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Guardian of Capitol Improvements

It's a Grand Old Building, Which Keeps Washington's Official Architect Busy


WASHINGTON — In honor of the celebration this weekend of our country's independence, The Times chats with the guardian of the buildings that have come to symbolize that independence. Alan Hantman, the nation's 10th architect of the Capitol, has faced a broad range of daunting tasks, from preserving and restoring the almost 200-year-old structure to updating it and others for the needs of the 21st century.

And so in his first year on the job, Hantman, 55, asked Congress for--and received--a substantial one-third increase in his budget to do such things as fix the leaky dome of the Capitol and wire hundreds of congressional staff offices for online access and to create Web sites.

A graduate of New York City public universities, Hantman served a similar architectural and supervisory role at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan for 10 years. In his new job, he manages a $200-million budget and 2,000 employees. He earns $125,900 annually in one of the nation's most prestigious architectural posts.

Hantman was interviewed in his office in the Capitol's subbasement surrounded by historic portraits of many of his predecessors and architectural drawings of the sprawling buildings in the Capitol complex that he oversees.

Question: Talk to me a bit about your impressions when you first walked into the Capitol. Do you have any recollection of what went through your mind?

Answer: Actually, my first impressions were before I was selected as architect. I had come from New York for multiple interviews by Amtrak to Union Station and I'd step out of the arcade and, because it was at night, I'd see the dome lit against the sky. That was just something. I've still not gotten used to the concept of--no matter how corny it sounds--that dome. It is pristine, pure form, especially when it's lit against the night sky.

Once I walked into the building, I recognized that things were being done, but clearly the building could be cared for better than it had been in terms of displays and little sales shops here and there, things like that.

Q: If any spot was available, where would you watch the fireworks?

A: Actually, I do plan to watch the fireworks on July Fourth. We're gonna take a blanket and be surrounded by the crowds on the west front of the Capitol facing a band shell housing the National Symphony Orchestra. I'll be able to see the fireworks and the thousands of people and the Washington Monument all before me.

Q: Your job has been described as everything from building super of a small city to architect and fund-raiser. Describe it for me.

A: Oh, there's really several segments to the job. Clearly we are responsible for Congress. The voters of America send a lot of representatives up here to Capitol Hill, and whatever we can do to help them do the people's business is our responsibility. So if they need facilities in their office, better telecommunications. . . . If their basic building systems don't work right, we're not helping them do their job.

Q: Simply, what do you oversee?

A: We have the Capitol, which is situated on Capitol Square. Then we have the office buildings of the Senate, of which there are three, and the office buildings of the House, of which there are really five. There are support office buildings. Then we have--and some people don't know this--the Library of Congress. We're responsible for the buildings, the basic utilities and infrastructure and historic preservation. We're also responsible for the Supreme Court and the Federal Judiciary Building. We also have the U.S. Botanic Gardens--the architect has been the acting director [of the gardens] since 1938. I don't know when you stop acting and really become a director. We have our own power plant, which provides steam and chilled water to all our complex. . . .

Then we have some 25 acres outside D.C., where we have greenhouses, another 100 acres out at Ft. Meade of storage facilities for the Library of Congress where they're building a dense book depository.

So all of that plus 273 acres of grounds that surround all of these buildings are part of our area of responsibility.

Q: What would you redesign if you could?

A: There are some buildings that we've inherited over time that don't fit in with the monumental core of Capitol Hill. For example, the police headquarters is a converted office building; there's an old hotel that House pages use as their dorm--it's an old brick building that just doesn't fit in.

Q: Could you compare the place that Rockefeller Center has in the consciousness of America to that of the Capitol?

A: I think in my confirmation hearing I tried to summarize it because I was very proud to have invested 10 years of my career at Rockefeller Center. To me it is--was and is--the heart of New York City. It's really the village square, if you will, the heart of the city, and now I've come to the heart of the nation.

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