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The Keystone of Washington

Chris Maddaloni/Roll Call
The Capitol as seen from Union Station, looking down Delaware Avenue Northeast. For the observant, this vantage point offers not only a view of Capitol Hill’s present but also its past.

If you were to stand at Union Station and look down Delaware Avenue Northeast toward the Capitol, it’s possible to see how the Congressional campus has changed in the past 50 years — if you know what you’re looking for.

When Roll Call was founded in 1955, the Dome certainly looked the same, as did the dignified Russell Senate Office Building. The Newspaper of Capitol Hill was regularly read by streetcar riders as they crossed Delaware Avenue on C Street and passed through the underground passage beneath Upper Senate Park.

Today, those portions of Delaware Avenue on the Senate side serve as parking areas or are closed to public traffic; the same goes for C Street and the trolley passage. The streetcar system was scrapped decades ago, replaced by city buses that now sometimes undergo security checks when crossing Capitol Hill on Independence Avenue.

In the past 50 years, the Congressional campus matured along with the commercial and residential areas that surround it. The Hill has also been shocked into a constant heightened security posture since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Concrete barriers and steel bollards are now as much a part of the landscape as the trees the acclaimed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted chose to grace the Capitol’s lawns some 130 years ago.

Just as Roll Call is reaching a major milestone, so too is the Capitol campus. The Architect of the Capitol is continuing work on the most significant expansion of the Capitol itself since the 1850s — the subterranean Capitol Visitor Center. When the CVC is largely completed sometime next year, nearly 600,000 square feet of interior space will have been added to the Congressional campus, which now counts upwards of 20,000 lawmakers, aides and legislative branch employees.

Throughout five years of planning and construction of the CVC, complaints over the project’s size, scale and price tag have been constant. But that’s nothing new. The addition of office space on Capitol Hill in the past 50 years has always been controversial, whether it’s the Rayburn House Office Building in the 1960s or the Hart Senate Office Building (called a Taj Mahal or a white marble Senatorial palace) in the 1970s and ’80s.

Budget hawks decried the buildings as too expensive; institutionalists said they weren’t bold enough. Architecture critic Benjamin Forgey of The Washington Post opined just after the Hart Building opened in 1982: “Congress will continue to cover the terrain with outsized mistakes, or it will, at some point, have to recapture the art of building buildings that serve day-to-day needs and, if not elevate, at least calm the soul.” [IMGCAP(2)]

Building up Capitol Hill has never been a precise science. For Congress, some office space moves were grand and, in the eyes of some, impulsive. Then-Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) introduced an amendment authorizing construction of a third House office building in 1955. But the Texas Democrat did this with no site in mind, no plans and without a formal study.

And poor Delaware Avenue. The street honoring the nation’s second-smallest state saw much of its route in the city’s Southwest quadrant fall victim to the Speaker’s whims, disappearing under the largest of Congressional office buildings, the one that would eventually bear the Texan’s name.

If Rayburn’s expansion was grand, other office space moves were more lackluster, done out of pure necessity. A half century ago, the lack of available space left many staffers working out of old hotels and inadequate office and residential buildings adjacent to the Hill.

One of these buildings, the old Congressional Hotel (later the O’Neill Building), on C Street Southeast across from the Cannon House Office Building, was torn down in 2002. (By that time, the floors were so rickety that the height of bookshelves inside was strictly regulated.) Others still serve Congress, such as the Capitol Police headquarters located to the north of the Senate office buildings on D Street Northeast.

Then there’s the Ford House Office Building on Second Street Southwest, set away from the rest of the House office buildings by Interstate 395. Originally built for the FBI and transferred to Congress in the 1970s, the building has always been the House’s unwanted but necessary stepchild, home to administrative, committee and commission offices that some in the House may not have ever heard of.

When Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) was eyeing new office space in the Cannon House Office Building in early 2003, numerous employees of the to-be-displaced Chief Administrative Officer quietly raised a fuss, Roll Call reported at the time. To many, Ford might as well have been on the moon.

