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Remember the huge blue sign on Pennsylvania Avenue this summer that said COMING 2016: TRUMP? Local officials complained about it. The rest of us rolled our eyes.
Turns out, the sign was warning us about more than a hotel opening.
Autocrats have long commandeered urban space to make way for their own power. Baron Haussmann, the majordomo of Emperor Napoleon III, famously destroyed much of medieval Paris and rebuilt it along grander lines. Widened boulevards offered light and air, but also strategic advantages for the regime, such as allowing the army to maneuver better. Benito Mussolini blasted an avenue through ancient ruins and staged fascist parades there. He also built a whole district of Rome, called EUR, for a world’s fair that never happened.
A U.S. president can’t bulldoze parts of the capital at will or order a colossus of himself to be placed in the middle of the Mall. But there is every reason to believe Trump—a real estate developer whose taste in architecture runs to Louis XIV excess—will try to use the city to glorify his reign. The New York Times reported that Trump wants to continue holding rallies while in office because he “likes the instant gratification and adulation that the cheering crowds provide.”
Trump’s new 263-room hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, which opened in September inside the Old Post Office building, is unprecedented in American history. Never before has a president-elect or sitting president controlled a major piece of real estate in downtown Washington. The Old Post Office, a historic landmark, stands directly on the axis of power between the White House and the Capitol.
The Trump Organization does not own the Old Post Office; the federal government does. Donald Trump leased the building for 60 years from the General Services Administration (GSA). He said this week he will “remove” himself from his business interests and will announce details about those plans in mid-December. But Trump continues to hold a large stake in the hotel and will soon have authority over his own landlord—a flagrant conflict of interest.
The Old Post Office is already a site of protest and will likely remain one even after Trump becomes president. The location is both convenient and symbolic. It’s on “America’s Main Street” (unlike the gated and buffered White House) and close to Freedom Plaza, another popular protest site.
But here’s the rub. Thanks to the terms of the lease, the Trump Organization controls the small plaza in front of the hotel. Anytime it wants to evict protesters, it can. Additionally, the District Department of Transportation granted the Trump Hotel rights to the curbside traffic lane on Pennsylvania Avenue for its valet service. This has already forced one long-running D.C. street festival to move to another location.
Trump’s track record on public space is far from encouraging. At the Trump Tower in New York, he has repeatedly flouted city rules requiring him to dedicate the atrium to public use, removing public benches and installing counters for hawking “Make America Great Again” caps.
In Westchester County, N.Y., there is a Donald J. Trump State Park on land Trump bought to build a golf course, before local politicians stymied his effort. Trump then donated the land to the state, announcing the gift at a lavish press conference. But he never followed through with funds for upkeep and amenities like picnic tables. He did claim the tax donation. The park fell into neglect and closed. At one point, Trump demanded that the state give him the land back. The state refused.
The day after D.C. Public School students marched on the Trump International Hotel, guards patrolled the building behind metal fencing. The main entrance was closed off. The plaza was empty except for one man, his dreadlocks twisted into side ponytails, a dog sleeping beside him. As tourists snapped photos, he smiled and held up a sign: #FUCKTRUMP. Another man tentatively approached the barriers and asked a guard how to get inside. “You’ve got a meeting with the Führer?” side-ponytail man shouted as the other man scurried around the corner to 11th Street.
The Pennsylvania Avenue entrance is still closed. A spokesperson for Trump Hotels tells City Paper by email: “The main entrance has always been designated as 11th street [sic] as that is the access for motor vehicles / valet parking, as well as pedestrians.”
This is not true. The hotel plan approved by the government in 2014 promised that “the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance would be … the primary pedestrian point of entry.” Instead of entering through gracious arches there, visitors are now steered to a side entry, and passersby are treated to the sight of closed front doors and metal barriers. (The clock tower, run by the National Park Service, will reopen next year with a public entry at the back.)
How long will the barriers stay up? GSA seems to defer to the Trump Organization. A different Trump spokesperson says hotel management does not discuss security “as a matter of policy.” The arrangements don’t cause as much hassle as those around Trump Tower in New York, where Fifth Avenue is nearly closed off, yet the barriers are defensive architecture in a city already rife with it.
I remember this building from its more relaxed days. My father worked in the Old Post Office when I was growing up. Back then, it was home to two small federal agencies, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I was in awe of the tower—the third-highest in the city—and my father’s office in a turret on the northeast corner. When I visited, we would eat lunch with the tourists in the food court and take the elevator up to the observation deck.
The food court is gone, replaced by a lobby that’s heavy on the gilding and richly colored marble favored by the developer-in-chief. Massive crystal chandeliers hang from the metal trusses across the atrium, evoking the New York Times’ original verdict on the building: “a cross between a cathedral and a cotton mill.”
When the hotel opened and struggled to find takers for its ultra-pricey rooms, the awkward building seemed appropriate for a candidate whose suits never fit him quite right, despite his wealth. The Old Post Office was completed in 1899, just as its ornate Romanesque Revival style was going out of fashion. Its technology became obsolete almost immediately, and some of the construction was deemed shoddy. Yet the building survived, despite multiple attempts to have it demolished.
As president, Trump will have authority over the GSA, and no agreement has yet been reached to preempt or limit that. He has said on many occasions that he loathes fancy dinners in tents and believes tents are beneath the dignity of state dinners. The White House doesn’t have a ballroom. Will Trump try to build one, as he offered to do for the Obama administration in 2010? Or will he push for state dinners to be held down the street in his hotel, which has “the largest luxury ballroom in all of Washington, D.C.,” according to its website? He’ll profit personally if his hotel hosts government affairs.
The hotel is already courting foreign diplomats who hope to curry favor with the new president. Will it be surveilled by the Secret Service, along with Trump Tower, and at taxpayers’ expense?
When Pierre L’Enfant laid out his plan for Washington, he made the separation of powers under our constitution visible and tangible, setting the Capitol at a distance from the White House. The grand avenue that links them reflects Enlightenment values, and recent protests demonstrate that it continues to be a democratic space. But our avenues, plazas, and parks could also lend themselves to a dark display of one man’s power. In our current upside-down reality, that’s not crazy to contemplate.
On Inauguration Day, protestors will line the parade route, and the thin-skinned Trump will no doubt bristle at them. Activists are currently fighting in court for the right to protest in front of the hotel and in Freedom Plaza, against the wishes of Trump’s Inaugural Committee.
But while Trump may live in the White House for the next four years, the city belongs to us. “Physical space in the nation’s capital is especially important and valuable, since that is our national political theater,” says Benjamin Barber, a political theorist and author who teaches at Fordham University. The hotel puts the principle of public space to the test, and Barber believes principle will win: “The public will make sure that happens.”