Meet the 10th Architect of the Capitol

Meet the 10th Architect of the Capitol

Former Architect of the Capitol, Alan Hantman of Fort Lee, reflects on his career

There are some things that seem so absolutely permanent that it takes work to realize that they aren’t part of any natural order; instead, they were created by human beings and must be maintained through human effort.

There are some buildings that seem so inherently ordered, so symmetrical, so superhuman in their vastness and perfection that it takes work to remember that they were created by architects and built by craftsmen, artisans, and laborers.

There are some structures that represent our best ideals so thoroughly that it’s startling to learn that they have been overseen not by some unknowable person, but by a member of our community.

To be specific, by Alan Hantman of Fort Lee, the 10th Architect of the Capitol, who held that position from 1997 to 2007. He is the first (and so far the only) Jew to hold that post.

It’s a big job. Mr. Hantman was nominated by President Bill Clinton and had to be confirmed by Congress. He oversaw “a 2,000-member legislative branch agency” and “18 million square feet of space across 30 buildings, more than 500 acres of grounds, and thousands of irreplaceable works of art,” as he wrote in the foreword to his new book, “Under the Dome: Politics, Crisis, and Architecture at the United States Capitol.” It is a profusely illustrated work, and as its subtitle makes clear, it’s about politics, architecture, and the way those things — and crisis, the subtitle’s third element — work together or against each other. It was published by Georgetown University Press — it’s a serious work — and it has a foreword by former Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader, written soon before he died.

In 2003, Mr. Hantman oversaw construction on the Capitol’s east front. (All photos courtesy The Architect of the Capitol)

Mr. Hantman will talk about it at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly on April 10. (See box.)

His story began 81 years ago and is lit by a greater love story even than his feeling toward the Capitol and other great works of structural art. He and his wife, Rosalyn, both were born in the Bronx, he near Tremont Avenue, she in the East Bronx. They met in City College; “not only did it give us a great education, it gave us each other,” he said. “We’re celebrating our 59th anniversary in June,” she added.

Mr. Hantman went to high school at Brooklyn Tech, the borough’s answer to Bronx Science, where he studied engineering and architecture. “It cost $11 a semester, and our families could barely afford even that,” Ms. Hantman said. “Rozzie had a wonderful way of making money,” her husband said. “You could buy textbooks at half price. She’d buy them, go through them page by page erasing the pencil marks in them, and then sell them for three-quarters of the original price.

“It worked well enough so that we could get money for the next semester’s books,” she added.

Ms. Hantman’s career was in Jewish museums; she worked at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in far downtown Manhattan, and then at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Now, she teaches memoir writing at the family’s shul, Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

Mr. Hantman thought he’d be an engineer, but something about architecture appealed to him; when City College opened its department of architecture, he transferred there. “I always liked working with my hands,” he said. “I like building things with blocks, creating things out of cardboard boxes. And I always had an appreciation of the sense of space, and how people experience space.”

He is interviewed overlooking the site.

His eye for space and light came naturally. “His mother, Adele, was a gifted artist,” Ms. Hantman said. Some of her work hangs in the Hantmans’ apartment now; Mr. Hantman has rendered some of her pen and ink drawings in sculptures that also are displayed in their home. “And my wonderful sister, Loretta Lee Hantman, also was an artist,” he added.

City College provided fledgling architects with a wonderful education, but as a new department in a publicly funded university it didn’t have the kind of placement office, staffed by people with connections, that could help one of them get a job. But Mr. Hantman was determined.

“I went to the Architects Building, at 101 Park Avenue, right by Grand Central, and I started on the top floor,” he said. “I just knocked on every door, floor after floor. I remember one architecture firm that did Gothic churches, where someone asked me if I could do Gothic details on column moldings.” The answer to that one was no.

The building had 30 stories; he got a job from a door that opened to his knock on the eighth; quick arithmetic confirms that he’d soldiered down through 22 floors of rejections. But he knew that he was good. “It took a couple of days,” he said. “The job paid $65 a week, detailing staircases and other support elements for construction documents for school buildings.”

After two years, realizing that he’d learned as much as he was going to learn there, he found another job. “I had nine jobs over my 55 years working, and three of them were for 10 years each.” He was an assistant chief architect at Gibbs and Hill, which was one of those decade-long stints, and a project for the real-estate firm Cushman and Wakefield led to his becoming its senior architectural development consultant. After three years there, he was asked to lunch by a former boss, and as a result of that lunch became the vice president for architectural planning and historic preservation and construction at Rockefeller Center. That job, which must be heaven for any architect with a bent toward historic preservation, positioned him to apply for the post of architect of the Capitol, which he did 10 years later.

Mr. Hantman greets President Clinton, who nominated him; Senator Thomas Daschle of South Dakota, the Democratic House Minotory Leader, stands between them, in 2003.

At Rockefeller Center, Mr. Hantman learned a great deal about historical preservation, something in which he’d been interested but had not been involved with directly until then. “You have the intent of the original designers and builders in mind, and you respect that original intent,” he said. On the other hand, “we have a $300 million purse to use to renovate the building from the early 1930s, when it was built, to bring it up to modern standards.” He also was able to work to restore some of the Art Deco landmark’s design elements.

“It was a pleasure and an honor to work there,” Mr. Hantman said. Among many other aspects of renovation, he was involved with renovating the legendary Rainbow Room. “When I had my interview at the Capitol, I talked about the parallels between Rockefeller Center and the Capitol,” he said. “Both are landmarks. Both had issues with security, with millions of visitors every year. Both basically are cities within cities.”

