One of the most prominent architectural legacies of the early 20th century is the Beaux-Arts public building fronted by monumental steps. I’m thinking of the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Art Institute in Chicago, and the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. There is nothing like climbing steps to lend grandeur to a building, after all, as Philip Johnson once observed, a building can’t be important if you go down into it. But while these broad steps were originally built to impress, they have proved remarkably congenial places—people love to sit on them. But our age may be remembered as the one in which many of these grand entrances were closed down.
Last year, the Supreme Court announced that it was closing its front entrance to the general public. The Cass Gilbert-designed granddaddy of “courthouse steps,” will no longer serve as the main entrance; instead people will enter a side door that leads to a new security screening facility. Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the change “unfortunate” and expressed the hope that the entrance might one day be re-opened, but that’s like hoping that airport screening will disappear.
In federal buildings, security trumps architectural grace. The latest victim is the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the West Wing, where the majority of the White House staff work. The main entrance to the Second Empire building faces Pennsylvania Avenue and is reached by crossing a large plaza and climbing a broad flight of steps. For some years, a security barrier has prevented anyone from using this entrance; instead staffers, Congressmen, and visiting dignitaries are redirected to a provisional screening tent.
Now the temporary is to be made permanent. Everyone entering the building will descend an outdoor ramp that leads to a new screening facility located under the plaza, whence they will enter the building at the basement level. Although the proposed facility is intelligently designed by KieranTimberlake (who are the architects of the new American Embassy in London), there is no getting around the fact that the building has lost its front door.
Front doors are important in public buildings: welcoming, weighty, and, above all, prominent. Second Empire is not a style that is to everyone’s taste—Mark Twain once called the Executive Office Building “the ugliest building in America”—but like all good public buildings it emphasizes its entrance, which is located in a projecting central portion of the main façade, with paired columns supporting a large portico. Now tourists will take photographs of the shuttered portico through the bars of a security fence. It will feel like looking at a caged animal, for indeed, the open-handed public entrance is an endangered species.