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History


Part of the US Capitol building is in Rock Creek Park

There are heaps of sandstone in the heart of Rock Creek Park that used to be a part of the Capitol Building. They were taken down in 1958 when part of the iconic building was expanded and rebuilt in marble. Now, they've kind of been forgotten.


Photo by the author.

J. George Stewart, the architect of the Capitol, wanted to see the eastern front rebuilt in marble. The old facade was cracking, it didn't line up with the Senate and House extensions that went onto the building in the 1850s, and he thought marble was just nicer.

Steward, a former one term congressman from Delaware, had never actually received any architectural training, and he faced a huge uphill challenge convincing people this was a good idea. A bitter war played out in Washington's editorial pages over the following months between the sandstone purists and the marble backers.

Powerful Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn liked the idea. But the American Institute of Architects blasted the proposal, calling it a "desecration" and labeling Rayburn as a "historic barbarian."

Rayburn pushed the plans forward in any case.

On December 13, 1958 the Daytona Beach Morning Journal wrote that "Workmen are saving everything, even the debris and rubble, and storing it safely on the Capitol grounds".

The old Aquia Creek sandstone facade was taken apart piece by piece by the John McBeath & Sons company. They finished the job in seven months, dutifully cataloging each stone and stacking them by the House of Representatives.

In their place went Special Georgia White marble, provided by the Georgia Marble Company for $2.8 million. The new front was 33 feet farther than the original, and lined up with the House and Senate stairways.


Image from the Architect of the Capitol.

What to do with the stones?

According to the Washington Post, when the project started nobody had thought through what to do with the stones. "Eventual disposition of the dismantled portions is to be determined [at a later date] by the Commission for Extension of the Capitol, headed by House Speaker Sam Rayburn."

Steward and Rayburn consulted with the advisory architects who suggested donating the stones to the Smithsonian, or reconstructing them into a new museum. However, Steward (who was being crucified in the press during all of this) had spent the last year trying to convince everyone about all the ways in which sandstone was deficient.

Highlight the stones in a new museum? No way! He wanted the blocks out of sight and out of mind.

The stones first traveled to the Capitol Powerplant, where they sat until 1975 when facilities there expanded. That's when they made their way to a National Park Service facility deep inside Rock Creek Park.

At the time, they were under the custody of the now-defunct Commission on the Extension of the United States Capitol. According to a 1982 Washington Post article, possession of the stones then passed to the House and Senate office building commissions.

Present day

The stones have been sitting in Rock Creek Park for the last 40 years, slowly gathering moss and sinking into the ground.

The United States Capitol Historical Society has been cutting up a small number of the stones and selling them as bookends (with permission from the Speaker of the House). The stones are also occasionally used for small restoration jobs in the Capitol and White House.

The 22 corinthian columns from the old east front were rescued from obscurity in 1984 by DC local Ethel Garrett, who successfully lobbied to have them moved to a more fitting location. Today, they stand sentry over a reflecting pool and 20 acres of meadow at the National Arboretum.


Photo by Fred Dunn on Flickr.

Cross-posted from ArchitectoftheCapital.org. If you enjoyed reading about the capitol stones you might also like the old Civil War fort hidden in Rock Creek Park.

History


Half a century before Metro, the Washington Post proposed building a downtown subway

Talk of a subway in DC first appeared in the Washington Post way back in 1909. At the time, the idea was just to run a small loop between the Capitol building and the White House.


Image from the Washington Post.

An intriguing but strange Washington Post article, published in 1909, pushed for the subway. There's no author listed and it doesn't say it's from the editorial board, so it's unclear exactly who at the Post was behind the effort.

The proposed subway loop would have run through the basements of government buildings in the heart of downtown. The proposed line also included stations under the Corcoran, Center Market, and four of the city's leading hotels.


Stops along the proposed subway line. Map by the author. Click for an interactive version.

Unlike our modern Metrorail system, the 1909 proposal notably did not have any stations in suburban residential areas for commuters. This is partially because a large suburban population didn't exist yet, and partially because the development that did exist was supported by a robust streetcar network.

The primary purpose of the subway would have been to serve government employees, but as the Post suggested, "The common people might well be permitted to derive some of the advantages and benefits of its use, when those wearing togas and solemn visages do not tax the system to its utmost capacity."

Inspiration for the subway came from the tunnel system built in March of the same year that connected the Russell Senate Office Building with the Capitol. The tunnel boasted a primitive people-mover that ran on tracks set into the floor.


Image from the Architect of the Capitol.

The Washington Post saw the Russell subway as a nucleus that could be expanded "from the Senate Office Building to the Union Station, thence to Treasury corner, the White House, the State, War and Navy Building."

