WASHINGTON -- The newest marble monument on Capitol Hill, housing suites for 50 senators and their staffs, was built by a committee.
The old joke that a camel is a horse built by a committee does not exactly apply to the new Philip A. Hart Senate Office Building, since it seems to be well proportioned. But critics think it is not even a camel, much less a horse. They consider it a white elephant.
The $137-million addition to Washington's edifice complex has taken 10 years from start to finish, its design the subject of public hearings and the opinions of 25 senators, who sat either on the commission overseeing its construction or on the Public Works Committee that demanded a say.
After the November elections, 50 senators will move into the new building, the third for the 100-member Senate and its staff of 7,000. Thirty-two will have offices in the ornate, high-ceilinged Russell Building -- now a historic landmark -- and 18 will remain in the spacious, but unesthetic Dirksen Building.
The 435-member House also has three buildings. The newest, the Rayburn Building, opened in 1965, is in need of roof repairs caused, in part, by termites.
The new structure is a memorial to the late Sen. Philip A. Hart, D-Mich., a universally loved, mild-mannered champion of social justice who died in 1976. Three years later, the site almost became an empty $80 million shell of a parking lot when the Senate on a tie vote temporarily rejected more money for its completion.
Instead, it voted the money, but in a fury of cost-cutting forced Capitol Architect George White to drop plans for oak paneling in the offices, a rooftop restaurant, dimmer switches for the lights, a second Senate gymnasium and a multipurpose media room with a booth for television anchormen to broadcast newsworthy hearings.
White -- a birdlike, intense overseer of construction and maintenance on Capitol Hill's 271 acres -- managed to get the gym and the media room built, anyway, from contingency funds that were not spent on cost overruns.
There also will be space for more of the senators' coveted hideaway offices.
White is defensive about the 10 years of criticism of what about half the Senate sees as unwarranted expansion.
'Their criticism was that if you build a building, you'll fill it with staff and, therefore, they felt if you don't have space you'll have no place to put staff, and therefore you won't hire staff,' he said in an interview.
'I take the position that there isn't adequate space for the existing staff, and that staff shouldn't be controlled by cramping everybody into office spaces. Staff should be controlled by staff-control.'
Commercial building standards, as well as those of the government's General Sevices Administration, recommend about 150 square feet of usable office space per employee. The two existing buildings provide about 70 square feet, he said.
As for a second gym, he says, 'Every high school and junior high school has exercise equipment. If you work all day and don't do anything else but take an hour for exercise, why is that a problem?
'It's not a country club. People are working hard and they ought to be able to have time to build their health a little bit.'
Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., argued vigorously against completing the building in 1979 when funding was almost stopped. He questioned the need for 'a new marble and bronze gilded castle so we can coddle ourselves and work in palatial surroundings.'
He said the name on the building 'parodies the late senator's unostentatious syle.'
Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., said not only did White repeatedly jack up the cost of the building from an initial $48 million estimate, but its completion would lead to a demand by senators left in the other two buildings to spend millions refurbishing their old offices.
White says the $48 million price tag in 1972 was 'a wild guess' with 'no real meaning' forced on him by a quick request for a cost estimate from the Appropriations Committee.
White can't understand the senatorial and public outcries about the bulding's opulence. He takes tremendous pleasure in showing a New York Times clipping from 1909 about the opening of the Russell Building, which cost about $8 million.
The headline reads: 'The Senators' 'Office' -- Cost Five Million. A Veritable Palace in Which the Country's 92 Senators Transact Business.' The full page story marvels at the bronze and marble splendor and the 'recklessness of expense. ... They erected a building that a thousand men would feel lonesome in ... And it looks as much as a prosaic business office building as a lady's boudouir does.'
'No. Nothing ever changes,' laments White. 'You read the same stuff today.'
He implores a reporter to 'say something nice about the Congress, for crying out loud.'
White describes the four-story white marble structure as 'a contemporary design with classic proportions.'
Apparently what that means is it is not as classical and ornate as the first building, but not quite as ugly as the second, built in what he calls 'an unfortunate period in architecture.'
White says the design is 'unique' in that each senator's suite will have two stories, each eight feet high. The main entrance to a suite will be on an odd-numbered floor, and the entrance to the staff offices will be on even-numbered floors.
Each office will face have a window facing either outside or inward on the building's center atrium.
If there's no other benefit for the public, construction of the Hart Building will enable the architect to double the size of the staff cafeteria, opening up a smaller eatery just off the Senate subway line for public use during the peak lunch hours.