For frequent visitors to the museum, the construction outside may seem as though it has been going on forever! Well, in a way, it has.
After September 11, 2001, the National Mall—and Washington, D.C., in general—saw a plethora of “jersey” barriers erupt around the city. These concrete barriers (yes, named after New Jersey where they were invented for use on highways) were on every corner, at every building-placed for the most part haphazardly and hurriedly. Not to mention bollards, which also appeared daily around the city. Although the need for security was real, it became evident that there was also a need for security that could work and yet not detract from the beauty of Washington and the Mall.
The Smithsonian Institution’s “Mall Perimeter Security Project” was initiated shortly after September 11 to prevent damage from potential car bombs and threats to the Smithsonian buildings. The goal was to provide the setbacks required by the Office of Protection Services while at the same time providing an open, inviting, and safe environment for visitors and staff, with minimal impact to the Mall. This was not even easier said than done and, at the outset, those of us involved in this project thought: “How on earth could we ever do this?”
The Smithsonian hired architects Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB) to create a plan which would meet our needs. Since the Mall is such a sensitive area in terms of historic preservation, meetings (many) were scheduled with representatives from the National Park Service, the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Capital Planning Commission, and the Commission of Fine Arts. In addition, public interest groups such as the Committee of 100 (Washington’s oldest preservation group), architectural historians, and the National Coalition to Save Our Mall were invited to share their thoughts. BBB not only created a plan but they were so creative in doing so that, in the end, all the commissions and preservation groups approved it.
Basically, everyone agreed that the best solution was not to put up additional barriers, but to use what we had—incorporate existing design features such as raising the height of existing walls to meet the minimum security design requirements. Wherever possible, it was important to incorporate plantings and seating in the plan and, above all, leave space for pedestrian traffic and not close off the museum’s landscape. The museums should continue to be as open and inviting as the Mall.
The security around the National Museum of American History was the easiest to design. The building’s stark, elegant exterior lent itself to the installation at vehicle entrances of free-standing and retractable bollards. These sculptural bollards were created in stainless steel, a material used often throughout the building. Perimeter fencing with openings for pedestrian access was installed around the building and existing walls were strengthened. None of these security elements detracted from the from the Mall or the museum.
Take a look at the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Museum of Natural History to see how well integrated the perimeter security is with the Mall. The creativity and patience of the entire design team made for a sensitive solution to a difficult problem.
Amy Ballard is an Historic Preservation Specialist at the Smithsonian Institution Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division.