Choosing their scars: Lawmakers still a long way from deciding what to preserve from insurrection

Some worry that wounds are disappearing too soon

A damaged pane is seen at the top of the House steps of the Capitol on Jan. 27, weeks after a mob attack.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A damaged pane is seen at the top of the House steps of the Capitol on Jan. 27, weeks after a mob attack. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 3, 2021 at 6:00am

Scars of past violence at the Capitol aren’t always easy to spot. You would have to crane your neck to see a bullet hole left in the ceiling after a 1954 shooting, or pockmarks in the stone caused by the fire of 1814.

You could work in the complex for years and never know that a bomb ripped through a Senate bathroom, or that another blew the face off a painting of Daniel Webster, or that your office had been gutted and fumigated after the anthrax attacks of 2001.

As Congress recovers from the latest crisis in its history, the mob violence of Jan. 6 still feels painfully fresh, but some worry the wounds are disappearing too soon. Sen. Mitt Romney said what many were thinking last week when he called on restorers to take the long view.

“Architecturally and historically I think it would be a good thing to preserve some evidence of the destruction of the building,” the Utah Republican told reporters. “So that 150 years from now, as people tour the building, they’ll say, ‘Ah, this was where that insurrection occurred.’”

Agreeing on which scars to preserve could be a delicate process, to say the least.

“We are considering our options,” said Laura R. Condeluci, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, the agency charged with maintaining a place that is simultaneously a working office, a museum and a symbol of American democracy.

After a huge cleanup effort, much has already been repaired. Workers scrubbed down floors and picked up Trump flags and garbage left behind by the rioters. The brunt of the impact included “broken glass, broken doors and graffiti,” Condeluci said. 

Now workers have more to do. Benches, statues, murals and shutters suffered “varying degrees of damage,” mostly from residues left behind by pepper spray, tear gas and fire extinguishers. “That will require cleaning and conservation,” Condeluci said. It’s not clear how long the restoration will take, or how much it will cost. 

Whatever marks get left behind on purpose, they probably won’t involve exterior doors or windows, which are being replaced for “safety reasons,” she said. Outside, the building took other hits too, with damage to light fixtures designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. 

As for the historic chambers where lawmakers cast their votes, those fall under the care of the House and Senate curators. Rioters smashed doors on the House side, as others roamed around the Senate floor.

While lawmakers are eager to weigh in on what should be preserved, so far it’s been all talk. Romney has informally reached out to the Senate curator’s office and the Architect of the Capitol, according to his press secretary, Arielle Mueller.

Workers remove damaged furniture on the first floor of the Senate side of the Capitol on Jan. 7. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Bullet holes and blood

If the past is any indication, things like this move slowly, and the marks end up being unobtrusive, almost hidden. 

When Puerto Rican nationalists pulled out handguns in 1954 and fired at random onto the House floor from the gallery, injuring five congressmen, one of the bullets made its way through the GOP leadership table. The mahogany top was repaired, but those opening its drawer are still greeted by a jagged thumb-sized entry and exit wound. A second hole remains in the ceiling, another silent witness to the bloody scene. 

Even small scars have power, said Jane L. Campbell, president and CEO of the United States Capitol Historical Society, a nonprofit chartered by Congress.

“There’s precedent to remember, and the whole point of history is we should remember our history and we should learn from our history,” she said.

Little remains to show what British soldiers did to the Capitol, then still under construction, as they burned their way through Washington in 1814. But Campbell is glad when tour guides stop outside the Old Supreme Court Chamber to point out the columns that stand there, carrying lasting evidence of the blistering flames.  

“You might think that it’s just because they’re old that they look pocked, but in fact, the pockmarks come from the iron deposits in the sandstone getting overheated,” she said. 

Over on a marble stairway, legend has it that some misshapen stains are actually the blood of William Preston Taulbee, a congressman turned lobbyist killed by a reporter in 1890.

And if John C. Calhoun’s marble knee looks a little dented in the National Statuary Hall Collection, it’s because a bullet struck there in 1998, when a gunman rushed through a metal detector and killed two members of the Capitol Police.

