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IRONIC TRIBUTE

The new building at 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue was supposed to be a grand monument to Ronald Reagan, a symbol of his passion for free enterprise and global trade.

But when the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center is dedicated today, visitors will discover it is really anti-Gipper, an embodiment of the Washington Reagan despised.

His namesake is a living tribute to big government, second in size only to the Pentagon. At 3.1-million square feet of space, it is 1{ times the size of the Empire State building and nearly as spacious as the Sears Tower in Chicago.

Its backbone is a magnificent cone-shaped atrium covered in an acre of glass and large enough to hold a Boeing 737. It also has a grand ballroom and a 625-seat, maple-covered auditorium that can offer simultaneous translations in six languages.

The building contains $2-million in artwork, including two giant aluminum flowers that cost $150,000 each. Every day, it will teem with 5,000 bureaucrats from some of Reagan's least-favorite agencies _ the Environmental Protection Agency and the Customs Service.

Turf battles and unexpected problems delayed completion by four years and cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. An early estimate said the building would cost $362-million, but the price tag has exceeded $730-million.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., says it is a nice monument to Reagan. "If you have a big building, why not name it after a big president?"

Some, however, say the building is too lavish. Sen. William Roth, R-Del., calls it "a building we totally didn't need."

Reagan, who has Alzheimer's disease, will not be attending today's dedication or the black-tie celebration tonight. But if he did attend, he might cringe to see his name on the front door.

"Government has to be cut back to size."

_ Reagan, 1984

The Reagan Building sits on an 11-acre site that was home to brothels and saloons in the 1890s. The area was known as "Hooker's Division" after Civil War Gen. Joseph Hooker, whose troops hung out there. (Before excavation began for the Reagan building, archaeologists found more than 250,000 remnants from that era, including garter hooks and perfume and beer bottles.)

Since 1930, the area bounded by Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues and 6th and 15th Streets NW has been known as the Federal Triangle, home to a dense cluster of government office buildings. But the L-shaped parcel at 1300 Pennsylvania was left empty and used for 50 years as a parking lot.

In 1987, while Reagan was president, the government approved grand plans for the lot: Construct an international cultural and trade center complete with five theaters, a rehearsal hall and an IMAX movie screen. Planners said they could build it with private money and then lease the office space to the government.

"It will cost no federal funds to build," said the building's chief patron, Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y.

But within a few years, planners realized the cultural space would not raise enough money to pay the bills.

Plans were scaled back. The building would still focus on international trade, but the theaters and many other extravagances were eliminated.

Construction, which started in 1989, brought a host of problems. Developers discovered an underground river near the building. Turf battles among the six layers of managers on the project led to delays and cost overruns.

Congress got involved in the smallest details, complaining about an orchestra pit that would eliminate 10 parking spaces in the underground garage. With costs ballooning, the government scrapped plans to get private financing and instead got a low-interest loan from a branch of the Treasury Department. Federal money would be used after all.

In 1995, Congress decided to name it after Reagan, a move that pleased Reagan's family.

"Throughout history, this country has named buildings for prominent Americans," the family said in a statement. "President and Mrs. Reagan are honored that this building in the heart of the nation's capital was chosen to bear his name."

"If we do nothing else in this administration, we're going to convince this city that the power, the money and responsibility in this country begins and ends with the people and not with some cinder-block building in Washington, D.C."

_ Reagan, 1981

The 5,000 bureaucrats who have gradually moved into the building over the last few months come from some of Reagan's least-favorite agencies.

The EPA has four departments here, where employees do everything from monitoring international treaties to keeping the financial books.

Reagan was a longtime foe of the EPA, and he often fought to weaken environmental laws. He said nature was the world's chief air polluter, not smokestacks or automobiles. He once complained the EPA didn't do enough to protect the coal industry.

The Customs Service, which will have 1,700 employees in the building, was targeted by Reagan for budget cuts in 1984.

The bureaucrats don't work in the same luxury that the public will see on the first floor.

On the second floor, the offices of the U.S. Agency for International Development look like something out of a Dilbert cartoon _ long rows of cubicles and tattered metal file cabinets.

In a building with an abundance of light, some of the USAID offices are surprisingly dark. The only natural light comes from small portholes. It's like an office in a submarine.

USAID workers also have groused about lousy plumbing in the bathrooms. Some of the toilets don't flush properly and a few of the faucets shoot water straight up.

But take the elevator down to the spectacular atrium _ the architects call it the living room _ and you'll see why the government calls the building "the crown jewel of Pennsylvania Avenue."

The $2-million for art includes a $700,000 neon and glass sculpture in the atrium called Route Zenith. Its artist, Keith Sonnier, describes it this way: "Like the point in the sky that allows sailors to orient themselves on the sea and astronomers to determine the movement of celestial bodies, Route Zenith establishes a microcosmic environment in the vast atrium."

Okay, but which way to the food court?

Outside the building are the two aluminum flowers, a rose and a lily, that are as big as Buicks. Artist Stephen Robin calls them "devices, infinitely variable, used for defining boundaries and affecting the awareness of transitions."

The pricey artwork seems especially out of place because Reagan once tried to cut government support of the arts by 50 percent.

James Ingo Freed, architect of the Reagan Building, says he tried to strike a balance so it would be user-friendly and still blend in with other Federal Triangle buildings. He used limestone cut from the same Indiana quarry as the other buildings, but he kept the design open and bright.

The result, he says, is a government building that "invites people in rather than trying to keep them out."

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report, which includes information from the Washington Post and Newsday.

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