April 12, 1996

Park Service Sifts Ideas for Pennsylvania Avenue,
A Marble Sofa Among Them

By Stephen C. Fehr Washington Post Staff Writer

Come sit a spell on the national sofa.

It's no ordinary couch. In James Allegro's mind, the 300 foot marble-slab "national sofa" would decorate Lafayette Square across from the White House. And would sit in front of it--a giant-screen model showing the president and his family inside the mansion an a soda of their own, answering questions awl chatting with folks in the park.

"This is only one approach that says, 'Hey, let's use technology to bring the president closer to us,' " said Allegro, one of two local architects who submitted the idea to the National Park Service.

Brainstorms such as that are among the hundreds of suggestions the Park Service has been considering for the closed two block section of Pennsylvania Avenue NW in front of the White House. This month, the agency is scheduled to release five proposed Futures for the avenue there. It will borrow heavily from the recommendations of a panel of 13 nationally known architects and planners and, to a lesser extent, 600 private citizens nationwide.

Some of the public's visions include a shelter and a free clinic for the homeless. Others envision the area honoring the 50 states, immigrants, Native Americans and even presidential pets through the years. A memorial for Nobel Prize winners or the victims of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building was proposed. One person wanted a presidential wax museum. "Actually, it's been fun," said James I. McDaniel, the Park Service's liaison to the White House. "this is a unique process that may not take place in any other country."

Few people have been more dogged about drawing attention to their idea than Allegro, 33, and Doug Michels, 52. Michels's best known work is Cadillac Ranch, a monument of 10 Cadillacs standing fins-up in the sand near Amarillo, Texas. So it's natural to wonder whether the national sofa is to be taken seriously.

Yes and no.

The scheme was hatched one afternoon when Allegro and Michels were talking about the Park Service's solicitation for proposals. They were impressed by the site's potential for interaction between the president and the people.

"Oh, you mean like a giant sofa in front?" Michels said to Allegro.

"Yeah, a monument to couch potatoes," Allegro said. They started sketching, eventually settling on a long seat of curved marble fronted by a carpet of grass and pool of water. The 40-by-80 foot television screen would rise out of the ground for presidential conversations, with microphones and cameras nearby for the people in Lafayette Square and throughout the White House for the First Family. Allegro and Michels peg the cost at $20 million. There would be no giant marble channel clicker--or mute button.

"The sofa is sort of an American icon--a disarming, friendly social setting," said Michels, whose own living room lacks one. "You wouldn't be forced to ask serious Questions as [at] a town meeting. Americans aren't that serious all the time. They like to sit on the sofa and hang out."

But who would decide who gets to hang out and speak: "I'd have to defer that to the sofa management committee," Michels replied. McDaniel doubts that the final design for Pennsylvania Avenue will include a national sofa, although he offered to "keep listening and talking to them. Park Service officials plan to make their selection by January. The cost and construction schedule have not been determined.

Outside the White House yesterday, tourists were intrigued by the Possibilities of sitting couchside in the park. "It's very La La Land," said Adele Dick, of Huntington Beach, Calif., about 35 miles south of the real La La Land. Her 11- and 9-year old sons were interested, too, although they seemed disappointed that no video games would be available when the president wasn't talking.

"I'm not political," emphasized her older son, Michael. "But it would give people a chance to speak their mind."

Kathie Mittman, who was visiting from Portervilie, Calif.. liked the idea. "I don't know if you should write this down, but the president is not aware of what the average person is thinking," she said. "Maybe this would help some of that dialogue. It would have to be open to anyone, though. He couldn't select who would ask questions."

Michels and Allegro intend to continue pushing their proposal even if the Park Service shoots it down.

President Clinton, "a national sofa kind of guy, would love the opportunity, Michels said.

So would his presumed opponent in November, Sen. Robert J. Dole, even if talking to President Dole "would be like visiting your grandparents."

And Ross Perot!

"He'd talk so much the screen Probably would never be down. And we'd be sorry we ever came up with the idea."