But there are differences in scale as well as visual style between the two sites.

“When I went to the Capitol, I went from being in charge of a department of maybe 40 people to being the head of a legislative branch.” The title Architect of the Capitol refers both to the person in charge — the actual architect — and the department he (and so far it’s always been a he) leads.

There are many bureaucratic hurdles not so much to overcome as to dance around, jump over, or otherwise finesse to become the Capitol architect. “The search committee had to come up with a list of possible candidates. There had to be three candidates. That took two years. There were serious security checks for both of us, me and Roz. And then there was a hearing in front of the Senate rules and administration committee.

“It’s the only position where you need a presidential nomination for a legislative position,” Mr. Hantman said.

Until his appointment, the job had come with life tenure; starting with him, Capitol architects were limited to 10-year terms.

The United States Capitol, as seen
from above.

To listen to Mr. Hantman talk about his appointment is to hear about politicians who were big names then, more than 20 years ago, but since have retired or, to be blunt, died. The process was headed by Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia (and the former husband of Elizabeth Taylor); the speaker of the House then was Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia.

“I had the honor of being sworn into the job in the old Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol by Chief Justice Rehnquist. It was quite an honor, taking the oath to support and defend the Constitution from enemies both foreign and domestic.”

The job is apolitical, at least in terms of partisan politics, but it is politically charged when it comes to the differences between the Senate and the House, Mr. Hantman said. That makes the building’s symmetry not only aesthetically pleasing but also useful — everything on one side of it must be mirrored exactly in the other side.

Mr. Hantman’s job also entailed responsibility for the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress as well as the Capitol itself. He was on the board of the Capitol police and testified at more than 50 public hearings before both House and Senate oversight committees, he said.

Some disturbing things happened during his tenure. Soon after he began as the Capitol architect, “a deranged man with a gun,” as Mr. Hantman put it, walked in, murdered a police officer, J.J. Chestnut, and then had a gunfight that ended in the death of another officer, John Gibson. That led to work propping up the building’s security, which was established in part through the new Capitol Visitor Center, a space that allowed guides to screen visitors as they greeted and directed them. The space was built underground, in order “to respect the historical landmark, and the grounds surrounding it that were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead,” who also designed Central Park in Manhattan and Branch Brook Park in Newark.

Alan and Rosaline Hantman are at a party celebrating the opening of the National Garden in 2005.

Mr. Hantman was the Architect of the Capitol on September 11, when, as he put it, everything changed.

“I was in the Capitol then, during the World Trade Center attacks,” he said. “My administrative assistant had a little TV. We saw the first plane — we thought it was nothing — and then the second plane hit. And then the third, which was aimed at the Pentagon but did less damage than its insane hijackers had hoped it would do.”

And then there was news of a fourth hijacked plane. That was Flight 93, destined for the Capitol, that some unbelievably brave passengers managed to divert to a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. They died — yes, as heroes, but still they died — saving potentially thousands of other people, included Mr. Hantman, who feels strongly that he survived because of their heroism.

Alan Hantman ended his term as Architect of the Capitol, and he and Roz moved back to New Jersey — not to Teaneck, where they’d lived for most of their marriage before they moved to Washington, but to Fort Lee. They’re the proud parents of three married daughters — Allyson, Deborah, and Julie — and the besotted grandparents of six grandchildren.

They were at home in Fort Lee when the insurrection of January 6, 2021, happened.

It was shattering for them.

This official portrait of the Hantman family was taken in the Capitol
in 1997.

“We knew every corridor they rampaged through,” Mr. Hantman said. “We knew every chamber they desecrated. We knew all the windows and doors they smashed in. We knew the Capitol police, 140 of whom were injured that day, and one of them, Brian Sicknick, who died, and the four who killed themselves. Despite the fact that over the years we had talked about various security scenarios that might occur and how we might defend against them, we never considered that a thousand or so of our own citizens might attack the Capitol.

“It’s been a balancing act, trying to figure out how you maintain an appropriate level of security while still recognizing that the Capitol is the people’s house.”

Ms. Hantman, who worked as an administrator, has set up many talks for Mr. Hantman, who will discuss both his book and the lessons about government he’s learned through his career. They’re both excited about all of them, but there’s one that has extra significance. Mr. Hantman will deliver the Samuel Rudin Distinguished Visitor lecture on May 2 in City College’s Great Hall. “It’s a great neogothic building, and the Great Hall is just that. It can hold 1,000 people. It has an amazing ceiling.

“I am giving a lecture about the book, and about being an architect. It’s very emotional.”

It’s coming full circle — which is not an architectural term, but in this case it should be.

Who: Alan Hantman, former Architect of the Capitol

What: Will talk about his tenure at the Capitol, his new book, and the tension between security and freedom

When: On Wednesday, April 10, at 11 a.m.

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly

For information and reservations: Call Marissa at (201) 408-1496 or go to; click on Adults, then on Lectures and Learning, then look for the talk

Also: He will be the Samuel Rudin Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Great Hall of Shepard Hall on Thursday, May 2, at 5:30. Learn more at

And also: Mr. Hantman will speak for the Teaneck Historical Society at FDU on Thursday, April 18, at 7 p.m., and for Beth Sholom’s adult education committee and its sisterhood on May 9 at 8:15 p.m. He’s also scheduling a number of other talks, both locally and in Washington.

read more: