Building Controversy

Should the African-American Museum Be Built on Capitol Grounds?

Posted September 5, 2003 at 9:20am

With legislation to create a National Museum of African American History and Culture recently endorsed by the Senate and now pending in the House, backers are increasingly optimistic that the 108th Congress will finally approve the initiative, which has long been under consideration.

But the sensitive question of where to put the museum looms large over its trajectory, given that one of the potential sites listed in the bill includes Congressional real estate. That raises a difficult question for many Members: Should Congress allow a museum to be built on a prominent Capitol location on the National Mall?

Few want to come out in opposition to a Capitol site for the museum, lest they be seen as politically incorrect. But some have serious doubts that the proposed 350,000-square-foot, $360 million structure should be built at the foot of the Capitol.

Those doubts prompted the Senate to water down legislation authorizing the museum prior to its introduction in May, letting the Smithsonian Institution pick a site instead of doing so itself. But delaying the impending decision over which property should be earmarked for the museum doesn’t make the issue go away.

“Everybody wants the bill,” said Bill Johnson, chief of staff to Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who co-authored the legislation. “Nobody wants to be against [the museum] and that’s good, but there are significant issues which need to be addressed to make the museum reality.”

Alternate Sites

The site in question is a trapezoidal parcel just north of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, wedged between Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues Northwest. It’s currently used as a staging ground for Capitol Visitor Center construction.

Earlier this year, a presidential commission recommended the five-acre area as the home of the museum but included four alternative sites in its report to Congress. Under the commission’s initial draft legislation, the Architect of the Capitol, in consultation with other bodies, would have been responsible for overseeing the construction of the museum on Capitol grounds.

But after behind-the-scenes wrangling in the Senate, three of the four additional sites — a location just off the National Mall between 14th and 15th streets Northwest near the Washington Monument; the Liberty Loan Building on 14th Street just south of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing; and the Arts and Industries Building on Independence Avenue — were included in the bill prior to its introduction in the House and Senate.

The fifth site — along the Southwest waterfront at the end of the L’Enfant Promenade known as the Banneker/10th Street Overlook — was deemed too far off the Mall and left out of the bill. The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents was also given responsibility for selecting the location.

The legislation’s chief Democratic sponsor in the Senate, Rules and Administration ranking member Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who in the past has expressed opposition to the Capitol site due to security and precedent-setting concerns, said Congress should not be the final arbiter when it comes to selecting a site.

“My concern from the start has been — and continues to be — that Congress not stipulate one particular site but allow a panel of experts to choose the appropriate site,” Dodd said in a statement, adding that he would support whatever site the Smithsonian selected.

But Robert Wilkins, a member of the recently dissolved presidential commission, sent Dodd a letter June 6 implying that the legislation was modified to allow the regents to select the site because the Senator insisted that no bill designating only the Capitol site would leave committee. Dodd and his staff, Wilkins wrote, appeared to “intend to block the recommendation of the Presidential Commission at any cost.”

“I didn’t like the fact that Senator Dodd and his staff were using specious arguments to block the recommendations of the commission or to put language in the legislation that would raise unnecessary questions,” said Wilkins, who chaired the commission’s site and building committee.

Dodd’s office said the idea to give the Smithsonian the power to chose the site was part of a “consensus approach” but declined to comment specifically on the letter or Wilkins’ allegations.

“I think the decision to have the Smithsonian make the ultimate decision on the site is part of [a] process to have somebody other than the Congress not have the museum on the Capitol grounds,” observed one House Republican source close to the process.

A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian Institution said it does not comment on pending legislation. But she acknowledged that charging the regents with selecting a site from a prescribed list — as laid out in the legislation — would be “unprecedented.”

“It simply hasn’t worked that way” in the past, said spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

For instance, in 1989, when Congress approved legislation authorizing the creation of the National Museum of the American Indian, now under construction on the Mall just southwest of the Capitol, the site — the last available land designated for construction on the Mall — was clearly delineated in the measure. The site is not on Capitol grounds.

The legislation creating the African-American museum demonstrates none of this clarity.

Beyond the current ambiguity over the site, the bill also defers the question of what will happen should the Smithsonian select the Capitol location, which has led to some disagreement over whether additional legislation would be required in order to transfer administrative jurisdiction of the property to the institution.

