Washington, D.C., is a city of things inaccessible 

Washington, D.C. is a city of things inaccessible -- the street signs almost always give notice too late, or too vaguely -- but even important buildings like the Supreme Court and Congress have shuttered their grand entrances to the public. From the Associated Press:

The vanishing welcome of Washington's front doors is evident along most of Constitution Avenue, a thoroughfare and parade route lined on one side by the monuments and grounds of the National Mall and on the other by the headquarters of federal agencies and national or global institutions.

A lone guard on the great lawn of the Federal Reserve says the front is "pretty much off limits" because times have changed. The massive eagle above the entrance looks down on a chain stretching across the staircase and security barriers out by the sidewalk.

In fact, the report goes on, if you want to access the Federal Reserve, you can only do so in groups of 10 or less with two weeks notice.

What is it with D.C. and making it impossible to go anywhere? Tourists on the Rock Creek Parkway, for instance, are frequently tricked into making a trip to Arlington Cemetary. Note the lack of sign -- if you go to the right, there's no way for you to avoid being forced onto the bridge that takes you to Virginia. Interstate 395, that is, the southeastern freeway, sends travelers into Anacostia when they really mean to get out at Capitol Hill, though they've never been notified that they passed it. And if anyone has ever driven on the Whitehurst Freeway for the first time and actually gotten out at the exit they meant to take, please let me know. I have a breakthrough idea on cold fusion and I need someone smart to crunch the numbers.

Then there are the local sites. This sign at 21st Street and Florida, NW, in Dupont Circle, notes the direction of "Dupont Art Galleries," which you would only notice while driving immediately past it (a shame because these galleries are could use the foot traffic). Ever try to go to the U.S. Botanical Gardens during the week? You can't if you work normal hours because they close promptly at 5:00 pm and not a moment later. And good luck finding parking somewhere near the Lincoln Memorial.

Millions of American taxpayer dollars are spent maintaining these beautiful edifices in an effort to maintain the architecture -- but not their original intent. This is reminiscent of Andy Ferguson's 2005 article, "The Mess on the Mall" lamenting this cataclysm of urban planning's casual disregard for history:

People who frequent the mall can cite the moment when they began to notice something was up, and such moments often pre-date September 11, 2001. Mine came nearly a decade ago, when I drove an aged visitor into town for a close-up look at the Washington Monument. The nearby parking lot, by custom reserved for just such drop-ins, was suddenly closed. It has never reopened. Late last year, the small parking lot adjacent to the Jefferson Memorial, also intended for quick visits, was sealed off to all but authorized vehicles (authorized: "not yours"). Now anyone who would like to see Jefferson in his memorial must park nearly half a mile away, duck under a pair of freeway exits, cross a street blurry with careening Tourmobiles, and, after a while, pass through the now-closed parking lot, from which the memorial is a thirty-second walk.

That makes it hard to access monuments, sure, but inside museums, the public can't even access history:

Just when you think there's nothing the curators won't put in a glass case, you remember the stuff they really aren't putting in a glass case. At the Smithsonian uncountable collections of objects touched by great events and great men sit in darkened storerooms, far from public view, so the curators might have space for one more garage-door opener. The Smithsonian has the largest holding of American Indian artifacts in the world--objects of great beauty and historical interest, such as Sitting Bull's pictographic autobiography--yet all but a handful of them are put away in a warehouse in Suitland, Maryland.

Instead, at the recently opened National Museum of the American Indian, visitors find glass cases presenting slot machines and casino chips and, in a tribute to the annual Denver March Pow Wow, a stack of bumper stickers and "go cups" from the Denver Coliseum, where the Pow Wow has been held since 1989. It can be painful to watch Mom and Dad and Buddy and Sis make their way through such exhibits, to see their quickening steps and the boredom unmistakable behind their wan, expressionless faces--not getting it, of course, but not wanting to admit they're not getting it.

Justice Breyer protested the shuttering of the Supreme Court's front entrance last year, and Justice Ginsburg joined. Breyer, a former student of architecture, said that the original design "created a choreographed, climbing path symbolizing a progression toward justice. The columns, sculptures, 1,300-pound bronze doors, Great Hall and finally the courtroom are meant as a journey to that ideal." Though people can still leave through these doors (but not enter), "the iconic engraving on high, 'Equal Justice Under Law,' now is behind their backs."

Strange how the steady erosion of individual liberty in the United States appears to be reflected in the treatment of architecture, too.

About The Author

J.P. Freire

Bio:
J.P. Freire is the associate editor of commentary. Previously he was the managing editor of the American Spectator. Freire was named journalist of the year for 2009 by the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). You can follow him on Twitter here. Besides the Spectator, Freire's work has appeared in... more
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