

By Allan Greenberg

Americans went to the polls in November last year to elect a new Congress, but they will be sending their lawmakers to a place where the front door will soon be permanently locked to keep ordinary citizens out. The experience of visiting what Thomas Jefferson called the "Hall of the People" has been significantly diminished and is about to get worse.

More than five years after 9/11, in an overzealous concession to security and congressional excess, our U.S. Capitol, a building the American public owns, is accessible only through a side entrance. The permanent solution to public access is a new visitors' center. Started more than two decades ago to accommodate the increasing number of people wishing to tour the Capitol and, after 9/11, expanded to cope with security requirements, it will end forever the experience that the men who created both the Constitution and the Capitol intended. What had been an open-air ascent into the domed majesty of the Hall of the People will be become a forced march, under supervision, through an overly monumental underground bunker.

Walking up the great center stairs of the Capitol is now – and will soon forever become – an anachronism. Those steps no longer lead to the seat of our government. Their functionality gone, they are a sad cul de sac, a path to nothing but a locked door.

It hasn't always been this way. Security concerns for public buildings are not new. After the War of 1812, President James Madison did not fortify the White House and Capitol against another invasion. During the Civil War, the Lincolns continued to live in Washington, despite the city's overt sympathy for the Confederacy. They refused to compromise the tradition of holding an open house every New Year's Day and Fourth of July and, in the face of an obvious and significant risk to their personal safety, welcomed all comers into the White House. For much of the 1930s, parts of the White House garden remained a public park. In no other era have we been denied direct and unfettered access to our buildings and our elected officials. American leaders used to be unwilling to compromise their belief that security must never be allowed to trump freedom, or to reveal to the world that we had lost confidence in our commitment to an open society. This took both courage and conviction.

As an architect and immigrant, I believe that nothing better symbolizes my new country than the Capitol. Standing in the Hall of the People, surrounded by paintings telling the story of the Revolution and the creation of the nation, I feel privileged to be in the heart of the world's most enduring democracy. This room does not belong to the Senate or House of Representatives – they are in secondary positions on either side – nor does it belong to the president, who is a full mile away at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The Hall of the People is the living embodiment of the opening words of the Constitution – "We the People." It, and they, inform the world that in this nation the people are the government and the Capitol is our building. Members of congress and presidents are elected representatives whose job it is to work for us. Both Washington and Lincoln referred to themselves as "servants of the people."

Now, in the interest of security, Americans' right to encounter this glorious symbol of freedom has been revoked. Soon, the experience of walking up the Capitol steps and into the Hall of the People will be gone forever. The only exception may be the few exemplary Americans privileged to lie-in-state in the Rotunda. And they will enter in caskets.

On Election Day, we exercised one of our most coveted rights – choosing who will represent us in Congress. And it should remind us how important it is to remember that freedom is lost in small increments. Although we are fortunate to live in a nation where we can democratically elect our representatives, we must guard against any erosion of public access to our public buildings. Access stands for something far greater than mere crowd control, security and informational exhibits. In our nation's capital, architecture matters; symbols matter; decisions we make about how citizens interact with government matter.

We all recognize the need for adequate security to protect those who work in the Capitol and the facilities that welcome those who visit it. But we have to preserve our rights to photograph our buildings and to walk up the stairs of the Capitol and enter the Hall of the People through our own front door. Washington and Jefferson, and the visionaries who designed it, intended this act as the embodiment of the most fundamental principle of our system of government.

A recent poll suggested that only 16 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, tying the all-time low. Perhaps, if the new Congress wants to improve its image with the people it serves, it could start by finding a way to reopen the front door of the wonderful edifice it occupies to the citizens who own it.  

Allan Greenberg was born in South Africa and became a U.S. citizen in 1973. His architectural firm, Allan Greenberg, Architect, LLC, has offices in New York, Washington, DC, and Greenwich, CT. He received the Richard H. Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture in 2006 and is the author of numerous publications, including the recent Architecture of Democracy (Rizzoli, 2006).

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