Image: Supreme Court entrance, 1958
AP
In this Aug. 28, 1958 black-and-white file photo, people walk by the closed front entrance of the Supreme Court in Washington.
By
updated 1/4/2011 2:57:27 PM ET 2011-01-04T19:57:27

The capital is a city of magnificent front entrances that people can't enter.

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On Constitution Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill, sweeping marble staircases, sculptures, manicured gardens and ornate doors beckoned citizens of the past. Now most stand empty and sealed.

The Supreme Court has become the latest to shoo people from its front steps, to the displeasure of several justices who think it's wrong for an open society to close its most majestic portals.

Across the street, the U.S. Capitol now guides visitors into an underground center, clearing steps that the public once climbed. (The stairs feature a column behind which a member of Congress once had a furtive sexual encounter, although, it must be said, just with his wife.)

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.

Slideshow: Dreaming of D.C. (on this page)

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.

A Lonely Planet tour book calls the building a cross between a Greek temple and a Soviet bunker. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt saw ennobling qualities in the modernist Beaux Arts structure when the country was still in depression.

She commented in a 1938 column: "Unless we satisfy our sense of beauty in a public building, we have failed in one of its most important functions. We may not be able to live in houses which give us pleasure, but we certainly should be able to visit our government buildings and feel an esthetic satisfaction. I received that satisfaction from the Federal Reserve Building."

Now, people can tour the Fed only in groups of 10 or more with two weeks' notice or can call two days ahead to visit its art exhibits — all through the side door. The lobby has not been used routinely since the 1970s.

Do-Not-Enter front entrances are very much part of the neighborhood, starting with the American Pharmacists Association building at the western end of Constitution and the adjacent National Academy of Sciences headquarters, where magnolias border walkways from the avenue and old reflecting pools — now planting beds — were once stocked with exotic fish.

A 1937 report by the academy's custodian speaks to an age when citizens had the run of front entrances and much that was inside. Paul Brockett writes about the problem of keeping the building clean when visitors tromped in on damp days, counting 500 before 10 a.m. and 60,000 a year.

Massive bronze doors, embossed with the likes of Aristotle, Galileo, Newton and Darwin, slid open to greet them. Now, the building is closed for renovation. In normal times, the public is encouraged to use an unassuming entrance around the corner on C Street, although people can still get in the front doors with a photo ID to wander the Great Hall and see surrounding art exhibits.

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A block away, the front doors of the Pan American Annex, another Constitution Avenue showpiece, bear signs steering visitors to an entrance by a Dumpster around the corner.

The White House, where Abraham Lincoln was routinely besieged by citizens who strolled uninvited into the mansion seeking jobs, favors, pardons and policies, has long been an iron-fenced fortress due to security concerns. And for more than a decade, cars have been blocked from even driving past on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Few entrances have more historical significance to the nation at large than the 44 broad steps of the Supreme Court. In May, the court closed the main entrance and began steering visitors and those who argue before the justices to the side of the stairway, through new security checks.

The court thus joined a Washington trend that puts it out of step with the world.

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"To my knowledge," Justice Steven Breyer said, "no other Supreme Court in the world — including those, such as Israel's, that face security concerns equal to or greater than ours — has closed its main entrance to the public." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added her name to his statement.

There's a back story to the front steps that few people know but everyone is supposed to feel when ascending them.

Interactive: Top travel stories of 2010 (on this page)

Breyer, a student of architecture and history, said Cass Gilbert's 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.

People can still leave through those doors and down those steps. But the iconic engraving on high, "Equal Justice Under Law," now is behind their backs.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Dreaming of D.C.

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  1. A view from the top

    The Washington Monument sits on one end of the National Mall, with the Capitol on the other end in Washington D.C. The monument, one of the city's earliest attractions, was built to honor George Washington, the first U.S. president, and was finished in 1884. (Andy Dunaway / USAF via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A model of Freedom

    The plaster model of the Statue of Freedom, which was used to cast the statue atop the U.S. Capitol Dome, and other statues are on display in the Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center, which opened in 2008.

