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Members Question Capitol Site for African-American Museum

The preferred site of the proposed National Museum of African American History and Culture came under scrutiny at a House Administration Committee hearing Wednesday as Members and officials voiced concerns over the precedent of building such a structure on Capitol grounds.

“I would be adamantly opposed to any site on the Mall” or Capitol grounds, said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), adding that “it was a question of fairness to other racial and ethnic groups.”

But Rep. John Lewis, a longtime champion and co-sponsor of the bill, wants to see the museum built on the Capitol site: “It is my belief that no other group in America has suffered longer under such a vicious and evil system [than] African-Americans — over 300 years of slavery and years of segregation and Jim Crow laws.”

In June, companion legislation passed the Senate unanimously, though no hearing was held prior to being discharged from the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.

“It’s certainly surprising that an issue involving a building literally several hundred yards from the Senate office buildings didn’t even warrant a hearing in the Senate or debate on the floor,” said one Republican House aide, commenting on the swiftness with which the bill had moved through the Senate.

Earlier this year a presidential commission recommended that the proposed 350,000-square-foot museum — which will be under the jurisdiction of the Smithsonian Institution — be located on the triangle of land between Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues Northwest just north of the Capitol Reflecting Pool. Three other sites along the Mall have also been mentioned as alternatives in legislation authorizing the museum, which is currently under consideration.

Urging additional study, Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl said the Capitol site could set a precedent for similar requests for non-Congressional structures to be built on Capitol grounds.

“It is my belief that the ability of Congress to determine or meet its future needs on the existing Capitol grounds could be threatened and/or limited,” said Trandahl. “Any loss of area or control of area would be detrimental to our efforts.”

If the Capitol site were selected, Trandhal said Congress would must decide to retain control of the site or release it to the Smithsonian. Both alternatives, he said, would require additional legislation.

Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman said any plans for the site should be considered in the context of a long-term Capitol Complex Master plan currently being developed.

“We need to give Congress a matrix … to build informed decisions on,” he said.

Hantman also raised concerns that the construction of underground space on the Capitol site — as envisioned by the commission’s report — could be limited due to the area’s potentially high water table.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the Capitol site is “appropriate” for a museum but emphasized that she is “not one of the devotees of putting it on the Mall.” Building the museum on Capitol grounds would be acceptable, however, because “that is not part of the Mall,” she said.

Members questioned why a fifth site considered by the commission, known as the Banneker/10th Street overlook, was not included in the legislation.

“I would have preferred to see all sites included,” said ranking member Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.).

When pressed by Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) as to why the site had not been included in the bill, Lewis responded: “The only thing I know is that leading members of the Senate had some concern that the overlook site was too far from the National Mall.”

Mica recommended that the Federal Trade Commission building also be considered as a potential location.

Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said he is satisfied by the presidential commission’s recommendations: “I am going to be supportive of building where you want to build it,” he said.

Charles Cassell of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall — a group that supports a moratorium on further construction on the Mall — said any new structures would violate the Commemorative Works Act, enacted by Congress to protect the L’Enfant and McMillan plans for the city’s monumental core.

“The Commemorative Works Act does not apply to museums,” countered Robert Wilkins, who had chaired the presidential commission’s site selection committee.

Officials also fielded questions on the potential security burdens a museum on Capitol grounds would create.

Capitol Police Assistant Chief Robert Howe said he envisions that the department would be responsible for the exterior security of the building if it were located at the Capitol site, while Smithsonian police would patrol its interior.

A museum within the Capitol security perimeter would likely be subject to additional security restrictions and incorporated into any overall Capitol evacuation plan, said Howe.

Both Ney and Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) raised concerns that the museum — with an estimated price tag of $360 million — not confront similar cost overruns as the Capitol Visitor Center now under construction. The legislation calls for the building to be financed through a 50-50 public-private split.

Robert Wright, who had chaired the presidential commission originally charged with making recommendations for the proposed museum, said “fundraising could not begin until Congress and the president act to approve the legislation.”

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