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Architects Not Welcome
Congress rejects the pros; AIA fights back

Were Thomas Ustick Walter, fourth Architect of the Capitol, asked today to make the same expansions to the Capitol building he completed 144 years ago, Washington might be without one of its most iconic and recognizable landmarks. “When he added the north and south wings, he realized the proportions were off with [Charles] Bulfinch’s rotunda and so added the cast-iron dome everyone now knows so well,” Alan Hantman, the tenth Architect of the Capitol, who retired in February, said in an interview. Though the cost of the dome skyrocketed from $100,000 to $1.47 million, and the nation was on the verge civil war, Congress suppoprted Walter’s vision.

If only Hantman had it so good.

For the last decade, Hantman has been in charge of the daily operation and preservation of the Capitol Complex, including the management of 2,200 employees overseeing 15 million square feet. But during this time he was also tasked with directing the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, a subterranean complex beneath the East Capitol Grounds. But as costs and delays mounted, largely due to security concerns and expanded plans, Congress grew restless, laying much of the blame on Hantman and his office. Now, as the Senate considers Hantman’s replacement, it has come to light that non-architects are also up for the job.

“The post is called the Architect of the Capitol, but it is largely a job of managing the facilities,” said Howard Gantman, staff director of the Senate Rules Committee. The committee recently submitted three names to the White House to fill the position, “some of which were architects,” Gantman said. None, however, came from the American Institute of Architects, which submitted four names, as it had a decade earlier, when the selections were met with approval by senators and President Bill Clinton. This time, Gantman said, the Senate sought “significant, very significant management experience,” which, according to Gantman, none of the AIA candidates possessed.

Instead, so-called facilities managers were considered, many with campus or military experience. Hantman struggles to understand why. “I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive,” Hantman said, referring to facilities management and architecture. He emphasized that at a historically significant building like the U.S. Capitol, an architect’s expertise is essential. “With a bottom line person, who’s interested only in getting things done instead of how you get things done, well, you would end up destroying a national treasure,” Hantman said.

Still, it is hard to argue money with Congress. Initially budgeted in 2000 at $225 million, with a completion date of 2004, the Capitol Visitor Center will not open at least until next year and costs are pushing $600 million. A number of inconceivable events, namely 9/11 and an anthrax scare a month later, lead to expanded security messages, which in turn lead to an extensive redesign. Contending with layers of Congressional oversight lengthened this process, while prices skyrocketed amid a building boom. “He did an incredible job under very difficult circumstances,” Florida Representative John Mica, a Hantman booster and former member of the Capitol Preservation Commission, said. “Unfortunately, he got caught up in the politics.”

Paul Mendelsohn, vice president for government and community relations for the AIA, said politics has played a definite role. “The plans went from 170,000 to 550,000 square feet, along with all these Congressional demands,” he said. “They’re just trying to save political capital by turning Alan into a scapegoat.” Though the names are already off to the White House, Mendelsohn said the AIA continues to lobby for the Architect of the Capitol to be just that.

Hantman, having moved on to consulting work, continues to look to Thomas Walter as an example, and hopes Congress will, too. “He built the dome because he was an architect and he had the big picture in mind,” Hantman said. “That’s what I think we could lose if a non-architect is brought on.”

Matt Chaban