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Architecture and power intersect in funny ways. In France, President François Mitterand is finishing the last of his grand projets—a new library, a new Louvre—securing his spot in the national profile for posterity. In the sub-Sahara, a minor West African potentate has cheered himself up with a life-size replica of St. Peter’s. And here in the District, Marion Barry has added to his Anacostia residence a $38,000 gatehouse that looks like a good place for a puppet show.
The mayoral security shack—the second ever in D.C.—occupies an important place among the city’s domestic outbuildings. Sharon Pratt Kelly erected its predecessor shortly after her election in 1990. The Kelly prototype was a blank little shed, unwelcome in her neighborhood for the martial air it lent her Colonial Village street. When her term expired, the Department of Public Works mobilized 12 workers to remove Checkpoint Kelly at a cost of $1,500.
Alas, Barry has missed this opportunity to one-up Kelly aesthetically. His gatehouse occupies the grounds of his Craftsman bungalow at the end of a shady cul-de-sac. The house itself is a sweet rambler, an early-century dream. The yard is nice too, but to all appearances, the mayor’s master planner has let the boss down: The recent additions make the place look as aesthetically considered as the Mexican border.
The gatehouse, like the $12,000 fence delineating the property, shows no stylistic or formal bearings. The fence runs its course in the Federal style, leaving the little vinyl-sided gatehouse completely lost and alone. Compounding the error, the shack makes no attempt to reach out to its neighbors. The gatehouse could have paid its respects to the butterscotch-colored bungalow by echoing its shingles or brick base. For a more precious effect, little rafter tails could have been left sticking out of the roof. Or for maximum impact, the gatehouse could have been done up like the neighbors’ marvelous Folk Victorian showboat.
Instead, the gatehouse’s most obvious architectural statement comes in its outsize windows and door, which make the tiny building look somewhat agog. The oversize apertures could be postmodern puns on the transparency the little shack needs for surveillance—but they’re not. The windows are in fact covered with No-Vue metallic film so that at midday one can’t see into the booth’s interior. Here it’s not easy to watch the watchmen.
At least, at $593 per square foot, this tiny shelter is adaptable. If Barry’s ever not mayor, his new puppet-booth will convert nicely into a smokehouse.