Drive down Constitution Ave toward Virginia and you’ll pass the Office of Surface Mining, the Federal Reserve, the American Pharmacists’ Association and various other encased bureaucracies. The last one before the bridge is a sandstone-colored building with a central atrium filled with natural light–you can tell from the street–topped with a white canopy swooping over the front of the building. It’s supposed to look like a dove.
In theory that’s an appropriate architectural motif for the Institute of Peace, whether or not you actually see it that way. Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott called it a “meretricious” touch but architect Moshe Safdie will always draw swoons from the overeducated, even for his hideous ATF headquarters. The canopy was, in Kennicott’s opinion, an example of Saftie “building donut shops that look like donuts, but for a higher price tag and a classier crowd.”
The $186 million new building was supposed to officially open with a ceremony last year. Fall came and went without much media coverage of the newly-operational building, and no grand opening. But fancy Washington big-think conferences draw our cosmopolitan elites with about the same magnetism as your average beat cop to a Lard Lad, and news came last week that Newsweek/The Daily Beast intends to give the space the inauguration it deserved. Or, perhaps a more splendid one:
Newsweek and The Daily Beast are pleased to announce a new annual summit: ”The Hero Summit: An Exploration of Character and Courage”—a powerful two-day gathering debuting at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., Nov. 14–15. The Hero Summit will examine the essential elements of moral, political, intellectual and physical courage, resilience, and selflessness. We’ll hear from the men and women of the U.S. military—active and retired—on the greatest moments of heroism they’ve ever witnessed, on the concept of sacrifice, and on the lives of America’s veterans. We’ll also hear from those who shape and influence foreign policy, national security, and military issues about the question of our national character, set against the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. And throughout the summit, political dissidents, artists, and journalists will shine light on the wide range of expressions of courage and valor, and what it really means to speak truth to power.
Who are these heroes we’re showcasing?
Speakers include Adm. William McRaven, Madeleine K. Albright, Garry Kasparov, Bono, Aaron Sorkin, and Steven Spielberg, who will be screening his new film, Lincoln, and discussing the nature of moral courage.
The USIP is what the Brits call a “quango,” a quasi-non-governmental organization, and was originally conceived during the Reagan administration. The funding for its new headquarters was arranged primarily by Senator John Warner–with a final mix of about 50-50 public and private–who shepherded the project until his retirement. Its primary purpose, as a historian from just up the hill at the Old Naval Observatory once memorably explained to me, is to be a retirement home for aging foreign service officers who want to stay in the game.
That isn’t what their mission statement says, of course, but their mission–”to save lives, increase the government’s ability to deal with conflicts before they escalate, reduce government costs, and enhance our national security”–is completely redundant, since that’s well within the State Department’s job description. They put out white papers and train conflict resolution teams and go through all the motions of a Washington humanitarian NGO, but their recommendations come with the massive asterisk of the agency’s provenance, having been created by an act of Congress. In 2011, the federal government eliminated operating funds to the USIP, so while they have nominal financial independence for now, they still enjoy pride of place both on the Mall and among foreign affairs think tanks and, apparently, as the finest venue Tina Brown and the TED talk people can buy.
The kremlinology behind how a small policy shop whose most prominent initiative was an annual essay contest managed to wrangle some of the sweetest real estate in the District for a brand new headquarters designed by one of the world’s top architects will probably never be known in full detail.
There’s one thing they certainly didn’t do however, and it requires some explaining. By law, when new buildings are constructed on federal land the government is required, under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, to conduct what is called a Section 106 survey. The surveys are expected to assess a range of impacts the new construction will have on its surroundings; aesthetic assessments like whether or not the building is too tall for its neighbors, traffic surveys, and archaeological test pits.
Citing previous construction–the Institute of Peace was built atop a parking lot–the final pre-building environmental report released in 2006 said it was “unlikely” that archaeological remains would have been present at the site. The report focused on how the USIP design was a fine aesthetic match for the Mall, fitting in with the building lines along 23rd Street, and not overshadowing the Lincoln Memorial. No test pits were ever dug, and it was assumed that there was nothing of historical or archaeological value on the site.
