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Security at the Jefferson Memorial

(Courtesy: The National Park Service/The National Captial Planning Commission)

By Philip Kennicott

Get ready for more bollards. The National Capital Planning Commission, one of the oversight bodies that deals with planning and design issues in the District, met today to consider security plans for the Jefferson Memorial. Commissioners were presented with three options, one that runs a fairly prominent but visually porous barrier along the perimeter of the sight, roughly following the road pattern; another would tuck a more discrete set of barriers into the landscape; and a third would build a formal barrier integrated into the circular design of the monument and its grounds.

Commissioners gravitated to the first option, the road-side barrier that would use of square stone piers and metal runners to create an open, fence-like form. The good news is that these security elements become slightly less odious every time competent designers think about how to minimize the impact. The strength of this fence, reinforced by cables hidden in the metal bars, is much greater than its relatively open appearance would suggest. And a well designed barrier would be an infinite improvement over the provisional security now in place.

The downside? All three security ideas require bollards to cover some areas of the perimeter. And the preferred option would require the removal and likely loss of 53 trees, seven of them historic ones.

This is no small matter. When the memorial was first being considered in the late 1930s, there was considerable controversy not just over its retrograde design, but about the loss of cherry trees necessary for its construction. Now we shall lose yet more historic trees, and for what? Better security, but no visual improvement to the memorial itself.

There was a fourth option in front of the commission today, but it got no attention, explication or support: the option to do nothing. It should be considered seriously. The security arrangements under consideration give protection against car bombs directed at the memorial, but would do little to prevent an attack with firearms or a suicide bomber. Car bomb attacks could still have devastating consequences if directed against tourists clustering on sidewalks in the spot reserved for tour busses, with perhaps greater loss of life than an attack on the memorial itself.

So the entire security perimeter is really meant to defend the physical structure of the memorial. Which is only 68 years old. Yes, it's a beloved icon, but it isn't particularly historic, not in the way the Lincoln Memorial is fraught with emotional and political memory. Its power is in its excellent, simple design, not embedded in the stones of the structure itself. One would certainly lament it's loss, but it could be easily rebuilt. Losing Rudolph Evans's statue of Jefferson would be sad, but nothing compared to losing Daniel Chester French's statue of Lincoln. The symbolic wound be substantial, but not nearly as substantial as an attack on other Washington icons.

Perhaps it doesn't need to be defended, perhaps this is one of those spots in Washington where it would be a more powerful statement to leave the perimeter open, to demonstrate an undaunted acceptance of reasonable risk. Perhaps. It won't happen of course. The bollards are coming and nothing can stop them.

By Philip Kennicott  | October 7, 2010; 4:50 PM ET
Categories:  Architecture, Blake Gopnik, Philip Kennicott  
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Let each of us curse the barbarism of Islamic terrorism which has required this.

Posted by: CharlesGriffith1 | October 7, 2010 7:23 PM | Report abuse

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