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Pentagon grapples with 9/11 memorial puzzle

When the nation's first major 9/11 memorial is dedicated at the Pentagon this September, it will change the building into something it was not intended to be: a tourist destination.
Image: 9/11 Pentagon Memorial
A construction worker installs individual memorials at the Pentagon's 9/11 memorial on May 23, 2008. Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When the nation's first major 9/11 memorial is dedicated on the grounds of 's western side this September, it will change the iconic building into something it was not intended to be: a tourist destination.

Since the day the symbol of the country's military might was attacked nearly seven years ago, a great deal of effort has gone into further limiting public access to the site. It has been wrapped in barricades, elaborate security systems and signs prohibiting photography.

But just as the grief and sympathy that came after the Sept. 11 attacks eroded whatever psychological barrier existed between the public and the Pentagon, the memorial attempts to make that relationship a lasting physical reality. The Pentagon Memorial will allow the camera-wielding public free access 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Visitors will find a parklike open space that is intricately beautiful, meticulously crafted and almost entirely at odds with the monolith that serves as its backdrop.

By almost any measure, it is not a good location for a major attraction. The area is tangled with traffic during commuter hours. The public will be barred from parking near the site. And wayward tourists might find themselves in awkward encounters with officers of the Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA), the hyper-vigilant security service that polices the Pentagon Reservation.

In short, said PFPA Director Steven E. Calvery, the Pentagon "was not designed to be a welcoming and nice place to visit, like the Mall."

$32 million project
But unlike the Washington region's other monuments and tourist attractions, the location for the Pentagon Memorial was not originally selected by a board of directors or an arts commission. It was picked by the five terrorists who hijacked a on Sept. 11, 2001, and plowed it into the building at 530 mph. The family members of the 184 victims killed in the attack, and the many others who carry the scars of that day, wanted the memorial to be at the exact site of the crash. Their wishes prevailed.

Construction of the $32 million project, financed entirely by private donations, is moving into its final stages. When the site is dedicated Sept. 11 and opened to the public the next day, visitors will see a highly aesthetic space that offers a stark contrast to the building whose 125 fallen workers it honors, along with the 59 victims on the plane.

The site is intended to elicit thoughtful reflection and contemplation, encouraging visitors to explore, to feel the gravel crunching under their feet and to listen to the trickling water in the light-filled reflecting pools beneath each of the 184 elegant, curving benchlike memorials honoring those who died in the attack.

"This site holds a special level of intensity," said architect Keith Kaseman, who designed the memorial with his partner and spouse, Julie Beckman. "You can't get the whole picture of what happened until you come here."

Visitors could come away with more than a meditation on the past. Because the memorial is next to the building, it also might invite people to think about the Pentagon, and the employees and contractors who work inside. Whether it humanizes their work or raises critical questions about what they do there, the site will offer a new vantage point from which to contemplate the attack, the building or what happens behind its walls.

'Sit and think'
Beckman and Kaseman said the memorial will not tell visitors what to feel about Sept. 11, the Pentagon or anything else. "This is a place where people are invited to sit and think but one that does not tell them what to think," Kaseman said. "The 9/11 attack was an attack on free thought, so our response should be on the opposite end of the spectrum in honoring and respecting the people who died."

With permanent memorials in Lower Manhattan and Shanksville, Pa., several years from completion, security officials are bracing for 1 million to 2 million visitors a year to the Pentagon site.

"History chose that site, but the Pentagon was designed to keep people out," said Reinhold Martin, a historian of modern architecture at who has studied the building and was a mentor to Kaseman. The memorial, he said, "takes on this problem by being open and public in a positive way."

Added Martin, "It will be interesting to see if the Pentagon can tolerate that degree of openness."

From a security standpoint, the site will require a shift in enforcement approach that tends to view the public warily and equate increased access with increased risk.

As PFPA officials said, thousands of people pass close to the building's walls each day to use the Pentagon Metro station and adjacent transit center or the bicycle path nearby. Special events such as the Marathon and the Army Ten-Miler are held there each year, drawing large crowds. The public is not prevented from driving into several of the Pentagon's oceanic parking lots or along the roads adjacent to the building.

But those visitors, by and large, do not come to the Pentagon as tourists. If, as planned, the Sept. 11 memorial is added to the popular Tourmobile circuit that includes nearby , it is likely to draw a sizable portion of that destination's 4 million annual visitors. Shuttles and tour buses taking riders to the site will drop them off near the Metro station to avoid creating backups at the memorial.

Those who want to drive to the Sept. 11 memorial will have to park at Pentagon City and walk through a pedestrian tunnel beneath Interstate 395 to reach the site, a five- to 10-minute trek. Five spaces in the Pentagon's south parking lot will be reserved for handicapped parking, but that will be the extent of visitor parking — even on nights and weekends. Tour buses won't be able to pull up next to the site, either.

"We already have a near-gridlocked situation," said Calvery, a former official who helped develop enhanced security plans for several major sites after the Sept. 11 attacks. "We'd back up traffic down to Richmond," he said.

Shimmering glow
That many visitors are expected to come to the memorial at night presents another challenge for Pentagon security officials, given that the public will have round-the-clock access to the site. The memorial's architects have designed it to offer visitors an entirely different experience after sundown, when the pools of circulating water beneath each bench will illuminate their stainless steel undersides, producing a shimmering glow.

But that also means security officials cannot flood the site with bright lighting, which would ruin the intended visual effect.

"It's going to be a solemn and almost sacred place, and we realize that," Calvery said. "We're trying not to over-enforce."

Some restrictions remain
Part of the security challenge, he said, is creating a visible enforcement presence that discourages threats while not making visitors uncomfortable with an overwhelming police presence. This will involve some compromise for the agency, which will change its long-standing policy against photography to allow people to take pictures of the site — even if they want to take pictures of the building from within the memorial.

"People will want to take pictures of the crash site, obviously, and we're going to allow that," he said.

But several restrictions will remain. Signs posted outside the memorial and along the walkway to its entrance will warn visitors not to photograph the building from outside the memorial site. Security personnel will reserve the right to confiscate visitors' cameras if they suspect anything undue.

The memorial will offer no access to the building itself. A metal fence with vertical bars will separate it from the wall of the Pentagon and the roadway that skirts the building, with guard booths at either end of the fence. State-of-the-art surveillance equipment is also being deployed to the site, which Calvery declined to discuss in detail.

Swirling emotions
He also indicated that plans might change as needs arise, given that Pentagon security officials aren't accustomed to hosting tourists and can't be sure how many people will visit the memorial. The rules and protocols in place reflect a compromise hashed out over several years but will remain flexible, Calvery said.

Victims' family members are expected to visit the memorial frequently and spend time with the benches that have been engraved with the names of their lost loved ones. But what isn't clear is to what degree the country as a whole will adopt the site as an outlet for the swirling emotions that remain raw nearly seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks.

There has been no place to channel them, for the most part, until now. As Beckman says, "When they rebuilt the Pentagon site, they erased all evidence [of the attack] in less than a year.

"This will be the first of the three sites that were attacked to finally have a place for people to go and deal with their thoughts, anxieties, frustrations and grief."