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Michael A. Johnson: Deputy Assistant Sergeant at Arms


Michael A. Johnson

“Visitors will walk down the hall and say 'What is that they've put up there?'”

In his interview with Senate historian Donald Ritchie, Johnson describes the challenge of retrofitting historic spaces in the Capitol and other Senate office buildings to install new media and technology.


RITCHIE: This is essentially an eighteenth-century or nineteenth-century institution. The Capitol Building was started in the 1790s, the Russell Building opened in 1909. You’ve got to bring in modern technology and figure some way to put it into these buildings. I remember that back in the 1970s in the Russell Building there was often only one electrical outlet in a room, and all the desks would be pushed together around that one plug. Back then you only had a few electric typewriters to deal with, but to bring in computers must have been a difficult chore to figure out how to install them in buildings that were never designed for anything like that.

JOHNSON: Yes. We’ve learned—when we built new buildings like the Hart and the CVC [Capitol Visitor Center], which is another expansion of the Capitol—that you have to have the infrastructure there to support technology. You bring up a very good point. The buildings were only designed to carry voice traffic, which was telephone traffic. The first computer was the telephone switch. It was designed for voice communications. So you’re right. It’s a challenge. And the way we have looked at it, and still look at it to this day—although I have been out of the IT field for about eight years, other than teaching technical courses at Prince George’s Community College—well, let’s take the Capitol Building as an example. We’re building the CVC and we’re wiring it out for what we call multimedia: voice, data, and video communications.

The Capitol Building, to me, having worked there in the cloakroom, on the floor in the chamber, as a tour guide, doorkeeper, is three things to me: it’s an office building, it’s a historical landmark, and it’s a museum. That’s what I think of when I think of the U.S. Capitol, it’s three things in one. When we’re trying to install the infrastructure that’s needed to operate computers in the Capitol back then and still today, you have to balance out all three of those factors when you’re ripping walls, when you’re cutting through mortar, when you’re drilling holes, when you’re going through mosaic tile. The same way with the Russell Building. It was not designed for computers, so when you’re installing the computer medium, whether your medium is twisted pair cable or the first medium which was coaxial cable—the medium of choice today is fiber optics—well, for any of those mediums you’ve got to have the conduit for it, and that’s where we run into big problems with these buildings. Where do you put it? How can you hide it? How can you make it assimilate into the existing building without being noticed? Visitors will walk down the hall and say, “What is that they’ve put up there?”

The Dirksen Building was a little better but nevertheless the Dirksen Building, which is where the Capitol Exchange switch moved to when it moved out of the Capitol—I was co-located with them in SD-180 for years when I was a manager in the Senate telecommunications department. That building was a little bit more adaptable to retrofitting the technology for data and video communications in the committee rooms and the offices.

RITCHIE: The Dirksen at least was designed for television.

JOHNSON: Yes.

RITCHIE: When they built that building they knew television was going to be a factor, and they put in TV closets essentially off the committee rooms. This building—the Hart Building—when they started it they knew they were going to have computers, so they put floor conduits all through the buildings.

JOHNSON: Conduits, yes.

RITCHIE: So the buildings have each grown with a different type of media, but they still have to be retrofitted when new media comes along.

JOHNSON: Yes, and the new media, in my mind, has to do a lot with bringing the communication down to the desktop. So when I say that you have to retrofit even the Dirksen Building, yes, you are absolutely correct, the Dirksen was built for television communication or the mass media, but when you look at technologies like: do you have the ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network] lines for desktop video, ah, now, that’s a different thing. You had the technology to broadcast the hearings. You had the technology to do an interview with a senator in a hallway, and could connect a camera to an outlet. But even connection points like the “swamp’ [the location on the Capitol lawn reserved for television cameras], where senators hold press conferences, they had to be forward thinking. But the Dirksen adopts to technology easier than the Russell Building. Of course, the Hart is more state of the art, as I see it.

RITCHIE:When you walk through the basement of the Capitol and you look up you see wires everywhere. They’re exposed on that level, but as you say in the public areas you can’t have that.