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.
"To me, the real fear was in 1988 when the drug market came closer," says Kelly, who moved to the Hill with her husband in 1953 and raised four children there. "I think there are always scares here, but people aren't so afraid of them."
In 1992, Tom Barnes, a legislative assistant to Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, was shot and killed while walking to a store near his home near the Capitol. That year, aspiring congressional aide Abbey McCloskey was sexually assaulted and murdered in a Capitol Hill alley. In 1998, the Hill suffered another terrible crime when a gunman opened fire on Capitol security, killing two officers.
It was not until 1991, when the United States was on the brink of the country's first invasion of Iraq, however, that intelligence experts began talking about the Capitol as a target of a large-scale attack. In January 1991, the House sergeant-at-arms called the Capitol the "No. 1" terrorist target in the country, causing a widespread case of nerves.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Capitol has been targeted twice - once with anthrax, and most recently, with the deadly poison ricin. Although no one at the Capitol was killed or injured in these attacks, the incidents have caused some lawmakers to call for more stringent security measures on the Hill.
"It [security] hasn't changed enough in some ways," says Rep. Brian Baird, a Washington state Democrat. "We are effectively still living in denial that a group of people motivated, with the right weapons, could kill all of us."
Still, Baird adds: "I hope we never get to the point where we glass-in the chambers."
Sun staff writer Annie Linskey contributed to this article.
A history of violence on Capitol Hill:
Aug. 24, 1814: British troops burn the Capitol to the ground during the War of 1812.
Jan. 30, 1835: An insane man attempts to assassinate President Andrew Jackson in the House chamber, but his two shots misfire, and Jackson survives the attempt.
July 2, 1915: Erich Muenter, a former Harvard German teacher, explodes a bomb in the Senate reception room to protest American activities in World War I. No one is injured in the blast.
March 1, 1954: Three Puerto Rican nationalists burst into the House visitors gallery and open fire, wounding five congressmen.
March 1, 1971: A Vietnam protester sets off a bomb in the Senate men's room. No one is injured in the explosion.
Nov. 7, 1983: A bomber sets off a time-delayed explosive in a hallway near the office of Sen. Robert Byrd to protest U.S. military policy in Lebanon and Grenada.
July 24, 1998: Former mental patient Russell Eugene Weston Jr. opens fire on the Capitol, killing two security guards.
Oct. 19, 2001: An anthrax-laced letter is mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, shutting down the Senate.
Feb. 2, 2004: Ricin, a poison made from castor beans, is discovered in a mailroom serving the office of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, forcing the closure of three Senate office buildings.