Capitol dome renovation: Historic icon set for 2-year facelift

The inside of the U.S. Capitol's rotunda is seen December 19, 2013, in Washington, DC. The dome of the U.S. Capitol will undergo a restoration project to halt deterioration in its cast iron and preserve the interior.


By DAVID LIGHTMAN | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: December 25, 2013

WASHINGTON — “To-night I have been wandering awhile in the Capitol, which is all lit up,” wrote poet Walt Whitman in 1865.

“The illuminated rotunda looks fine. I like to stand aside and look a long, long while, up at the dome; it comforts me somehow.”

It still comforts America.

But while you’d never know it to look at it, the Capitol dome is slowly, gently crumbling.

As a result, Washington’s most iconic symbol is undergoing a 21st-century-style facelift. Soon, it’ll look like a high-tech version of the planet Saturn, ringed by softly lighted scaffolding. Workers will be painstakingly patching hundreds of cracks, scraping off the rust and getting the lead out. The $59.5 million project aims to have the dome repaired and refreshed in time for the inauguration of the next president on Jan. 20, 2017.

In the meantime, no one is in danger of being struck by a falling ornamental iron flower from the dome. “The Capitol is in great structural condition,” said Stephen Ayers, the architect of the Capitol.

This is strictly an inside, and outside, job. “We’re not going to do anything that’s too artistic,” he said.

The cracks are a growing problem. From a few hundred a decade ago, there are now an estimated 1,300.

Other problems appear on a walk up the 349 steep, inside-the-structure steps nearly to the top. There are the painted-over initials of Montgomery C. Meigs, the 19th-century supervising engineer. Something newer also appears: random brown lines and blotches, signs of current-day trouble.

The Capitol has been battling seepage for decades. Sometimes it’s become a deluge — 23 years ago, birds clogged gutters during a storm, sending water pouring into the Rotunda.

That storm exposed other potential difficulties. “It became clear there were serious problems with the iron work,” said Kevin Hildebrand, head of the architect office’s architecture branch.

A big restoration project was needed. This fall, workers started taking precise measurements and surveys inside and outside the dome.

Visitors soon will find themselves amid a peculiar combination of construction site covers and some of the nation’s most famous artwork. The Rotunda’s paintings and statues will be covered for a few weeks early next year. A covered walkway will be set up to take people through the Rotunda.

When people look at the top, they’ll see the Frieze of American History, which rings the ceiling ringed by what looks like a huge white doughnut.

Outside, the scaffolding will go up piece by piece, starting in the spring, eventually creating a virtual piece of modern art when it gets the LED light treatment at night.

On the scaffolding will be workers getting the 150-year-old dome up to modern structural standards. They’ll remove the old lead paint. Cast-iron surfaces will get new coatings. Seams will be sealed. Broken windows will be replaced or repaired.

Workers will repair cracks, some causing leaks, with unique pins stitched together — no welding, since the aged iron wouldn’t tolerate traditional repair techniques.

This is the latest update for a dome whose roots stretch to 1792, when William Thornton designed the first one. He envisioned a neoclassical building with a domed center, based on the ancient Roman Pantheon. In 1824, the first dome, wood covered by copper, was completed.

Fires were a problem at the Capitol, and there were fears the wood dome could spark a catastrophe. So when the Capitol and the country were expanding in the mid-19th century, Congress agreed that a bigger, sturdier dome was needed. It had to be more majestic, more representative of a nation embracing its Manifest Destiny.

Architect Thomas Walter understood. In 1854, he proposed a new, fireproof, cast-iron dome that would stand majestically at the Capitol’s center, bringing the Senate and the House of Representatives together in the shadow of great patriotic artwork. It would be topped with a dome far bigger than the last, with lots of windows and a statue at the top.

Lawmakers quickly embraced the idea, and within weeks, with little debate and no hearings, provided $100,000 for the project.

The old dome was removed in 1856. “Ironwork for the new dome was hoisted with a huge derrick,” according to a congressional history. “Steam engines on the roof of the Capitol supplied power.”

Even during the Civil War, work continued. President Abraham Lincoln saw the project as an important statement that the Union endured. “If people see the Capitol going on, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on,” he said.

Money grew tight, but 1.3 million pounds of cast iron were already waiting, so the contractor agreed to work without pay. The Statue of Freedom went atop the dome on Dec. 2, 1863. The interior was completed two years later, as Italian-American artist Constantino Brumidi’s fresco, The Apotheosis of Washington, was unveiled 180 feet above the floor.

Brumidi spent 11 months completing the work, which shows Washington ascending to the heavens, surrounded by figures representing Liberty and Victory. Thirteen maidens, representing the original 13 states, surround them.

The dome’s works were updated throughout the 20th century. The frieze, which depicts 19 historical scenes, was begun by Brumidi in 1878, and three scenes were added in the early 1950s.

Today’s renovations face risks. The last major Capitol project, a visitors center that opened five years ago, wound up costing more than double the original $265 million projection. Ayers said he was unworried about overruns. “We have a really good plan in place,” he said.

More problematic is the weather and the unknown. Getting the scaffolding in place and removed is a “massive logistical effort,” said Ayers. “It’s probably one of the biggest risks on the job.”

So is speed. After the paint comes off the dome, the cast iron can rust in hours, meaning workers have to move fast. What if it rains?

Ayers is convinced the team is ready and not about to let small setbacks distract it.

After all, its mission is to be true to Whitman’s observation as the dome was being finished 150 years ago.

“A vast eggshell, built of iron and glass, this dome — a beauteous bubble, caught and put in permanent form,” the poet wrote. “I say a beauty and genuine success.”

Cracks can be seen in the infrastructure surrounding the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol dome December 19, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

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