Unlike WMATA's massive standalone stations, the Russell subway was "a narrow gauge affair" that ran back and forth from one building to another. The "stations" were really just basement rooms. The Post didn't provide any clarification on whether these basement stations were supposed to be the model for the larger subway system.

It is incredible to imagine what a subway system that ran through tunnels linking the White House, Capitol, hotels, and markets, with stops in Congressional building basements, would look like today.

The mass transit system pitched by the Washington Post was never built. The District already had reliable streetcar service, and construction of the impractical subway would have been very costly.

But the Post's ideas, which predated WMATA by half a century, was referenced in the 1960's as evidence of the need for more mass transit in Washington.

An expanded version of this post appears on the Architect of the Capital blog.

Roads


67 Congress members to feds: Measure the movement of people, not cars

The federal government hands states about $40 billion a year for transportation, money they can basically spend however they want. The result in many places is a lot of expensive, traffic-inducing highways that get clogged with cars soon after they're finished. Can measuring the effect of all this spending lead to better decisions?

US DOT is developing a metric to assess how well states address congestion. This is a minefield—if the new congestion rule only measures the movement of cars, it's going to entrench 60 years of failed transportation policy. Unfortunately, the first draft of the DOT rule left a lot to be desired.

Reformers have been pushing the agency to revise the rule so it takes a broader, multi-modal view of congestion. Stephen Lee Davis at Transportation for America reports 19 senators and 48 US representatives have written a letter to US DOT [PDF] demanding a healthier approach.

The Congress members write:

If we focus, as this proposed rule does, on keeping traffic moving at high speeds at all times of day on all types of roads and streets, then the result is easy to predict: states and MPOs will prioritize investments to increase average speeds for cars, at the expense of goals to provide safe, reliable, environmentally sensitive, multi-modal transportation options for all users of the transportation system, despite those goals being stated in federal statute. This singular focus on moving vehicles undermines the progress this Administration has made on multi-modal planning and investments through the TIGER program. Encouraging faster speeds on roadways undermines the safety of roads for all users, as well as the economic vitality of our communities.

The excessive congestion performance measure should be amended to assess people hours of delay and not just vehicles. This change is critical to account for the many non-single occupancy vehicle users, including transit bus riders and bicyclists and pedestrians traveling along the corridor, which provide critical congestion relief and could be undercounted or even penalized under this measure.

The letter also insists that U.S. DOT require state and regional transportation agencies to assess the impact of projects on greenhouse gas emissions.

US DOT is currently accepting comments about the rule change. You can weigh in and help promote a better policy.

Crossposted from Streetsblog.

History


DC Home Rule almost had... the FBI picking the police chief

What if, instead of DC's mayor picking Chief Cathy Lanier to run the city's police department, we had a chief chosen by the FBI, or the Secret Service? Some members of Congress wanted it to be that way when they gave DC home rule in 1973.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Before the Home Rule Act, Congress made all of DC's laws, and the executive branch ultimately reported to the President of the United States, as if DC were another agency of the federal government (basically, it was). But in 1973, Congress set up our current system of an elected mayor and council. Only they balked at giving DC full autonomy.

Some worried that giving up the police power to local officials would let them blockade the Capitol and force Congress to submit to the will of local residents. Others, amazingly, feared that a popularly elected leader representing the people of DC might not actually be in favor of law and order.

This goes back to 1783

Control of the police is, in fact, the reason there is a District of Columbia in the first place. In the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, 400 soldiers of the Continental Army briefly besieged the delegates of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, demanding payment for services during the Revolutionary War.

The Pennsylvania Executive Council, then the executive branch of the Pennsylvania state government, refused to guarantee it would protect the Congress from the protest, so the delegates moved the capital out of Philadelphia. That experience was the reason the Constitution's authors provided for a federal district, to which the federal capital eventually moved in 1800.

Members worry the Mayor would not want order

In 1973, memories of the 1968 riots were still very fresh. The President had used the National Guard to keep peace, and members of Congress worried that without federal control, this might not happen. But why? At least a few members actually worried that the Mayor would actually be unwilling to act.

Congressman Delbert "Del" Latta (R-OH) said,

Another matter that concerns me about this bill is the matter of who is going to take over this police force in times of revolt or revolution or riot, whatever you have, like we had in the city a couple of years ago.

