A brilliant new day for the US Capitol's dome
November 17, 2016
WASHINGTON — A restored Capitol dome will gleam behind President-elect Donald Trump on Inauguration Day in January.
For over a year, the dome on the U.S. Capitol building was surrounded by more than 6,000 pounds of netting, 1.1 million pounds of scaffolding and two miles of decking. Fourteen layers of paint had to be removed and some of the original restored for the final look. More than 1,300 cracks and deficiencies were repaired in the dome.
The total cost of the restoration since it began in the spring of 2014 was $96 million. It was a time-consuming project: For example, an individual scroll on top of a column had 18 individual castings that had to be worked with, a few sent to a special foundry in Salt Lake City to be recast.
“I’m so proud of the team that worked through the night in blizzards and blistering sun,” Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers said.
And for disappointed tourists and photographers looking for a pristine view of an American architectural icon, the wait is finally over.
“We call the Capitol and [its] west front 'our nation’s stage,'” said Ayers.
A tour of the restoration this week started in the crypt of the Capitol — the area where George Washington was originally going to be entombed until his will dictated that he be buried at Mount Vernon.
The tour headed to the Bullfinch Staircase, a winding staircase that opens to a skylight. That, too, had been restored to how it looked in the mid-1800s.
The Bullfinch staircase leads to a new level, and the first glimpse of an iron world behind the sleek, familiar interior design of the rotunda. When entering the area, a small dome — the one with artwork visible from the rotunda on its other side — is to the right. The second, larger dome that is visible from the outside hides the smaller one. In between the two domes — where visitors walked — you can see the drainage system and air vents.
According to Joe Abriatis, the construction manager, about 100 people a day worked on the project, though thousands were involved with it overall.
Even the windows had been taken out during the restoration process. On one level alone there are 36 windows, each with 20 panes.
The tour ended with a visit to a small balcony near the tholos balustrade. The outside walkway rings the columns directly underneath the Statue of Freedom. The breathtaking view of the National Mall from so high up quiets the typical city sounds of sirens and people. For a moment, politics is lost in the wind, the only sound on the balcony.
Though the cornerstone for the Capitol Building was laid in 1793 — during the first large public event in the federal city — the dome would not be added until decades later.
The dome on the Capitol is believed to be the largest cast-iron dome in the world. Work on it started in 1857 with iron columns being installed. More than 150 years later, restoration workers in 2015 found some memories of the original workers hidden in the dome:
• Montgomery C. Meigs, an 1836 West Point graduate, oversaw the building of two wings of the Capitol Building as well as the dome. On the ironwork inside the dome, Meigs — the Army's Civil War quartermaster general, who was also critical in the development of Arlington National Cemetery — stamped his name on the iron.
• A worked named Al Ports carved his name into the plaster.
• A crowbar was left behind.
By 1866, the interior artwork "Apotheosis of George Washington" was completed. Almost 100 years later, in 1959, the dome went under extensive restoration, including the installation of bronze window frames and repairs to the drainage system.