After Clark began construction, they started finding things. According to Jan Herman, historian at the Old Naval Observatory and author of a book on the property, construction workers uncovered glass and metal objects, which they removed, placed in boxes, and stored in a trailer. The 2006 environmental assessment reads that in the event that objects are uncovered such as the ones dug up by workers, “construction should stop while appropriate archaeological studies are completed,” pursuant to the law. That was never done. District of Columbia archaeologist Ruth Trocolli informed John Stranix, the head of the project who is mostly known for planning sports arenas, of the survey requirements of the preservation law.
In an email dated June 25, 2009, Stranix replied with a list of estimates for the work required, and said “we did not budget for this effort as it was not identified as an issue or impact during our EA [sic].” In a later email dated August 4, 2009, he denied any obligation under the NHPA at all, saying “when we met, we agreed to seek proposals for the work you described but did not agree to carry it out. We continue to hold the original bottles that were found under safe keeping.”
Eventually the construction company turned over what was found–primarily bottles and metal objects–to Jan Herman. But we’ll never know what was carted off in trucks like so much dirt, buried under the new foundation, or taken by construction workers.
That might seem like an insignificant tragedy, and cosmically speaking it probably is. It at least pales in comparison to the heady concerns of international peacemaking and diplomacy, as I learned trying to obtain comment from USIP president Richard Solomon. But the history of the property is nonetheless impressive.
In 1871 a professor named Joseph E. Nourse described the property’s earliest claim to fame as the site at which General Braddock and his troops supposedly crossed the Potomac on the way to attack Fort Duquesne at the beginning of the French and Indian War. He mentions a “large rock, which yet stands, in the southern part of the original Reservation, which the Observatory occupies, as the rock on which these landings were made.” It may seem strange that a collection of rocks was once worthy of a mention on maps of the area, but Washington was a marshy place back then, and fords were hard to come by. The site became known as Braddock’s Rock, but on maps dating to the 17th century it’s referred to by the rather mysterious name, “Key of All Keys.”
He continued, “the water, at the time of Braddock’s ill-fated expedition, was so deep that his vessels landed the troops at what was known as the ‘Big Rock,’ … and up to the time of the building of the Observatory the hill was one known as ‘Camp Hill,’ from Braddock’s Army having camped their prior to starting for Pittsburg again.” Over the next 80 years or so, the Key of All Keys and most of the surrounding Piedmont stone was transformed into downtown buildings and the C&O canal, and upon completion of the facility which housed the largest telescope in the Americas in 1844, the location took on a new name–Observatory Hill. During the Civil War Union soldiers camped there and the site has been continuously occupied since then, evidence of which would presumably be present in the archaeological record.
Soon, for the first time in its history, the Old Naval Observatory, from which a portion of land was taken to build the USIP, will no longer be under the Navy’s management. The site where the moons of mars were discovered and the science of oceanography invented will be transferred to the State Department under the Base Realignment and Closure program to house, one guesses, more diplomats and peacemakers.
So as the hilltop in Foggy Bottom completes yet another transformation, what stands out more than anything is how badly its new occupants have failed to remember its past. There’s evidence that it might be more than a matter of a few boxes of ancient bottles too. A 2004 Navy cultural resource study said “the likelihood of human remains at the Potomac Annex is high.” According to Herman there is evidence of two, possibly three graveyards somewhere on the Observatory’s grounds, and the first Jewish resident of DC, Isaac Polock, is buried there. This raises the possibility that the Institute of Peace is built on the bones of dead Americans. Maybe it isn’t, but thanks to their sloppy compliance with preservation standards, we’ll never know for sure either way.
That’s a separate issue from whatever it is the Institute of Peace actually does. Nothing they could dig up will contribute to its success as a venue for the humanitarian and philanthropic elite. But one hopes when attendees of Tina Brown’s summit gather to listen to ‘heroes’ like Bono and Aaron Sorkin, they take a moment to remember where they’re standing. Because when the building was designed, approved, and constructed, nobody did.
Jordan Bloom is the Associate Editor of TAC. Follow him on Twitter.