The White House And Lafayette Park Went From 'Public Square' To 'Veritable Fortress' For the first half of the 19th century, members of the public could simply walk into the White House's front door and request a meeting with the president.
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NPR logo The White House And Lafayette Park Went From 'Public Square' To 'Veritable Fortress'

The White House And Lafayette Park Went From 'Public Square' To 'Veritable Fortress'

Additional fencing went up at the White House and Lafayette Park throughout the week as protests continued. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

This article was updated on June 8 at 2:30 p.m.

As recently as last week, tourists, protesters and passersby could stand in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue and freely demonstrate in Lafayette Square.

After the protests over George Floyd's killing began, federal authorities and police erected short metal barricades over the weekend to block off various entrances to the park — though demonstrators were still able to gain access to the area.

On Monday evening, the U.S. Park Police and law enforcement forcibly clear the park of protesters so that President Donald Trump could walk to St. John's Church just north of the White House. A tall black fence was erected on the northern edge of Lafayette Square the next morning.

By Thursday afternoon, construction crews had used additional fencing and concrete barricades to block off all entrances to Lafayette Park, the Ellipse and other open spaces around the White House that have hosted First Amendment protests for more than 100 years.

Pedestrian entrances to Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street NW from both the east and west (15th and 17th streets NW), the Ellipse on 17th Street and Constitution Avenue, and Lafayette Square along H Street NW are now barricaded by mesh metal fences and guarded by police. The Secret Service said in a statement that the entire area around the "White House complex" will remain closed until June 10. The area is under the oversight of the federal government.

At this point, the White House is now only visible in the distance through links in the fence. The Washington Post calls it "a veritable fortress." People could once stand directly in front of the fence lining the White House's front lawn. Now the closest they can get is about 600 feet away.

A barrier 220 years in the making

The amount of physical separation between the president's house and the public sphere appears to be without precedence in the White House's 220-year history.

"Presidents made a point of wanting to be accessible to the American public," says Jane Levey with the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. "This is something that is hard for us to understand today."

For the first half of the 19th century, members of the public could simply walk into the White House's front door and request a meeting with the president.

"The concern about security was very, very small," Levey says. "John Adams, the first president to occupy the White House, would allow in anyone. Anyone could walk in the front door, go upstairs and find him in the second floor study."

The first fencing went up during Thomas Jefferson's presidency, though its purpose was mostly to keep animals at bay. According to the White House Historical Society, a stone wall enclosed the grounds while a sunken wall along the southern end of the grounds prevented livestock from grazing in the White House garden.

The grounds first closed to the public when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. Some of the earliest protests in front of the White House occurred that year, as well: Suffragists and antiwar activists picketed frequently in front of the gates (which often remained open).

Suffragists picketed in front of the open gates of the White House in 1917. Library of Congress/Bain News Service hide caption

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Library of Congress/Bain News Service

Calvin Coolidge permanently closed the White House grounds in the 1920s, at the advice of the Secret Service.

From there, security — and security threats — entered the modern era. During the 1968 riots in D.C., U.S. Army soldiers guarded the White House, though the rioting was concentrated in other neighborhoods and never reached the blocks surrounding the White House.

In the 1970s, reinforced steel gates built to withstand car crashes replaced the wrought iron gates along Pennsylvania Avenue. Low concrete barricades and posts were added to parts of the perimeter during the 1980s.

President Bill Clinton closed off Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to vehicular traffic following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

To ward off fence jumpers, the National Park Service and the Secret Service started replacing the 6-and-a-half-foot gate with a 13-foot-tall one last year. Security experts recommended the change following a series of security breaches, including one incident involving an Iraqi War veteran with a knife who jumped the White House gate and entered the building through an unlocked door.

U.S. Park Police stand in front of temporary barriers at the White House on June 1. angela n./Flickr hide caption

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angela n./Flickr

Since protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis began in the D.C. region, local and federal authorities have been arguing over how much of the area can be blocked off based on federal decree. Almost each day, the fences moved people farther and further away from the seat of their government.

During a press conference Thursday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said military forces overstepped their authority when they blocked off 16th Street between H and I yesterday.

"We were all very concerned about how the federal assets pushed out from the federal complex," she said. "When they pushed out onto a D.C. street, that is too far."

Whether intentional or not, an additional side effect of the new fencing is that it prevents the media from taking photographs of protesters in front of the iconic White House backdrop.

"Washington, D.C. has always been a backdrop for public expression," Levey says. "Because the White House and the Capitol are so iconic, many many people have wanted to express themselves with that as their backdrop."

Still, the fence has not deterred protesters from gathering near the White House and Lafayette Park, which Levey calls "our public square." On Thursday, dozens of sign-holding demonstrators stood on H Street in front of the fence and chanted "Say his name: George Floyd" again and again.

In the days following, the fencing has been covered with signs and protest art.

This article has been updated to include that the fence has been covered with protest art.

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