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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

The Stewart years persuaded Congress to depoliticize and professionalize the AOC's office. (Today the architect serves renewable 10-year terms, and must be confirmed by the Senate.) In view of this sentiment on the Hill, Mr. White's credentials and the fact he was supported by the American Institute of Architects, the man from Cleveland was a shoo-in for the job.

And it didn't hurt that he was a Republican.

Mr. White's career has run contemporaneously with the rise in influence of the architectural preservationist movement in Washington and throughout the country. And though he gives strong support to its aims, it was this movement that caused perhaps his greatest frustration.

It all had to do with the west front of the Capitol, the only portion remaining of the original building constructed after the plan submitted in 1792 by William Thornton, a West Indian-born Scot who became the first architect of the Capitol, and who also was not an architect.

Before being named to the architect's office, Mr. White took the preservationist line opposing extension of the west front as the east front had been. Once in office, "I found I was in a different role. I spent a year learning about it, then concluded that extending the west front was not a violation of the Capitol." He became a strong supporter of it.

From dissent to support

Mr. White's 180-degree turn was not emulated by most of his colleagues, especially those in the AIA, nor by powerful figures in the Congress. A great furor ensued, during which at least one congressman, the late Rep. Samuel S. Stratton, called for Mr. White's resignation.

In the end the preservationists won, and in 1983, Mr. White, acting on the orders of Congress, began the restoration -- not the extension -- of the west front, which looks toward the Washington Monument.

Ten years later, he said of the completed restoration, "I still think it was a mistake." Many of those who opposed it, he believes, did not really care about the building itself.

"People said, 'We don't care, good or bad, just leave it alone.' They were concerned that the preservationist movement win this in order to establish its authority. They were concerned, most of them, with this as a symbol of preservation."

But Mr. White hasn't lost all the big battles. Before he leaves office he will be able to say he found the Capitol's original cornerstone, dedicated two centuries ago by President George Washington. The stone had been laid on a silver plate.

Over the years, knowledge of its precise location was lost, and every effort to find it failed. Mr. White organized a search of the building's footings as the bicentennial approached, using every modern technique available, including metal detectors to find the silver plate.

At the end the architect found a large stone, "obviously a ceremonial stone," but no sign of the silver. It was enough for him. The plate, he said, is gone, lost in previous excavations. "I'm about to declare victory," he said. "I'll let future scholars worry about it in the years to come."

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