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Washington Monument subtly fortified

This holiday weekend, the nation's capital will get its first look new granite walls designed to protect the Washington Monument from terrorist attack.
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For years, Jersey barriers, dump trucks and mud dominated. There were proposals for bollards, walls and even a moat. This holiday weekend, though, the nation's capital will get its first look at a monument permanently fortified against a terrorist attack on the Mall.

The defenses will not be obvious. Fourth of July revelers who stop to rest on curving, low-slung granite walls that encircle the Washington Monument will be sitting on a $15 million security project.

"If people look at it and say, 'Gee, it looks like it's always been here,' or if they say, 'Where is it? What did they do? I don't see anything,' then we did it right," said project manager Allan Spulecki, who was on the monument grounds yesterday, dodging front loaders, backhoes and tractors to inspect some last-minute touches on the work site.

The primary feature of the project is a series of interlocking rings of ash rose granite wall, standing just 30 inches above the ground. They reach deep enough into the ground and overlap at just the right points to stop an explosive-laden Humvee.

The walls are augmented by retractable posts that can be lowered for maintenance vehicles at four entrances. Atop the mound of earth that is the pedestal for the monument, solid benches of Georgia white marble surround the plaza. To lend some aesthetic beauty, lighting has been installed to better highlight the geometry and stones of the monument, Spulecki said.

The subtlety of the design is its triumph, said Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, one of the groups that had to approve the design.

"Part of the issue in these security measures is a philosophical debate. This is supposed to be a free and open society. Do we want these precious monuments to look embattled?" Luebke asked. "The Washington Monument doesn't, and it's a tribute to the design of the project."

Gone is the haphazard ring of concrete Jersey barriers and the temporary screening trailer that embodied security precautions at the monument for nearly a decade, a hasty setup erected after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. That was a stopgap measure in a decades-long argument over development of the monument's grounds.

"It was an unfinished site before," Spulecki said. "The monument was just a hill, a mound of earth with a monument on top of it."

For years, federal officials agreed with Spulecki's assessment. But exactly what to do with the unmanicured mound was the subject of great debate.

The idea of an underground visitors center was introduced in 1966 and rehashed for years as lawmakers debated whether it was necessary, was dangerous or would compromise the stability of the 555-foot monument. Congressional budget constraints and security concerns buried the plan two years ago.

A new round of discussions centered on security as federal agencies were peppered with reports that the Mall's monuments were vulnerable to attack and that something had to be done.

Form wrestled with function in the debate as all kinds of safe but unattractive barriers and barricades were proposed. In 2001, the National Capital Planning Commission narrowly rejected a plan that would place a halo of 370 bollards around the monument.

Haha walls
After that ruling, and acting on recommendations of the commission's staff, Laurie Olin, with the Olin Partnership in Philadelphia, thought of a plan that essentially equated a Humvee or other explosive-laden device with a cow.

In the eighteenth century, farmers in Europe used low, squat stone barriers called haha walls to pen livestock, Spulecki said. The rock walls meandered up and down the glens of England and the knolls of France in thick lines, sturdy and unobtrusive. Those walls are wide and high enough to keep farm animals in, but they are not noticeable at eye level, he said.

Olin's firm submitted a simple design of concentric rings echoing the haha walls in December 2001, competing with projects that included more bollards and even a moat.

The firm won the contract and closed down the monument Sept. 7 last year to begin the project, said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line. The monument was reopened in April, and the rest of the grounds will be open by Monday, he said.

"With this design, people can walk up, they can bicycle up to the monument," Line said. "But nobody's going to be able to drive up to it."

The design is not without its critics. Judy Scott Feldman, chairman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, said the precautions are good but should have been arrayed at street level and not allowed to intrude on the monument grounds.

Preparations for July 4th
Sheet by sheet, the plywood fence that surrounded the grounds of the obelisk came down this week, and truckloads of sod from Northern Virginia were laid to knit with thousands of pounds of new soil in a last-minute scramble to unveil the revamped monument grounds in time for July 4.

Tonight, lighting designers will flip the switch on a carefully designed system that will flood the monument in a softer, more precise glow, rather than the greenish halo that harshly illuminated the structure before, Spulecki said.

The project was finished on time and on budget at $15 million, Line said.

The new wall will be the most subtle of the security measures on the Mall this weekend.

The more visible reminders, beginning at 10 a.m. Monday, will be 20 checkpoints on the Mall and at the Capitol to screen visitors during the Fourth of July celebrations, officials said.

Police said they will hand-search bags and use hand-held magnetometers to screen those they think are suspicious. They encouraged people not to bring large items that might slow lines of people trying to enter the area.

U.S. Park Police Chief Dwight E. Pettiford said he expected a large crowd because forecasters were predicting a day of mild and sunny weather. He said authorities have received "no intelligence that we should be aware of anything that is threatening in nature."

Nevertheless, the chief said, he canceled days off for his force and will have officers patrolling the area by horseback, motorcycle and helicopter.

"We are expecting one of the better-attended events since 2001," Pettiford said.

Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.