    American sculptor Thomas Crawford created the model in 1858. It was shipped in five separate pieces from Crawford's Rome studio. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A contemporary canopy

    The Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, with its elegant glass canopy designed by world renowned architect Norman Foster, is at the historic Patent Office Building that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

    Foster worked with the Smithsonian to create an innovative enclosure for the 28,000-square-foot space at the center of the building that is sensitive to the historic structure. The "floating" roof does not rest on the original building, which was built in phases between 1836 and 1868. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Monumental blossoms

    In the spring, blooming cherry trees frame the front of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. The memorial is modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. United in honor

    The pillars that represent different states of the U.S. lie at the World War II Memorial. The memorial, which commemorates the sacrifice and celebrates the victory of "the greatest generation," was designed by Friedrich St.Florian and opened to the public in 2004. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Honoring FDR

    The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial near the National Mall traces 12 years of U.S. history with four outdoor rooms, each one devoted to one of FDR's terms of office and feature a sculpture inspired by him. Here, at the beginning of the memorial, is a statue showing Roosevelt seated in a wheelchair like the one he used. (Destination D.C.) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A spirtual power house

    The National Cathedral is the sixth largest cathedral in the world. It was designed in an English Gothic style and features gargoyles, angels, mosaics and more than 200 stained glass windows. There is even a sculpture of Darth Vader on top of the cathedral's west tower.

    Officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, it's a cathedral of the Episcopal Church, but it honors all faiths. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Strolling by the tulips

    Tourists walk among the blooming tulips in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Mild temperatures in the spring often bring tourists out in great numbers. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Just like old times

    U.S. park rangers dressed in period costumes guide "The Georgetown" up the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal using mules for power during the first canal tour of the season in the Georgetown section of D.C. The Georgetown is an 1870s-period replica used by the park service for tours that depict the history of the canal and the families who lived and worked on it. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hustle and bustle

    When Union Station was completed in 1908, it was one of the largest train stations in the world -- if put on its side, the Washington Monument could lay within the station's concourse. It is considered one of the best examples of Beaux-Arts architecture.

    In the 1980s, the building was redeveloped as a bustling retail center and intermodal transportation facility. It currently houses Amtrak headquarters and more than 130 shops and restaurants. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Taking flight

    Aircraft are displayed in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The hangar features hundreds of artifacts installed illustrating its four main themes: rocketry and missiles; human spaceflight; application satellites and space science. The centerpiece of the hangar is the Space Shuttle Enterprise. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Museum of remembrance

    A railcar is part of the permanent exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exhibit features more than 900 artifacts, 70 video monitors and four theaters, and includes eyewitness testimonies and historic film footage. (Holocaust Museum) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Carved in stone

    Some of the more than 53,000 names of U.S. casualities carved into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are shown here. The memorial is made up of two black granite walls that are almost 247 feet long; each wall consists of 72 panels. The design by Maya Lin initially sparked controversy but is now recognized for its simple and reflective beauty. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A somber watch

    A sentinel from the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry marches as the sun rises above the Tomb of the Unknowns on Aug. 26, 2009, at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. More than 300,000 veterans from all of the nation's wars are buried on the grounds.

    The Tomb of the Unknowns, where three unknown servicemen are buried, is one of the most visited sites at the cemetery. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. National art display

    An untitled aluminum-and-steel mobile by Alexander Calder hangs in the National Gallery of Art. The gallery got its start when industrialist and philanthropist Andrew W. Mellon donated his vast art collection to the nation upon his death in 1937. Mellon's gift also attracted others to donate art to the museum, whose mission is to serve the United States by preserving, collecting, exhibiting and fostering an understanding of art. (Lee Ewing / National Gallery of Art) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Spy this

    The International Spy Museum is the only public museum in the U.S. dedicated to espionage. It includes the work of famous spies and pivotal espionage actions that shaped history.

