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Capitol dome to be restored; effect on visitors seen as minimal

The restoration of the Capitol dome, which has more than 1,000 cracks, will last about two years.

October 22, 2013|By Becca Clemons
  • The Capitol dome in Washington was made about 150 years ago and underwent a complete renovation in 1959-60.
The Capitol dome in Washington was made about 150 years ago and underwent… (Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg )

WASHINGTON — Visitors to Washington have seen the iconic Washington Monument don a blanket of scaffolding while it undergoes repairs from an earthquake. Soon they will see a similar look at the opposite end of the National Mall.

For about two years the Capitol dome will be covered with scaffolding while it gets its first complete restoration in more than five decades, starting next month.

The project, budgeted at nearly $60 million, is handled by the office of the architect of the Capitol, while the National Park Service oversees the Washington Monument's repairs just more than a mile away.

Unlike the monument, the dome will still be mostly visible through the scaffolding, said Justin Kieffer, a spokesman for the office. Most of the repair work will be done at night, and the dome will be illuminated, he said.

But beyond the visual transformation, the effect on Congress and visitors is expected to be minimal.

Kieffer said the dome is about 150 years old, "and we've been making sure that it's safe and been conducting small repairs when needed."

The dome is the second to sit atop the Capitol. Made of cast iron, it replaced a smaller and potentially flammable wooden dome.

It has not undergone a complete renovation since 1959-60, and more than 1,000 cracks have made it increasingly unsafe. Fixing the cracks and stopping leaks are "required to ensure the building can last for another 150 years," Kieffer said. Another part of the restoration involves replacing ornaments that are at risk of falling.

Close-up photos on the architect of the Capitol's website show cracks and rust around decorative ornaments and at the base of columns. But those flaws are hard to spot by an observer looking up from the ground level.

"From a distance the dome looks magnificent, thanks to the hard work of our employees," said Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers in a news release. "On closer look, under the paint, age and weather have taken its toll and the AOC needs to make repairs to preserve the dome."

Public tours will still be conducted through the Capitol during construction but will skip the rotunda for a few weeks while a canopy is installed to protect visitors, Kieffer said.

Tourists have not expressed major complaints about the Washington Monument being obscured by scaffolding, said Sarah Maciejewski, director of communications at the Destination D.C. tourism organization.

"Anecdotally, we've heard that many people actually think that the Washington Monument looks really cool lit up at night," she said.

With the Capitol dome under scaffolding, some visitors "might be bummed that their photo won't look like everybody else's," Maciejewski said.

But she said many others would probably be excited to visit during the relatively short renovation — "especially people that are architecture enthusiasts."

The architect's office announced the contractor for the project this week and is working to establish an exact timeline to start and complete the project. TurnerSmoot, a joint venture, was awarded the contract.

Smoot Construction, half of the construction team, has done work on the National Mall for the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art, said Chrystal Stowe, a vice president at the company. She called the chance to work on the Capitol a "once-in-a-career opportunity."

"It's one of the most symbolic buildings that we have ever had the privilege of working on," she said. "We're both excited and honored to have been selected by the architect of the Capitol. It's a one-of-a-kind building."

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