Office space allocation has always been a complicated matter on Capitol Hill, especially in the Senate.
And in the fall of 1982, when the Hart Senate Office Building was set to open, Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), like many of his colleagues, was not happy about the prospects of moving out of the Dirksen Building.
As Roll Call reported then, Lugar was so incensed about being forcibly uprooted that he issued a formal protest in the form of a press release. It was titled “Lugar Evicted.”
“I have opposed the construction of the Hart Building since my election to the Senate,” the Senator said at the time. “I believe the building is a fiscal and architectural affront to the American public.”
And so began the Lugar-Hart love affair. Sort of.
Although the Hoosier Senator attracted national headlines for his opposition to being forcibly moved into the Hart Building, Lugar has stayed in the same office suite since the building opened. And while one might think that any Senator who has stayed put for more than 20 years might have some sort of attachment to the building, think again.
“It’s not home. The building doesn’t have that kind of charm,” said Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher, adding that although the building is functional, “the climate control is usually bad. It’s normally cold.”
But Fisher, who was around when the “Lugar Evicted” press release was garnering national press attention, said that for most who were on Capitol Hill then, the memories of the building’s controversial construction and design are fading as the years go on.
‘A Perfect Storm’
Hart has been called a Taj Mahal, a Mussolini-style marble barn and a glorified Hyatt hotel. Devoid of any Beaux Arts ornamentation that distinguishes some of its fellow House and Senate office buildings, Hart seems more appropriate for “a corporate office park,” said one Senate aide. “It’s not a place we love, but we work here anyway.”
Compared to the rising costs of the ongoing Capitol Visitor Center construction — which could come in at roughly a half-billion dollars — Hart’s $137.7 million price tag seems like a drop in the bucket. But in 1982 that was a lot of money, translating into more than $265 million in today’s dollars. And there were many in the Senate who didn’t want to move in and have their constituents know they willingly settled in the opulent, often-lambasted, Senatorial palace.
“It was a perfect storm,” Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie said of 1982. “All these forces were coming in from different directions.”
It was the middle of President Ronald Reagan’s first term, and the nation was mired in a recession. As political observers were wondering whether the Democrats were going to retake the Senate, constituents back home were criticizing the Senate for spending so many taxpayer dollars on what was perceived as a lavish, expensive — and to some, ugly — building. The early plans for the Vermont white marble-clad structure called for a rooftop restaurant, gymnasium and giant Alexander Calder sculpture.
Then-Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), who served as chairman of the Office Building Commission, said that the “cost overruns” were overblown and that certain Senators used the building’s construction as an issue “to demagogue.”
Johnston, who is now a lobbyist, said in a recent interview that some Members were intent on stopping construction altogether, even when Hart’s steel support structure was already rising next to Dirksen.
“If we would have stopped it, it would have been one of the more stupid things Congress has ever done,” he said, referring to the calls by some Senators to dismantle Hart’s steel skeleton midway through construction.
While plans for a third Senate office building started in 1967, construction wasn’t authorized until 1976 even though the need was evident. Ritchie said that even when the Dirksen Building opened in the 1950s, Senate staffers were scattered across the Hill, many crammed into nearby apartment houses. Even as the office crunch worsened, some Senators were happy with the cozy quarters they and their staffers shared. A modern, spacious Senate office building — complete with wood-paneled suites and an automated inter-office document delivery system as originally planned — seemed like an unnecessary excess.
When Hart’s exterior was nearing completion and the giant tarp covering it removed, then-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) — whose interest in architecture and urban planning was legendary — introduced a resolution calling for the tarp to go back up:
“Whereas in the fall of 1980 the frame of the new Senate Office Building was covered with plastic sheathing in order that construction might continue during the winter months.
“Whereas the plastic cover has now been removed revealing, as feared, a building whose banality is exceeded only by its expense.
“Whereas even in a democracy there are things it is as well the people do not know about their government.
“Therefore be it resolved that it is the sense of the Senate that the plastic cover be put back.”
Ritchie said Moynihan’s move gave other Senators a green light to attack the building’s architecture, on top of the building’s cost and extra features.
And then there were the architectural critics. Some classified the building as Congress’ first modern piece of architecture. Others said it was an aesthetic flop.
“And this building is not a crime against civilization; it’s not a sign that we’re decadent, awful, stupid, evil or anything else,” Paul Goldberger, then The New York Times’ architecture critic, said on PBS’ “MacNeil/Lehrer Report” in February 1983. “It’s just a sign that our government doesn’t seem to have very much imagination.”
When the Hart Building finally opened, the rooftop restaurant was mothballed, as was the original gymnasium plan. And the installation of Calder’s “Mountains and Clouds” was scrapped, but finally came to be in 1986 when then-New Jersey Sen. Nicholas Brady (R) raised private funds to make Calder’s last work a reality.
While many today call Hart’s 90-foot atrium a waste of space, Ritchie said Hart’s core seemed really empty before the installation of the mobile-stabile.
Harts Down on Hart
By the time the building was finally complete, even the widow of the building’s namesake, Sen. Philip Hart (D-Mich.), was chiming in. In an November 1982 op-ed piece in The Washington Post, Janey Hart, whose husband was critical of the building’s construction when he was in the Senate, wanted to make sure her husband’s legacy was not confused with the scorned building.
“First, dear Post editors (Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado may appreciate this, too), please refer to the building as the Hart Building, not Hart. In this instance, building is the noun, and its proper use will save me, our children and our friends untold fits of pique.”
Countless Senate staffers may owe Mrs. Hart an apology, as the building is still commonly referred to as just plain-old “Hart.”
Despite the hullabaloo, Ritchie says the Hart Building may have been the Senate’s wisest investment.
Built to accommodate 50 Senators and their staffs, walls inside the two-level office suites can be easily reconfigured, making the workspace very functional.
Hart was also built with the computer era in mind, even if Senators then couldn’t predict how the digital age would change the modern workplace.
“They are anticipating the electronic age, the computer age, and there’s room for all the machinery, and there’s room for the growing staff. This is a building that is built to last,” Wolf Von Eckardt, Time magazine’s architecture critic, said on the February 1983 episode of the “MacNeil/Lehrer Report.”
Looking back, Johnston said the Hart Building was a triumph.
“I just think the building works real well. I think it looks like a classy place that looks like it is meant to last,” he said. “And it will last.”