If we have an elected Mayor who is going to be looking to his constituency in the District of Columbia to reelect him the next election, is he going to respond when the city is burning such as we saw from the Capitol steps a few years ago, as readily as if the President of the United States had the authority right now to sign an order and take over the police department of the city? (p.1764)

Rep. Charles "Charlie" Rangel (D-NY, and still in Congress today) said, "One ... rationale, commonly used by persons against home rule is that home rule will result in a drastic increase in the crime rate for the District. ... Opponents of self-determination for the District are implying that the local government of the city, specifically the Mayor and City Council, would act in bad faith. (1723-1724)

Then-Police Chief Jerry Wilson wrote a letter to Congress addressing some of the concerns:

I recognize, as I am sure you do also, that some of the concerns over home rule for the District of Columbia directly relate to fear that local control of the police may result in misuse or nonuse of the police power in a manner adverse to the interests of the city, either as a local community or as the national capital. ...

Personally, I feel that apprehension over local control of police power in the District is misplaced. My own sense of this community is the overwhelming majority are responsible citizens who want effective law enforcement just as much as residents do in any other city. If the city of Washington is to be treated substantially as a local community, albeit a special one, rather than a federal enclave, then there is no reason to deprive local citizens of control over that fundamental local service, the police force. (1699)

The bill's authors and other members of Congress also noted that the President would have the authority to take over the police in a true emergency. Rep. Charles Diggs (D-MI) replied to critics, saying, "The committee felt that the President has inherent power to invoke whatever police power is required in case of an emergency. We are prepared to put this in more explicit language." (1764)

A provision specifically emphasizing this power was then part of the committee print of the bill which went to the House floor.

Amendments try to take the police chief appointment away from the Mayor

Some Congressmen were still not satisfied. Ancher Nelsen (R-MN) tried to introduce amendments that would have given other people besides the mayor the power to appoint the police chief.

His first proposal was to set up a Board of Police Commissioners with 3 members: the head of the US Secret Service, the head of the FBI, and the Mayor of the District of Columbia. They would submit 3 candidates for police chief to the President, who would pick among them. (2406)

Nelsen notes there was a Police Board in the 1860s, DC's previous episode of home rule, but it was abolished when Congress took control of the District back.

Rep. Brock Adams (D-WA) pointed out that there are lots of federal police forces to protect the federal interest, such as the Capitol Police, Park Police, Secret Service, FBI and more. This was not the case in 1783, when the Continental Congress did not even control the military during peacetime and depended entirely on state militias.

Stewart McKinney (R-CT) also disagreed with Nelsen, saying, "With regard to the problems we have been having in urban centers a police chief has to be one of the strongest and most compatible figures in the community's relationship." (2409)

This was also not something the White House had asked for, and the House defeated Nelsen's amendment, 132-275 with 27 not voting.

Nelson tried again, this time having the board of 3 commissioners nominate individuals to the Mayor. (2424)

Diggs said, "I would just like to understand from the distinguished ranking minority member of the committee [Nelsen] just what is his rationale behind wanting to have this kind of insulation with respect to the Police Commissioner or Chief of Police for this community." (2425) The House rejected this amendment on a voice vote, and that was the end of the matter. (2426)

However, Congress did limit the District's power over its criminal justice system in other ways, which we'll discuss in coming installments of this series.

All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in Home Rule for the District of Columbia, 1973-1974, Background and Legislative History of H.R. 9056, H.R. 9682, and Related Bills Culminating in the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act, Approved December 24, 1973 (Public Law 93-198), Serial No, S-4, US Government Printing Office, December 31, 1974.

This post first ran back in 2012. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

Bicycling


Memorial Bridge fixes could help more than just cars

Arlington Memorial Bridge needs serious repairs, or perhaps even a full replacement, in the next five years. As the National Park Service works to make that happen, there's also a chance to address some surrounding conditions that are hazardous for people on foot and on bike.


Photo by Bernt Rostad on Flickr.

NPS first sounded the alarm about the bridge last year after an inspection forced emergency repairs that partially closed the bridge, and started a ban on heavy vehicles, like buses, that's still in place today. Now, NPS says those repairs didn't do enough, and that it's inevitable that without $250 million in repairs, the bridge will be too dangerous for automobile travel by 2021.

Northern Virginia's Congressional delegation is on board with funding the effort to fix it, citing the fact that 68,000 people cross the bridge daily. Hopefully, they can convince their colleagues to join them.


Rust underneath the Memorial Bridge. Image from NPS.

The bridge is unsafe for more than just cars

Memorial Bridge bridge itself has wide sidewalks that usually allow enough room for most cyclists and pedestrians to share space. But the routes that connect to the bridge aren't safe for people on foot or bike.

In Virginia, the bridge connects to the George Washington Parkway and its accompanying trail, which is one of the region's most popular. Despite its popularity the trail has some particular challenges, namely that it intersects with the parkway—a limited access, high speed highway—in several places. Drivers are supposed to yield or stop for anyone trying to use the crosswalks, but there have been a number of crashes thanks to people rear-ending cars that were stopped to allow people to cross.