Last month, Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman testified before the House Appropriations Committee that the Rayburn House Office Building parking garage theoretically could be converted to office space to help alleviate the space crunch on the House side of the Congressional campus.

And the displaced parking? It could move to a new structure to be located across the street from the Ford Building.

Looking at a map of land administered by Congress on Capitol Hill, there isn’t much room for the legislative branch to expand physically. Just as Congress has filled nearly every parcel of land it controls with parking, parks, offices or meeting and ceremonial spaces, so too has the Capitol Hill community grown out to meet it.

When George Washington studied Pierre L’Enfant’s plan for the capital city more than two centuries ago, the first president figured that the new city would rise to the east of the Capitol, toward what he figured would be a bustling commercial port on the Anacostia River.

But the first president’s vision of the capital city being a commercial powerhouse went unrealized. During the 19th century, the core of the city shifted away from Capitol Hill and toward the avenues radiating out from the White House. And by the end of the 19th century, the city’s largest industry besides the administration of the nation was the brewing of beer.

Closer to the Capitol, the slum known as Swampoodle sat among the rail yards of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad terminal at New Jersey Avenue and C Street Northwest and the Tiber Creek swamp, which sat at the foot of Capitol Hill, effectively a boggish barrier between the Hill and Washington’s central business district.

McMillan’s Monumental Plan Matures

It wasn’t until 50 years before Roll Call began publishing that Capitol Hill started to take its present shape. The McMillan Commission — the Congressional initiative spearheaded by Sen. James McMillan (R-Mich.) — drew up a plan to reshape the city’s monumental core, choosing to place Union Station in the middle of the swamp and Swampoodle, making Daniel Burnham’s triumphant Beaux Arts train terminal, and indirectly the nearby Capitol, the city’s grand entryway for out of towners. (Union Station celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2008.)

During much of the latter 20th century, Congress watched as the city surrounding it declined; then, in the past 10 or so, it witnessed its rebirth, particularly in the residential real-estate market on the Hill itself.

Union Station, too, initially suffered, mainly due to the decline of rail travel. The situation became so bad that the station’s grand ceilings rapidly deteriorated and fungus invaded some areas of the station. A quarter-century ago, it was nearly lost to the wrecking ball.

Then, Congress stepped in, calling on then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole (now the senior Republican Senator from North Carolina) to create a plan to restore the station and, through a public-private partnership, develop it into a thriving commercial center.

“With this agreement we are preserving an historic structure, we are restoring the building to its original transportation purpose, and we are providing Washington with a new commercial center with exciting economic potentials,” Dole said at a March 1983 ceremony at the station.

Indeed, the revitalized station has since become Capitol Hill’s main gateway to the rest of the downtown and the region. And in 1992, Congressional land just to the east of the station would become the home to the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building.

With downtown D.C. essentially filled to capacity with office space, commercial developers have increasingly eyed previously undesirable locations closer to Capitol Hill over the past decade.

The National Association of Realtors moved into its landmark, eco-friendly building at 500 New Jersey Ave. NW last year. When the nation’s realty giant broke ground on the structure in 2002, the organization billed its new location, with sweeping views of the Capitol’s Dome just five blocks away, as a symbolic statement on being close to federal policy making.

Such lobbying firms, trade associations and advocacy groups have traditionally clustered in the K Street corridor, closer to the White House. But with more and more office space opening up closer to Capitol Hill, the catch phrase “K Street” is becoming increasingly inaccurate.

More properties controlled by Congress in this area could open up. The Government Printing Office on North Capitol Street plans to vacate its massive red-brick headquarters dating to the 1860s in the next few years, potentially opening a valuable piece of real estate for mixed-used development.

When the bicentennial of the laying of the Capitol’s cornerstone was celebrated in 1993, much of the talk then was about how the object of the celebration — the cornerstone itself — couldn’t be physically located. Indeed after two centuries, and particularly the past 50 years, that hasn’t mattered. The Capitol campus is increasingly more the capital city’s keystone, rather than just a cornerstone.

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