Investigative Architecture

With an appropriately transparent facade, the Newseum aims to enliven stodgy Pennsylvania Avenue and celebrate our right to free speech.

At a time when America’s freedoms are under attack, from both within and without, many citizens remain ignorant of their constitutional rights. But soon one of those freedoms—the right to free speech—will gain some clarity when a powerful architectural symbol of the Fourth Estate breaks ground between the Capitol and the White House. Early next year construction will commence on the Newseum, a project combining the headquarters of the Freedom Forum, a nonprofit media foundation, with an “interactive museum of news” featuring a history gallery, a demonstration broadcast studio, and a memorial to journalists who died in the line of duty.

The Newseum is the capstone of one of the nation’s longest running urban-renewal projects: it will occupy one of Pennsylvania Avenue’s last undeveloped sites, across the street from the Washington Mall. Since the early 1960s, when somber stone buildings and urban blight dominated Pennsylvania Avenue, some of the nation’s most prominent politicians and architects have worked to resuscitate “America’s Main Street.” Improving the avenue’s condition was one of President John F. Kennedy’s last stated objectives, says former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Kennedy said the avenue should be “lively, friendly, and inviting as well as dignified and impressive,” Moynihan recalls. At that time the forces of the free market were not doing the avenue any favors. “[It] had been abandoned,” Moynihan says. “Like so many of the downtown areas of metropolitan cities, the automobile had just emptied it out.” Over the years the enforcement of guidelines known as the Pennsylvania Avenue Plan helped eradicate blight, and humanity crept back in places. Currently there are a few restaurants and residences, but the avenue is still relatively quiet at night, and mausoleumlike government architecture still dominates it.

With the Newseum, Pennsylvania Avenue’s wattage should increase substantially. Designed almost entirely of glass, the building will glow day and night with light from the enormous electronic visual displays inside, featuring breaking news stories. Ground-floor windows will offer a daily display of front pages from newspapers around the world, and an immense stone slab inscribed with the First Amendment will grace the building’s Pennsylvania Avenue facade.

Through its use of glass, the Newseum makes a fundamentally different statement from that of its predominantly stone-faced neighbors, say its designers. “The National Gallery is the idea of the building as a vault—it conveys that what is inside is valuable and needs to be protected,” says Tyler H. Donaldson, project manager for Polshek Partnership Architects, the firm designing the Newseum. “Our building is saying what is inside belongs to you and is available to all.”

Functionally the Newseum will animate the avenue with its multitude of uses: in addition to the museum, the building will include housing, retail, a conference center, theaters, and office space. “This building is like a small town,” architect James Polshek says. “It’s got everything except the police station.”

Designed for one of the nation’s most architecturally regulated avenues, the Newseum makes a unique statement while still respecting the setbacks and heights of its distinguished neighbors, which include the Canadian Embassy and the National Gallery. For historians of the avenue, the development represents the apotheosis of a decades-old vision. “The Newseum, probably more than any other project on the avenue, has achieved the [guideline’s] goals due to its multiple uses and outstanding architecture,” says Jo-Ann Neuhaus, a consultant with the National Capital Planning Commission, which oversees the Pennsylvania Avenue Plan.

While the Newseum will respect its neighbors architecturally, it will also serve as a watchdog for free speech. Polshek says, “It’s a reminder to all the legislators up the street, and the executive branch at the other end [of the avenue], that this is a principle that is held in our republic as immutable.”

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