WASHINGTON - There once was a time when visitors to the Capitol building could drive directly up to the dome, park on the plaza and stroll into the chambers of the Senate or the House.
Back then, taxicabs idled in the plaza, and a homeless man made his home under the Capitol steps. Lawmakers and staffers roamed freely without identification badges, and security measures meant posting guards at the doors.
But as Senate historian Richard A. Baker is quick to add - that was then.
Now, of course, Capitol Hill is operating under what intelligence sources call constant, credible threats of an attack.
"The Capitol has always been a target," says Baker, Senate historian since 1976. "What's new is that the threat has been heightened and made more intense."
Since the War of 1812, when British troops stormed Washington and burned the Capitol to the ground, the stately symbol of democracy has seen its fair share of attacks. Since Sept. 11, 2001, however, those who work and live on Capitol Hill have been repeatedly warned that a bull's-eye has been drawn overhead.
"I think everyone now realizes that the Capitol is an attractive target," says Terrance W. Gainer, U.S. Capitol Police chief. "At any given second we have to be prepared to detect a poison or shoot down a grenade."
What could be more attractive, Gainer says, than the seat of American ideals? A place where more than 20,000 people work and up to 10,000 people visit each day. Where national treasures are housed and presidents deliver State of the Union addresses.
Which is why, according to Gainer, his force of 1,573 uniformed officers has become omnipresent on and around the Hill - cruising the tree-lined streets in unmarked cars and guarding every part of the Capitol complex, which includes House and Senate office buildings, the U.S. Botanic Garden, the Capitol grounds, three Library of Congress buildings, the Supreme Court and the Capitol Power Plant.
Since Sept. 11, lawmakers have allocated millions of dollars to protect the area. The Capitol Hill Police force has been increased by 512 positions (a 37 percent increase in less than two years), according to Associated Press reports.
Many of Gainer's officers are heavily armed, some of them with semiautomatic weapons and gas masks to protect against a chemical or biological attack. Those who guard the entrances to the buildings in the Capitol complex search visitors airport-style, sending all bulky bags through an X-ray machine.
In addition to more vigilant - and apparent - security, the atmosphere on the Hill has been further complicated by the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, a three-level, underground facility that will house a history exhibit, restaurants, a gift shop and a security screening area. Scheduled for completion in the spring of 2006, the building is in its early stages, marked only by a huge, gaping hole in the ground, two towering cranes and concrete barriers on the Capitol's east side.
"Right now there are police officers and barriers here and there, and holes the size of the Grand Canyon because of the construction," says Baker. "When it's all through, though, the security around the Capitol will be much less overt."
But for some longtime residents of the area - those who used to enjoy wandering rights to all of the buildings on the Hill - the stepped-up security precautions will remain a nuisance, no matter how subtle they become.
"There's an extent to which you wonder as you walk by unmarked cars or get searched as you enter a building - is this really necessary?" says Steven L. Cymrot, developer and founding president of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. "All we as residents see are annoyances. If they are right and we are wrong, then I apologize."
Last year, Cymrot was visited by FBI agents who informed him that one of the residential buildings he owns on the Hill was the potential target of a terrorist attack. He says that like most of his friends in the neighborhood, few of his tenants seemed fazed by the information.
"I don't know if it's that we've all become used to these things, but it [the threat] just didn't become a topic," he says. "Ten years ago when people moved here they would ask, `Is it safe?' But you don't hear people now asking, `Am I gonna get hit by flying weapons of mass destruction?'"
Bruce Robey, publisher of Voice on the Hill and a 30-year resident of the neighborhood, agrees: "It's not on the lips of every Capitol Hill resident," Robey says. "The threat level goes up, and then it goes back down - it's like the boy who cried wolf. To be honest, most of us are more concerned with lead in the water than we are with a terrorist attack."
According to Marguerite Kelly, author and columnist for the Washington Post, most long-time residents of the Hill have soldiered through other threats to their safety, such as the rash of violent crime that struck the area in the late 1980s and early 1990s.