    At left is a glove shapeed pistol. On the right, is a replica of Cher Ami, the U.S. Signal Corps photo pigeon that was awarded the "Croix de Guerre" by the French government in World War I for heroic service after flying wounded over France for 25 miles in 25 minutes. Cher Ami was equipped with an automatic camera that was taking battlefield photos. (Mark Wilson, Paul J. Richards / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Reflections of the Americas

    The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian is the first national museum dedicated to the perservation, study, culture and history of Native Americans. The museum's massive collections include more than 800,000 works of aesthetic, religious and historical significance and span all major culture areas of the Americas. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. History in print

    Visitors tour the 9/11 Gallery, which includes a piece of the radio tower from the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center and front pages of newspapers from around the world, at the Newseum, a 250,000 square-foot museum dedicated to news. The gallery also includes first-person accounts from reporters and photographers who covered the story. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A symbol of democracy

    People look at the U.S. Capitol at sunset. Around the world, the building, which houses the U.S. Congress, is a symbol of America's democracy. It also includes an important collection of American art and has important architectural significance. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A eye for art

    Sunlight illiminates the dome of the U.S. Capitol. In the eye of the dome is a fresco by Constantino Brumidi called "Apotheosis of Washington," which sits 180 feet above the Rotunda floor. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Retelling history

    Park ranger Jeff Leary tells the story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at the Ford's Theatre. President Lincoln, who ended slavery in the U.S., was assassinated in the box, seen in the background, by John Wilkes Booth at the theatre on April 14, 1865, while he was watching the play, "Our American Cousin." (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. This American life

    The Smithsonian Museum of American History is a treasure trove of artifacts from American life, history and pop culture. The ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz," left, and President Lincoln's top hat he was wearing when he was shot are included in the display. (Smithsonian Institution) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. It came from outer space

    People walk around the Apollo 11 Command Module "Columbia" on display at the National Air and Space Museum on July 16, 2009. The museum has the world's largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft among some 50,000 artifacts, ranging from Saturn V rockets to jetliners to gliders to space helmets to microchips. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A display of freshness

    A vendor puts out fruit samples on Aug 1, 2009, at Eastern Market, where consumers can find a large variety of fresh local fruits and vegetables, flowers, delicatessen, meat, cheese, poultry, bakery and dairy products. Eastern Market, established in 1873, is one of the few public markets left in Washington and the only one retaining its original public market function. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. 'We the people ...'

    A middle-school student views the original U.S. Constitution at the National Archives, billed as the "nation's record keeper." The archives not only house the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, but it also includes military records and naturalization papers. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Fit for a president

    Thousands of tourists visit the Lincoln Memorial each year. The memorial, which honors President Abraham Lincoln, sits prominently on the western part of the National Mall and offers great views of the other presidential sites. It includes a large sculpture of Lincoln and inscriptions of two of his speeches, "The Gettysburg Address" and his "Second Inaugural Address." (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Play ball!

    Nationals Park is home field for the Washington Nationals major leauge baseball team. The park, which opened in 2008, is the first major U.S. stadium that is certified "green." It also has 4,500-square-foot high-def scoreboard and more than 600 linear feet of LED ribbon board along the inner bowl fascia. (Joe Robbins / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Lighting the way

    A candle sits in a lamp lighting the way for guests arriving to George Washington's Mount Vernon estate as Ben Schulz, left, and Steve Stuart wait for the gates to open Dec. 4, 2004, in Mount Vernon, Va.

    The estate, Washington's former home, is 16 miles south of D.C. on the banks of the Potomac River. Visitors can see 20 structures and 50 acres of gardens as they existed in 1799, a museum, the tombs of George and Martha Washington, and his greenhouse. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The rise of America

    The U.S. Marine Memorial, left, and the Washington Monument, center, are silhouetted against the sky as the sun rises over D.C. (Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Happy 4th of July

    Fireworks explode over Washington as the United States celebrates its 234th birthday, July 4, 2010. Seen from left is the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. (Cliff Owen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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Timeline: Top travel stories of 2010

From a volcano that disrupted air travel across Europe to Steve Slater's infamous exit on a JetBlue emergency chute, here's a look at the top travel stories of the year.

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