Senators Are Blushing Over the $137 Million Bill for a Lavish New Palace on the Potomac
Ten years in construction, at an estimated cost of $137.7 million, the nine-story Hart Building has 16-foot-high ceilings, a cavernous sky-lit atrium, a three-inch-thick marble facade and solid brass elevator doors. So splendid were the original plans that many Senators worried that Hart was too fancy—a "Taj Mahal on the Potomac," Sen. John Chafee (Rep., R.I.) called it.
As of late November only 14 Senators had volunteered to move into the 50-suite, 1.1 million-square-foot edifice. So Senate leaders will soon begin ordering junior Senators to fill the remaining offices in Hart. But Capitol Architect George M. White, 62, professes unconcern at the response to his creation. "If you took criticism personally in this job," he shrugs, "you'd end up in a hospital inside of six weeks."
In the beginning, the Hart was hardly controversial. It carries the name of one of the Senate's own, Michigan's esteemed late Sen. Philip A. Hart, who died in December 1976. Everybody agrees that the Senate needs new space. Since its last expansion into the Dirksen Building in 1958, the Senate's staff has ballooned from 2,500 to 7,000 workers. Many legislative aides have been working five to a room, squeezed between the water cooler and the word processor. After Hart opens, the offices in the Senate's two other buildings will be expanded as well.
Unfortunately, when the Hart was ready for a formal tour last September, it looked like the most embarrassing case of Capitol Hill grandeur since the House of Representatives threw up the equally sumptuous $87.7 million Ray-burn Building in 1965. Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire called the Hart "a ridiculous waste of money." Chafee called it "a gold-plated showcase crammed with luxurious amenities nobody needs." Only George White, it seems, has actually taken the Hart to heart. "It's not a cheap building that will start to crumble in 20 years," he says. "It's a quality building."
One amenity the building lacked, Senators grumbled, was "escape routes." Politicians prefer private exits to teakwood paneling. Back doors are necessary to avoid irate constituents, dogged reporters and wheedling lobbyists. White—who has degrees in engineering (MIT), business (Harvard) and law (Case Western Reserve) but no political experience—neglected to pencil any getaway hatches into the blueprints. Although White's plans were approved by the Senate in 1974, the decision provided ammunition for Senators inclined to attack the Hart. "I don't know who designed it, but they had their head in the sand," grumbled Sen. James McClure (Rep., Idaho). "Every one of us goes out the back way at times."
The Hart project lost most of its friends as its costs kept escalating. At first, in 1972, White estimated that the building would cost a mere $47.9 million. But in 1973 the estimate went to $68.8 million, then to $85.1 million, then $122.6 million. Finally, in 1978, perhaps remembering Philip Hart's reputation as the austere "Conscience of the Senate," the solons passed a bill to limit the cost to $137 million. In the process, the Senators denied themselves $9.5 million worth of new office furnishings, a $736,400 gym, a $1,182,000 hearing room, a $600,000 private rooftop restaurant and $1.5 million in teak paneling—little touches that, Proxmire charged, "would make a Persian prince green with envy."
Through it all, George White soldiers on with the unflappability of a civil servant. (Appointed by President Nixon in 1971, he is the first professional architect to hold the post in more than 100 years; salaried by the Senate, he earns $59,500.) White has scored a few converts—Majority Leader Howard Baker and Minority Leader Robert Byrd unashamedly plan to move into his pleasure dome—who more than offset the refusal of the likes of Jesse Helms and John Warner. David Olan Meeker of the American Institute of Architects considers the price tag in line and contends, "I think George White has built a building for Congress that will serve them well." Sooner or later after the building is dedicated in January, the Senate will likely appropriate the money for the movable walls and modular furniture that will finish off the building, and White is prepared to wait. "My position is that this building is not for today's Senators," he says. "We're building so that the people of this nation can have a decent structure in which their government can conduct its business for hundreds of years to come. It's a monument to democracy." After surviving war, civil insurrection and economic tumult for two centuries, the Senate may now have to survive its own monument.