Springfield State Journal-Register

August 14, 2005

Debate over Lincoln Memorial balances security and symbolism

BY Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON--The effort to fortify Washington against potential terrorists has moved to the Lincoln Memorial, an international symbol of democracy and freedom.

The monument to the sixteenth president, which has a unique place in history as a stage for the Martin Luther King Jr. "I Have A Dream" speech and other historic events, is now surrounded by temporary orange snow fences and gray concrete Jersey barriers.

For more than three years, officials at several federal agencies and commissions have been attempting to balance the need for more security with their desire to preserve the memorial's artistic design and to honor the American ideals it represents.

Those officials are now attempting to fine-tune a plan that calls for installing anti-terrorism bollards, or short posts, at the east end of the monument near the reflecting pool, to deter bomb-carrying trucks. The precise position of those bollards and their obtrusiveness are ongoing points of contention.

"I think it's a tribute to the Lincoln Memorial and the feelings that people have for Lincoln and his place in history that there is this struggle, because all this security does make him less accessible," said Judy Scott Feldman, chairman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall and a critic of earlier security proposals.

Rejected proposals included a wall at the base of the memorial, a dry moat and even a row of stone bollards at the top of the memorial's steps, which Feldman said looked like "gaping teeth."

"It just looked to me forbidding to see this line of jagged white things that separated the reflecting pool from the monument itself," said Feldman, an art historian. "It was just inappropriate ..."

The problem with more visible security measures is that "it looks like we're afraid and it fortifies a monument that is a monument to freedom and a monument to hope. And when you put walls and security around it, it's like wrapping itself in a cloak of fear. And that's a symbolism we really want to try to avoid," Feldman said.

Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which has a say in the final plan, called the Lincoln Memorial security design "one of the most difficult design problems I've encountered."

"The Lincoln memorial is unique on the mall in the sense that it really has been a venue for the expression of people's political values, democratic values," Luebke said. "So it's a very sensitive location and all the groups that have been reviewing it have been trying to come up with a solution that provides the least negative impact to that visibility."

After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress directed the National Park Service to come up with security measures for the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.

The Washington Monument was closed for eight months, reopening this past Fourth of July to good reviews for the way new low, curving granite walls surrounding it combine security and design. Planning for the Jefferson Memorial is just getting started.

The security upgrade for the Lincoln Memorial is part of a $15 million project that also includes roadway improvements designed to ease traffic flow around the monument and improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

A part of the security design was approved in 2003 by the National Capital Planning Commission and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. A 30-inch high, C-shaped granite security wall is being built around the back of the memorial.

Construction began in April 2004, creating havoc among motorists crossing the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Washington. The improvements include new pavement, newly configured lanes, safer pedestrian and bicycle paths, as well as new lighting and signs. The plan also calls for more drop-off areas for tour buses, new food and gift kiosks.

The roadway improvements are expected to be completed next summer. Work on the visitor facilities is scheduled to be completed in late 2006, said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line.

"This is the first major roadway improvement that has been done in over 40 years," Line said.

The most difficult decision has been how to close off the opening left by the low, C-shaped wall in order to block bomb-carrying trucks from approaching Mr. Lincoln from the east side, where he gazes out at the reflecting pool and the U.S. Capitol.

The roadway originally formed a complete circle around the memorial, but the east side was closed to vehicular traffic in 1976 to create a pedestrian plaza.

The current security plan would place dark metal bollards at the bottom of the steps near the reflecting pool, where they would be less visible for those standing on the steps up to the monument. A security cable hidden by tall hedges would line the sides of the stairs down to the reflecting pool.

The current debate has been narrowed down to the exact location of those bollards.

"It's a tightrope walk between the options," said Luebke, who said he and other commissioners prefer a design that will have the least visual impact.

If the final design is approved by the commissions involved within the next two months, the new security measures could be in place by the end of next summer, the park service spokesman.

"... our belief is that if we got it right at the Washington Monument, we will also get it right at the Lincoln Memorial," Line said.