Architect of the Capitol constructs a defense for his controversial tenure THE MAN WITH THE CAPITOL PLAN

January 09, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Staff Writer

Washington -- It always was a high stress job.

In 1817, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the brilliant but frustrated second Architect of the Capitol, almost throttled his boss, who repeatedly criticized him.

Seizing Col. Samuel Lane by the collar, he shrieked: "Were you not a cripple I would shake you to the atoms, you poor contemptible wretch!"

George Malcolm White, the current Architect of the Capitol, hasn't tried to strangle anybody yet. Which is not to say he hasn't had his share of frustrations and criticisms.

He has been described as an immensely powerful man who has occasionally exercised that power arrogantly. He has been criticized as insensitive to the demands of building conservationists, and for the way he doles out his abundance of government contracts. Even his taste has been questioned.

To all this, George White has ready, solid and sometimes persuasive rebuttals.

Most recently he was frustrated in his attempt to remove a turn-of-the-century chandelier that once illuminated the burlesque in Baltimore's Maryland Theater. It has been shedding its light since 1965 in the Small Senate Rotunda.

He wanted to substitute a reproduction of a lamp he saw in the Alabama Capitol in Montgomery.

The Baltimore chandelier, said Mr. White, "is inappropriate to this building."

A small thing, perhaps, but 52 senators, including Maryland's, thought not. They signed a letter of protest to the Senate Rules Committee. The committee then directed Mr. White to hold off. This he did without a fuss, which illustrates a quality those who know him always point to: He knows when to hold; he knows when to fold.

But one senses Mr. White is not so easily deflected. "It is not over," he says. He describes the rotunda as "a beautiful architectural space designed by Latrobe" that ought to be better served. And will be.

George White is a reed-thin man with an American Gothic face, the face of an abstemious product of the heartland. Indeed, he was born in Cleveland. He wears bow ties and combs his hair flat left to right, which gives him a stiff, archaic look. But he is affable, sociable and, by now, a thorough Washingtonian. He is energetically nervous and loves his job.

"I'm not planning on retiring," says the 73-year-old Mr. White. "I can't wait to get to the office every day. I use every bit of my formal training here, every bit of it."

The czar of Capitol Hill

One of his current friends and former adversaries once referred to Mr. White as the "czar" of Capitol Hill.

A czar he is, if one considers the size of his responsibility, the expanse of territory under his control -- 285 acres -- and the number of people whose comfort he affects -- the almost 20,000 who work in and visit the Capitol every day.

Some 2,500 people work directly for him, including architects, elevator mechanics, engineers, gardeners, construction workers and janitors.

Mr. White is responsible for the maintenance and restoration not only of the Capitol building, which is 200 years old this year, but of the Supreme Court, Library of Congress, House and Senate office buildings, Capitol Power Plant, Botanic Garden and Capitol Police headquarters, plus the grounds around all these edifices, with their 5,000 trees and various memorials and secondary structures. He disposes of a budget approaching $170 million, and is paid $119,000 a year for doing it.

The architect prepares all ceremonials at the Capitol, including inaugurations. The Capitol Police report to him. So do the managers of the Capitol's restaurants. He conserves the murals, sculptures and paintings within the building and sees to the restoration of the facades outside.

But czars were answerable to no one. And by that definition, Mr. White is hardly a czar on Capitol Hill, as the incident of the Baltimore chandelier with the piquant past suggests.

Bill Bushong, an historian, dismisses descriptions of the AOC as a bureaucratic "emperor" or "king." The office, he says, "has no arbitrary or independent power such as these titles suggest."

It's a description Mr. White would find congenial.

"We have no independent authority of any kind," he insists. Congress tells him what to do, then passes a law enabling him to carry it out.

He prefers the word "influence."

Whatever the appropriate term, Mr. White does have clout. And as he wields it, he wounds and makes enemies.

Duncan Spencer, a resident of the Capitol Hill neighborhood, who also happens to be a contributor to the Hill newspaper Roll Call, has described Mr. White as "anti-people" for restricting public access to the Capitol by creating clumsy concrete security barriers, and by imposing unnecessary parking restrictions.

The architect's approach to the neighborhood around the Capitol was described by Mr. Spencer as "adversarial" and "arrogant." He referred to the takeover of an empty girls school and renovation of it into a day care center for the employees of the Library of Congress -- all without consulting the neighborhood.

A controversial decision

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