When the editors of the Washington City Paper learned that the National Park Service had decided to spend $40 million on a dangerous scheme for sneaking visitors into the Washington Monument through a tunnel, how did they react? They ran seven pages of resolutely uninformative text in a belabored “humorous” mode (“Going Down,” 2/21). The fact that the Park Service proposal is ridiculous, ugly, and misconceived from the beginning is enough to inspire the humorist in anyone after recovering from an initial reaction of horror. But the horror is what’s important, not the silliness.
The Park Service wants to pay for a long-stalled underground visitor facility by calling it part of an anti-terrorist security system. The excuse of a tunnel connection to the monument has made funds easier to get, as the Park Service has acknowledged publicly.
Gillette missed the opportunity to uncover how much time, energy, and money the agency has invested in trying to discredit a viable alternative put forward by the Committee of 100. I was involved in the development of that alternative. In discussing it with them, I have witnessed the personal embarrassment of Park Service employees, who are required to invoke the authority of unavailable “experts” to get around the relative inadequacies of their own proposal. They are nonplussed by the intellectual challenge of a reasonable general concept that results in a thoroughly faulty system.
All this is important, and would be so whatever building we were discussing. When the subject is the Washington Monument, it rises to the highest level of urgency. Notwithstanding the dyspeptic personal musings of a writer whose background has given him every opportunity to understand such things better than he does, the monument is a major national icon. We are fortunate that historical forces brought it to us unencumbered by descriptive sculpture and esoteric symbols. The elements that were left out of the design would have narrowed its meaning through explicit interpretation of George Washington’s life. As it is, the monument’s meaning must be derived by the visitors, who bring their own understanding of the man with them. They see the grand scale, central location, and utter simplicity of the structure, and derive their own sense of his moral dominance, his pivotal importance, and his uncompromising principles.
To approach the monument sneakily, through subterranean passageways, would distort its meaning, turning it into a symbol of fear, subterfuge, and deception. This clean, simply majestic, upright monument was meant to be entered proudly at ground level. Worse than that, the Park Service proposes to combine sneakiness with danger to innocent visitors for the sake of funding a desirable but unnecessary amenity. What a story that could have been!
The publication of “Going Down” represents a serious error in judgment by the editors of the City Paper. Given a clear opportunity to inform the public about a subject that involves its safety, an enormous amount of taxpayer money, and the symbolism of one of our country’s most important monuments, the editors failed in their most basic responsibility to their readers.
“Washington, Symbol and City”
National Building Museum