An obscure D.C. address may host our next national treasure.
Washington, some people say, is a city that’s best seen at night. Load the out-of-town relatives in the jalopy at dusk and gaze at the Jefferson Memorial shimmering over the Tidal Basin, the Lincoln Memorial glimmering in the Reflecting Pool, the Washington Monument towering over the National Mall.
And, if one designer has his way, after basking in the glow of the U.S. Capitol, you might want to head east down Pennsylvania Avenue all the way to Barney Circle.
Yes, Barney Circle.
You might already drive by Barney Circle at night en route to I-295 or I-395—the highways to hell, or, at the very least, to Prince William and Prince George’s Counties. The wayward traffic knot currently plays host to grass, a used-car lot, and a McDonald’s—not exactly the stuff of such statue-decorated D.C. roundabouts as Dupont or Logan. Barney Circle, in fact, isn’t even a full circle. No wonder the only tourists who ever see the Southeast D.C. landmark are the ones hankering for the two-for-$2.42 Big Mac special or those with loved ones buried in neighboring Congressional Cemetery.
Rodney Cook, though, sees Barney Circle as the aesthetic gateway to the nation’s capital—and the entire millennium, too. “It was amazing to me, all the construction to celebrate the millennium in Europe,” says Cook. “It started to bother me that the United States wasn’t doing anything.”
On Feb. 10, inside the U.S. Capitol, Cook announced the creation of the Millennium Gate Foundation, which aims to raise money to build a national monument to commemorate the millennium. Cook wants to build the monument in Washington—very possibly at Barney Circle. “Washington to me is the greatest urban experiment ever achieved,” Cook declares. But the Atlanta-based designer says that the experiment hasn’t quite been completed. D.C.’s original planner, Frenchman Pierre Charles L’Enfant, envisioned three major gateways in his original map of the city, says Cook.
None have been built, Cook continues. Yet.
In recent years, Barney Circle has gotten a lot of press because some D.C. planners wanted it to be a gateway for something else: a freeway. Throughout the ’90s, locals vigorously fought a plan to build a connection between the Anacostia Freeway (I-295) and the Southeast/Southwest Freeway (I-395) right in the middle of the surrounding neighborhood. In 1996, the D.C. Council voted down a contract to begin construction on the project. It has languished ever since.
When Cook presented his pet project to the Barney Circle Neighborhood Watch Association last Monday night, he took many of its residents by surprise. He readily admits that most people, at first, might think that the proposed $50 million Millennium Monument seems about as likely to happen right now as D.C. statehood. “We are dreamers, but dreamers that can make things happen,” Cook warned the crowd.
And those dreamers apparently have downright dreamy bank accounts: Millennium Gate Foundation supporters, Cook says, include presidential scions Priscilla Roosevelt and Susan Eisenhower, author Tom Wolfe, and Christopher Forbes, Steve Forbes’ brother. Cook also counts Georgia Sen. Paul Coverdell, departing New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford as influential backers. So far, Cook reports, the foundation has raised $3 million.
Cook is comfortable shaking down the glitterati for the public good. He designed the World Athletes Monument at Pershing Point—with considerable financial assistance from the Prince of Wales Foundation—for the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympics. Cook says that he chose to place the monument on a section of one of Atlanta’s main thoroughfares—Peachtree Street—that had been abandoned and neglected by city officials. In the past couple of years, he says, the area has seen a resurgence of development in the shadow of the monument.
“One of the things we initially told [District officials] is that we would like a circumstance like that,” Cook said to the Barney Circlites Monday night. “In the circumstance of Barney Circle, the highway, you were able to stop—but you’re still cut off from the river.”
Cook says that D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C. Planning Director Andrew Altman, and officials from the city’s Department of Public Works have all contributed ideas and interest to the project. In addition to Barney Circle, the city has suggested three other possible sites for the monument: the intersections of New York and Florida Avenues NE, M and 2nd Streets SE, and Maryland Avenue and 14th Street NE.
Cook, though, made it clear that Barney Circle has many assets that the other sites lack. “The urbanism of this neighborhood is superior to all the others,” he explained.
Barney Circle residents—many of whom cut their political teeth during the freeway fight—may not have had much to say about a gate’s symbolic importance for D.C.’s next thousand years. It seemed pretty clear, though, that Cook’s structure would be good for something a little more tangible: protection. No doubt some veterans of the freeway fight reasoned that it’s hard to build a highway through a national treasure. So they talked up their neighborhood as the best location. “Some of us just can’t see something like this happening at the other sites,” said resident Eleanor Hill.
“I’ve lived here 20 years, and besides the Barney Circle Neighborhood Watch Association, this is the most exciting thing to happen here,” gushed neighbor Ann Baldinger.
“To the extent that I understand what you are offering us, it seems like a gift—a wonderful gift,” added Potomac Avenue SE resident Rob Larsen.
Not everyone in Atlanta saw Cook’s Olympic monument as a civic gift. The Pershing Point design drew harsh words from architecture critics, many of whom labeled Cook as a dilettante. He does not, in fact, hold a license or degree in architecture.
For the Millennium Monument, though, Cook has left the design work to recognized professionals. During the first week in July, 10 young architects—one winner and nine finalists—who have been selected from a design competition sponsored by the University of Notre Dame and the Millennium Gate Foundation will converge on Barney Circle and the other sites to construct the final design.
According to the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, the competition received 81 entries. And the judges for the competition surely weren’t amateurs: They include Yale University School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern; University of Miami School of Architecture Dean Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk; Cambridge, Mass., architect Michael Dennis; and local architect Allan Greenberg.
“The winning plan was masterful—it completely engaged the river,” Cook said with a tinge of jealousy. He could not reveal the actual plan or the name of the architect, though; the winner will be announced officially over Memorial Day weekend. Cook estimates that construction of the monument will take three to five years.
By the end of Monday’s question-and-answer session, Cook had the notoriously feisty Barney Circle crowd eating out of his hand as he seemed to speak knowingly about the District’s—and Barney Circle’s—aesthetic and political hurdles.
“If we can move in and give something beautiful to your neighborhood, it might even give you more inspiration to keep [the proposed freeway] at bay,” Cook told the crowd. “As a student of urbanism, I believe that you can truly bring cities back to people with very little investment.” Well, make that a very large private investment. CP