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‘People’s House’ Now More Akin to Fortress

This week, as the nation prepares to observe the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Roll Call looks back at how Capitol Hill responded to the attacks and how that day's events changed — and didn't change — life in Washington.

Once celebrated for its accessibility, the Capitol has been converted during the past 10 years from a symbol of an open government — and vulnerable target — to a veritable fortress.

The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 and the Capitol shootings in 1998 initiated the change, but the Capitol complex has seen the most dramatic transformation in its history since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the ensuing anthrax attacks.

The revelation that the Capitol was a terrorist target that day — and that the facility and those inside were almost completely exposed — has sparked a seismic shift in the way security is viewed for a structure that lawmakers have fondly called the “People’s House.” The Capitol complex is no longer just a passive setting for the seat of American democracy; it is a security apparatus designed to keep federal lawmakers safe.

“9/11 took us to another dimension,” said former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who was Minority Leader at the time of the attacks. “You tend to forget how open and free the Capitol was as late as the 1980s. When you come on the compound now, you’ve got the police that stop you, the dogs sniffing you. You go through the X-ray machines. It’s a lot tighter.”

The most noticeable renovation to the complex — and indeed the largest in its history — is the Capitol Visitor Center, an almost 600,000-square-foot,
$600 million fortified complex tucked underneath the Capitol’s East Front.

Plans for a subterranean space to screen visitors hundreds of feet from the Capitol go back decades, but it took 9/11 to thrust a somewhat unpopular and expensive plan into reality.

“That really got a boost, in a sense, from 9/11,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie said. “Congress had been very reluctant up until that point to spend a lot of federal money.”

Originally designed as a relatively simple holding zone for visitors waiting to tour the Capitol, the plans were overhauled immediately after the attacks to include underground expansion offices for the House and Senate, a blast-proof glass screening room and a state-of-the-art air-filtration system — 20 separate units, each measuring 40 feet by 12 feet by 8 feet.

About 3,000 smoke-detection devices were planned to interlink with the facility’s massive heating ventilation and air-conditioning system and a series of classified chemical and biological detection systems, largely a response to the anthrax scare.

“All of those systems were designed and strengthened, even beyond code in some instances, because of the fire marshal’s concern of a potential attack after 9/11 and anthrax,” then-Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman said. “We had to redesign, we had to change the structural systems, we had to add stairways. Mechanical systems were completely redesigned to make sure it was the cleanest air you could possibly have.”

But the CVC is hardly the only change to the Capitol grounds’ physical appearance.

Drastic plans to construct a wall around the complex or to encase the House and Senate chambers in Plexiglas were floated but were ultimately nixed as cooler heads prevailed.

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