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


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

"The project caused great anger among residents," recalls Mr. Spencer.

Mr. White also remembers the incident, with some pain evident on his face.

"There was no arrogance involved," he protests. It was all a failure to communicate, a situation which has since been remedied by frequent consultation with folks in the neighborhood, he says.

Gary Peterson, head of the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, says, "We've had some successes and some spats with Mr. White. But over the years we have worked successfully with him."

Generally, the criticism of Mr. White has been of two kinds: informed and otherwise. An example of the latter came in a letter shortly after Mr. White was appointed by President Richard Nixon in January 1971. The correspondent inquired how "anyone with the slightest self-respect [could] think he can earn money being an architect of a building already erected."

There is more to the job, Mr. White protested.

Informed criticism

Of the more informed criticism, one of Mr. White's professional colleagues once publicly denounced his "government-conditioned" standards, as reflected in the Hart Senate Office Building, erected during Mr. White's tenure as the ninth architect of the Capitol. (This building was so widely disliked that, according to Mr. Bushong, one senator submitted a resolution urging the protective plastic construction covers be left on even after it was finished.)

Hugh Newell Jacobsen, architect of the award-winning Bolton Square in Baltimore, also complained in an interview with Roll Call of what he perceived as Mr. White's informal method of handing out lucrative work on the Capitol complex, namely over lunch.

That was back in 1983, and Mr. Jacobsen admitted recently that his remarks were prompted by his pique at not having gotten one of Mr. White's lunch-time gongs.

"I felt very well-equipped to do the Library of Congress [restoration of the Great Hall], and I didn't get it. I found that arbitrary, capricious."

Michael Carrington, currently director of exhibits at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History but previously with the Library of Congress, recalls his relations with Mr. White over the Great Hall restoration: "They weren't very positive."

Mr. Carrington objected to the selection for this task of the firm of Arthur Cotton Moore Associates as unqualified, and he thought Mr. White was trying to rush the job. "I got into a heated discussion with him over it. I argued against them but didn't get anywhere."

Having seen the Great Hall -- finished but not yet open to the public -- Mr. Carrington admitted, "They did, in fact, a beautiful job."

Mr. Jacobsen agrees, and today -- back in the architect's good graces, and with work to do on Capitol Hill -- regards Mr. White as something of a genius, if not architectural at least political.

"George has the speaker of the House, [the majority leader] of the Senate pressuring him. Men who don't know architecture. He is the one who, when they want their windows expanded, has to say no. He has to walk down that funny path, raise money, get it all going."

If Mr. White has held any real power, it derives not so much from his job as architect of the Capitol as from his position on the D.C. Zoning Commission. Here, he admits, the P-word applies.

"It is only one of five votes, but it is a very powerful position. Its decisions determine land use through the entire city," he says.

"All kinds of people come before the Zoning Commission. You have to struggle to do the best to balance each issue. I used to lie awake at night trying to think and decide what I might do."

Presumably he is getting ample sleep these days. For the past few years he has delegated his Zoning Commission duties to an aide.

It is doubtful anyone could have been selected as the AOC with a lengthier resume than Mr. White's. He is an electrical engineer from MIT. He has a master's degree in business administration from Harvard. He has a law degree from Case Western University.

And, he's an architect, the only professional to hold the AOC job in this century. His predecessor, J. George Stewart, an engineer, was working as a real estate agent in 1954 when President Eisenhower tapped him.

"So I'm not an architect. Neither was Michelangelo," Mr. Stewart once snapped, worn down by the constant criticism sent his way.

During his tenure he brought forth the Rayburn House Office Building, widely regarded as "tired, old-fashioned," and generally unlovely. He oversaw the extension of the east front of the Capitol, which Tony Wrenn, the archivist for the American Institute of Architects, put on his list of the 10 most egregious preservation debacles in history.

The right credentials

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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