Visitor Center Fever

The Disney within.

In 1993, the Walt Disney Company announced that it planned to build a 1,200-acre theme park called “Disney’s America” in the northern Virginia Piedmont, a mere 35 miles from the White House. Disney hoped to divert some of the D.C. area’s 19 million annual visitors to its park, which would include a Lewis and Clark raft trip, re-created Civil War-era villages, a replica of Ellis Island, and various other exhibits. Historic preservationists were able to kill the idea in 1994, but not before the curators of various Washington landmarks glimpsed a terrifying future in which tourism to actual historic places proved less popular than tourism to ersatz historic places.

Since then, the National Park Service and various other stewards of historic sites in Washington and elsewhere have been binging on the construction of ever-larger and flashier “visitor centers” that would create similarly parallel experiences for tourists who find the direct experience of history just a wee bit boring. Vast underground bunkers are especially popular, and are currently being constructed underneath the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. In the bad old days, if you wanted to visit the Capitol, you put your stuff through an X-ray machine, walked through a metal detector, and—voilà!—you were in the Capitol. Can you imagine anything more tedious? In what is currently estimated to be a couple of years hence, visitors to the Capitol will experience the thrill of entering through a 580,000 square-foot underground Capitol Visitor Center whose construction, according to a not-yet-released report by the Government Accountability Office obtained by the Washington Post, may end up costing nearly a thousand dollars per square foot. The three-level visitor center will include gift shops, a cafeteria, and an exhibition gallery. Like the vast underground shopping mall I.M. Pei built underneath his famous Louvre pyramid, the Capitol Visitor Center promises to be a gateway so fabulous that it will render superfluous any continuation of the journey to its actual destination.

The bunkers underneath the Capitol and the Washington Monument have been sold to the public as security enhancements, but in warfare it’s always been my understanding that setting off explosions below any particular target makes it easier, not harder, to bring it crashing down. (Plus terrorists would be able to kill all the people in the bunkers themselves, which in the case of the Capitol Visitor Center would include many members of Congress, which has claimed about one-third of the underground space for office space, TV studios, and the like.) The National Coalition to Save Our Mall has pointed out that the Washington Monument, with masonry 15 feet thick, is an unlikely terrorist target, but that building underneath the Monument could upset its foundation. (Indeed, rather than worry about hypothetical deaths that might occur should terrorists attack Washington’s monuments, the Park Service would do well to calculate the likely increase in actual deaths that have already resulted from the diversion of Park Police to the monuments from nearby federal parkways and parks. Park Police chief Teresa Chambers got fired for verifying to the Washington Post that the diversion had occurred. She lost the first round of hearings with the Merit Systems Protection Board to get her job back, and is currently working on an appeal.)

In 2001, the Government Accountability Office (then called the General Accounting Office) calculated that between 1996 and 2005 the National Park Service had plans to build or renovate 80 visitor centers around the country, at a cost of $542 million. (Some of this is covered by “private partnerships,” but it’s virtually certain that price tag has increased during the past three years.) About half of the projects involved the construction of entirely new facilities. A common reason given for the new construction, according to the GAO, was that “exhibits were outdated,” though this wouldn’t seem a pressing worry at the many sites maintained for their historical value. In many instances, “exhibits were outdated” was surely a euphemism for, “We need more computers,” because, as we all know, children nowadays won’t consent to visit any historical, natural, or cultural site that doesn’t have some interactive component. Except that the GAO also found that another common reason cited for renovating or building new visitor centers was that the site couldn’t handle the growth in visitors, which in most instances was estimated to rise by 25 percent in fewer than 10 years. So getting the crowds isn’t, in fact, much of a problem.

The problem is that the Park Service has an ever-expanding idea of what it is necessary to include in a visitor center. The GAO says that visitor centers traditionally have served “five basic functions,” i.e., “information, exhibits, restrooms, publication sales, and administrative space for visitor center personnel.” Now, it notes, visitor center functions are multiplying, and often include “auditoriums, curatorial areas, and transportation facilities.” As recently as the 1970s, the Park Service built a perfectly acceptable little pavilion by Independence Hall to house the Liberty Bell. It has since been replaced by a vast new Liberty Bell Center, not to be confused with the nearby and also new National Constitution Center, at whose dedication Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Sen. Arlen Specter, and Philadelphia Mayor John Street were nearly killed by a collapsing wood and steel frame.

I don’t mean to be a total Grinch. Spiffy visitor centers can be fun, and I’m sure some of them are worth the money. (Certainly renovating bathrooms at Park Service sites is always worth the money.) But the Park Service budget has been pinched for years, leaving many of the historic sites themselves badly in need of renovation. The current maintenance backlog is estimated to be around $6 billion. Until a few years ago, for instance, Grant’s Tomb was more or less an open cesspool; it got repaired only when Grant’s descendents threatened to dig up the Civil War hero’s bones and bury them elsewhere. Now it’s fixed, and apparently it’s lovely. Naturally, there’s talk of building a Grant’s Tomb visitor center.