The Magazine

Fortress Washington

Claudia Anderson, Washingtonian.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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In 1975, I moved back to Washington after several years away and started working as a freelance editor from home. It was lonely work, and sometimes I'd go stir crazy.

On those days, I'd pack up my pencils and manuscript, bundle my three-year-old and my one-year-old into their twin stroller, and set off with great concentration over the uneven brick sidewalks of Capitol Hill to drop the kids at their sitters'. Unburdened, I'd almost run the length of East Capitol Street to the Library of Congress and a desk under its soaring dome.

Back then, anyone off the street could walk in and use the books; maybe you had to be 18. It thrilled me that that majestic place was mine. And not only mine. In among the serious scholars I recognized a few characters from the neighborhood. I recall one regular, a frail black man in a long navy coat who used to read books about carpentry. The hush, the cool, the solidity of the place, the Gutenberg Bible in its glass case out in the foyer near the great marble staircase--they belonged to us.

The Library of Congress is directly across East Capitol Street from the white marble temple of the Supreme Court, and facing both across First Street--in a layout familiar to all who studied the arrangements for the inauguration of President Obama--is the Capitol itself. Just as the library used to be my work annex, these mighty public buildings were our neighborhood landmarks and the destination of our walks. The stone rims of the ornamental pools in front of the Supreme Court are just the right height for a toddler to lean against, the better to splash small hands, and sometimes the guards were willing to look the other way. On the Capitol grounds, inside a grove of yews, the kids had a secret place.

Our favorite, though, was not the east side of the Capitol--where 32 years ago we joined the crowd to watch Jimmy Carter's swearing in, the kids in their stroller, me straining to hear--but the broad stone terrace on the west side, with its sweeping view down the Mall all the way to Virginia. This is where presidents have taken the oath of office ever since Ronald Reagan, with his dramatic flair, shifted the ceremony here in 1981. It's where we used to brave the crowds on the Fourth of July to watch the fireworks. Usually, though, on ordinary days and fondly remembered warm summer nights, just a handful of casual visitors, including joggers and dog walkers, would have the terrace to ourselves.

I don't suppose we'll ever go back there. The terrace and much of the Capitol grounds were closed to the public shortly after 9/11. Around the same time work began on a new visitors' center. Between them, construction and security kept the Capitol walled off from its neighbors lo these seven years.

But now the work is done. At long last, the barricades have come down, and even the special platforms and barriers for the recent inauguration have mostly been dismantled and stored away. I walked over the other afternoon to see what it's like to have our Capitol back.

Of course it's not the same. The yews and many of the beautiful old trees are gone. New trees have been planted beside the immense ramps and stairways that now dominate the east grounds, leading down to the subterranean visitors' center. But far from shading the Capitol lawn, the new trees are mostly below ground level. The ramps are walled with dark gray stone. The whole has the feel of a fortress.

I walked down. The visitors' center had just closed for the day, but through the glass doors I could see a phalanx of metal detectors inside and guards milling about. I walked back up.

No one stopped me from approaching the Capitol building, but a guard at the bottom of the central stairway leading to the old main entrance confirmed that that door--which we used to use impromptu, to the envy and amazement of foreign visitors--is now closed to the public. Needless to say, the west terrace, with the view, is off limits for good.

There are reasons for all this. I remember when a Capitol guard was shot and killed by a deranged man back even before 9/11. I realize ordinary people can still use the Library of Congress if they just obtain the proper photo ID and wait in line to pass through security. Like everyone else, I submit to all this quietly, but not without a pang for the openness we used to prize.

CLAUDIA ANDERSON