“Anyone who thinks that this bill gives the Smithsonian the site to build something on Capitol grounds without additional Congressional action has not read the bill,” said Johnson of Kingston’s office. On the other hand, Lewis, as well as the commission’s Wilkins, have said that all that may be required is a memorandum of understanding. (As currently written, the bill calls for administrative jurisdiction of the Washington Monument and the Liberty Loan Building sites to be transferred to the Smithsonian Institution “as soon as practicable” after selection by the regents, but exempts the Capitol site and Arts and Industries Building from the provision.)

Nor does the bill stipulate what would happen if the Smithsonian was to ultimately conclude that none of the sites in question was to its liking.

Indeed, each of the three other sites has also drawn criticism. The Washington Monument location is opposed by the National Park Service, said Sally Blumenthal, deputy associate regional director for the National Park Service’s national capital region. The Liberty Loan Building site is considered by some to be too small an area and too far off the Mall. And the Arts and Industries Building, originally built in 1879, would likely require significantly higher expenditures — estimated at $120 million more than the Capitol site — to convert it into a viable space for the proposed museum.

Moreover, it may be difficult to procure funding from both private and Congressional sources for a museum whose site remains undecided. Once the museum is authorized, supporters plan to seek an appropriation of $17 million in seed money in fiscal 2004. If the bill is not approved in a timely manner, the appropriation may have to wait until fiscal 2005.

Given the legislation’s implications, several House sources questioned why the Senate was so eager to pass legislation that could potentially lead to a large structure being built a few hundred yards from the Capitol’s Senate side with little or no discussion. No hearing was held before the bill was sent to the Senate floor, and it passed by unanimous consent.

“The Senate punted and the Senate knows they punted,” said the House Republican source close to the process. “They very intentionally ignored these issues because they didn’t want to deal with them.”

The bill has been referred to the House Administration and Transportation and Infrastructure committees.

Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman, whose office is responsible for overseeing the development of Capitol property, has urged that the site be considered as part of a broader Capitol complex master plan now in the works. He has also raised concerns that the area’s high water table could limit the construction of underground space on the site.

Other officials, such as Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl, have cautioned Congress against allowing “any loss of area or control of area.” And Capitol Police Assistant Chief Robert Howe, while asserting his forces are capable of protecting “both the Capitol and the new museum,” indicated that the museum — because it is within the Capitol’s security perimeter — could be subject to additional operating restrictions.

“There are a number of concerns which exist on the Capitol site,” said one senior House Republican aide. “Both in the House and in the Senate there’s concern about the location, the proximity within the security perimeter of the Capitol, especially in light of the fact there are other viable sites that are just as good.”

But the commission’s Wilkins sees such questions as obstructionist tactics used to ensure the museum does not get built on Capitol grounds.

“There are people that don’t like the Capitol site and therefore because they don’t like it they are raising every issue in the kitchen sink to foil it,” Wilkins said, adding that a structure on the Capitol site would be in line with both the L’Enfant and McMillan plans for the National Mall.

‘Keep It Simple’

Although most Members have refrained from officially weighing in on a site — including the bill’s Senate co-author, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) — Rep. Robert Brady (Pa.), a Democratic member of the House Administration Committee, has said he supports the Capitol location.

“The friction that we’ve seen has come from the GOP side of the aisle who we believe is resistant to the idea in the first place,” said Brady Chief of Staff Stanley White.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who also sits on the House Administration panel, has said he is adamantly opposed to any African-American museum on Capitol or National Mall grounds due to the precedent it would set for other racial or ethnic groups.

Despite his preference for the Capitol site, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the longtime champion of the bill and Congressional Black Caucus member, is focused on getting the legislation passed as quickly as possible. Unlike Kingston, he believes disagreements over location can wait until later.

“I’m pleased with the Senate bill and if the House just accepts the Senate bill, it’s fine with me,” said Lewis, the bill’s co-author. “We need to keep it as simple and get it through so we can get to work.”

But not all CBC members are in complete accord.

“I was very upset that there was an attempt to dilute it,” CBC Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said of the inclusion of the three additional sites before the legislation was introduced.

“I do want the legislation to pass. And I agree with [Lewis] to an extent that we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it, but at the same time. … If you really want the Capitol site as I do I think we have to be letting that be known now,” he said.

The senior Republican aide, however, said it is likely the bill would be altered, possibly by adding the Banneker Overlook site to the legislation. “Everything is up for discussion,” the aide said.

“I think there was a lot of support for that particular site and no real explanation has been given as to why it was taken out,” added the aide.

As to whether Lewis is amenable to the idea of adding sites, the veteran Peach State Congressman indicated he may be open to some changes.

“It doesn’t matter how many different sites including the Banneker site — let’s get the legislation passed,” he said.