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Architect of the Capitol Previews Dome Restoration

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
About 1,300 cracks crisscross the cast iron shell of the Dome, constructed 150 years ago, and more than 100 pieces have been removed to keep the grounds safe from falling debris since the last total restoration, completed in 1960.

While climbing the 349 stairs winding between the Crypt and the top of the Capitol Dome, the water leaks that Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers aims to halt are evident.

Pausing about 90 feet above the marble floor of the Rotunda, one can take stock of the light water stains discoloring the walls below the frescoed band, or “frieze,” and the rust-colored grime atop the ledges peeking out over the rails.

Kevin Hildebrand, head of the AOC’s Architecture Division, pointed out the spots on Thursday, suggesting that the heavily cracked cast-iron Dome constructed more than 150 years ago is “like having a bridge as the roof of your building.”

If constructed today, the iconic structure would probably be built with steel and glass, Hildebrand said, not 8.9 million pounds of cast iron.

But the AOC isn’t rebuilding one of America’s most prominent symbols of freedom — they are renovating it.

The first signs of construction in the nearly $60 million Capitol Dome Restoration project will appear in the Rotunda in the next month or two, and rings of scaffolding should start to rise from the roof this spring, Ayers said Thursday.

Views of one of the world’s most recognizable landmarks certainly won’t be great over the course of the next two years, and the massive scaffolding project has risks, Ayers acknowledged, but the restoration work is desperately needed.

About 1,300 cracks crisscross the cast iron shell of the Dome, constructed 150 years ago, and more than 100 pieces have been removed to keep the grounds safe from falling debris since the last total restoration, completed in 1960.

“Those cracks and missing pieces are water leaks into the Dome,” Ayers said during a briefing in the Capitol Visitors Center, explaining that the cast iron “continues to rust and rust and rust.”

More than 40 of those corroded metal chunks, including an 80-pound decorative acorn, were spread across a table to his right. Combined with photos taken by AOC workers who started crawling up to inspect the Dome every two or three years beginning in the mid-1990s, the props provided a scope of the toll that time and nature have taken.

“It’s certainly not going to be great over the course of the next two years, but when we do take the scaffolding back down, the quality of the materials that are used in today’s construction processes are much better than they were 50 years ago,” he said.

The entire project should be wrapped up within two years, he predicted, “certainly before the next presidential inauguration.”

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