Image from Google Maps.

Issues on the DC side of the bridge stem from a confusing web of roads that force cyclists on their way to the Mall or downtown to either ride in very busy car traffic or on a narrow sidewalk.


One of the crosswalks where few drivers slow down. Image from Google Maps.

NPS has actually known about these issues longer than they have known about the bridge being in disrepair. But the agency has been resistant to do anything to fix them except in small ways where the first priority was not to slow down cars using the parkway.

Here are some ideas for fixing the bridge

NPS is straightening out some parts of the trail near Washington National Airport, where curves snake around a large tree and make it hard to see. The agency is also working to make it so cyclists don't have to travel through a busy parking lot near Teddy Roosevelt Island. But closer to the bridge itself, the trail could still get a lot safer.

One option is to create separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians on popular parts of the trail. NPS could also keep working to remove some of sharp curves and blind corners that are on the trail beyond what is being fixed at the airport. Finally, NPS needs to decide what to do about the crosswalks. If the GW Parkway is going to remain a high speed highway, then crosswalks more appropriate for a city street just won't work. Solutions might include rerouting the trail, slowing down speed limits, or even adding trail overpasses.

For the bridge itself, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) put forth its own idea for removing two car lanes and creating protected bike lanes a while back:


Diagram of a redesigned memorial bridge. Image from WABA.

Cutting the number of car lanes on the bridge would work since congestion there is pretty low. Average speeds at rush hour are higher than the speed limit, and a new bridge wouldn't need six car lanes.

The crux of the Memorial Bridge issue is safety, and that of cyclists and pedestrians shouldn't go ignored. But a safe bridge and surrounding area for them would also mean a safer place for drivers, as deciding to follow the law and share the road would become far less dangerous. Both NPS and leaders in Congress should be concerned about all bridge users.

If a concern for safety is a big reason why NPS is sounding the alarm now then they should also be using this opportunity to fix the persistent hazards that cyclists and pedestrians have faced on the trails around the bridge.

Parking


Roll Call recently made a great point about the Capitol's parking problem

In a recent post about cleaning up after Snowzilla, Roll Call, a blog newspaper that covers Congress, published a graphic showing that if you combined all the parking lots on the Capitol Grounds in need of plowing, they'd cover the National Mall. That's a crazy amount of parking.


Imagine if some of Washington's best locations for parks or buildings were parking lots! You don't have to! It's like that today. Image by Roll Call's Sean McMinn and Jia You.

Acres of surface parking lots surround the Capitol and its accessory buildings, and the question of whether they should even be there has long been a sore spot for those paying attention to land use in the District.

That amount of parking is particularly disheartening when you consider that all of these lots used to be blocks of apartments and offices that were very welcoming to people. The McMillan Commission imagined monumental office buildings surrounding the Capitol. In the 1920s, Congress expanded that vision dramatically, adding the open spaces to the north and buying up the lots to the south for future office buildings.

Now, they're parking lots, or parks on top of parking lots. Here's a map of all the surface parking on the Capitol Grounds:


The Capitol Grounds and the surface parking lots. Graphic by the author, with a map from DC GIS.

Congress gets a lot more parking than the rest of the government

The branch of the government that manages the land, the Architect of the Capitol is holding onto the land for now. It likes providing ample parking spaces for legislators, staff, and employees. The AOC won't say exactly how much parking, but a 2005 master plan allotted 5,800 spaces to the House of Representatives alone. Depending on how much the Senate, Supreme Court, Library of Congress, and support staff get, the number is probably far higher.


There are federal rules about how much parking there can be for federal employees. Image from NCPC.

Because Congress writes the rules, they've never been subject to review by the National Capital Planning Commission, which sets the parking regulations. The AOC's independence and access to funding has led to a bad reputation, from architecture critics to Congress itself.

To be fair, the AOC does plan to eventually spruce up their properties. Their 2011 Master Plan aims to eliminate all surface parking lots by 2026. But that master plan is short on details for how they'd do that, and it's not clear whether they'd bring the amount of parking in line with the rest of the Federal Government's limits on parking.

Given the sheer volume of parking at the Capitol complex, along with the possibilities for how we could otherwise use the land, the matter of how to scale it back deserves more thought.

Correction: This post originally referred to Roll Call as 'a blog that covers Congress.' While the article at hand was filed on Roll Call's blog, it's more accurate to call the publication a newspaper. Also, it has been clarified to note that the 5,800 figure for parking spaces is only for people who work at the House of Representatives.

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