A gift from the state of South Carolina, the statue has now seen multiple breaches of the Capitol, and is itself an unwelcome open wound, according to those who want to see racist symbols purged from the building. No one was a louder champion of slavery than the onetime vice president.

Rioters paused for a selfie in front of that same statue on Jan. 6, according to federal charging documents, in an apparent nod to Southern mythology.

Officers on Feb. 2 await the arrival of the remains of Capitol Police Officer Brian Sicknick, with damage from the riot still visible in the background. (Leah Millis/Reuters/Pool)

Plaques, trees and more plaques

If lawmakers want to brand their workplace with a memory of Jan. 6, they have some other options too, though none quite as visceral as leaving a bullet hole intact. They could hang a plaque, plant a tree or rename a feature of the building, like a room or door.

A plaque on the first floor, hanging near a bust of President Abraham Lincoln, commemorates a time soldiers were quartered in the building during the Civil War.

Others are a testament to just how arduous the process of hanging a plaque can be. When lawmakers set out to recognize the contributions of enslaved people who helped construct the Capitol, it took a decade to make it happen. First, congressional leaders put together a task force to study how masons, carpenters, roofers, plasterers and painters shaped the building roughly two centuries ago. Then came committee hearings and legislation

Now a plaque hangs over a piece of sandstone in the Capitol Visitor Center with the following inscription: “This sandstone was originally part of the United States Capitol’s East Front, constructed in 1824–1826. It was quarried by laborers, including enslaved African Americans, and commemorates their important role in building the Capitol.”

Another plaque pays tribute to the two members of the Capitol Police killed in 1998. Bearing the likenesses of Officer Jacob Chestnut and Detective John Gibson, it hangs near the door that Congress renamed in their memory.

Changing the name of the door involved a concurrent resolution, but planting a tree on the grounds outside is more fluid, with approval coming from congressional leaders and the Architect of the Capitol. To mark the 10th anniversary of the 1998 shooting, lawmakers planted a Valley Forge American Elm.

Any of those routes could work as Congress considers ways to mark Jan. 6 and to remember Brian Sicknick, the Capitol Police officer who was fatally wounded in the riot. But with many Democrats still saying the mob attack was fueled by their own Republican colleagues who chose to question the results of the election, the push to find evidence of what happened could overshadow any bits of feel-good ceremony.

Investigations are underway. The Architect of the Capitol handed over damaged items and debris to the Department of Justice. “Moving forward, we are looking at options to display a collection after objects are no longer needed for prosecutorial purposes,” said spokeswoman Condeluci.

Historians are moving in too, piecing together a narrative. The Capitol Historical Society is compiling an oral history, including audio and video posted on social media by the rioters. “We have to listen to what people were saying,” Campbell said. 

Separately, Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Democratic lawmakers to contribute to a video project. “It may be difficult for members to share their stories, but it is important to facilitate an accurate personal record and for the healing process for our Congress and indeed, country,” Pelosi wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter Tuesday, urging anyone interested to contact her office to schedule a taping session. That invitation came a day after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her own wrenching account via Instagram Live.

As for curators at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, they collected signs, buttons, flags and other artifacts from the debris left behind at the Capitol. The Smithsonian has only about 1 percent of its collection on display at any given time and doesn’t have immediate plans for how to exhibit what it gathered in January 2021, including items from President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

The goal is to choose items that tell a story easily understood long after the shock of the storming is far in the past, said Claire Jerry, the Smithsonian’s political history curator. 

“I often think of the curator five curators after me,” she said. “You don’t want to leave them something that’s going to take them, you know, 500 words to explain in the future.”

Security barricades the door of the House chamber as rioters try to break in on Jan. 6. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Preserving the scene

Telling the public what happened is critically important, according to many in Congress. “I think this should be on the Capitol tour,” said D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose office plans to contact Romney’s and join the push to make the damage of Jan. 6 permanently visible.  

For now, tourists are shut out of the Capitol thanks to the coronavirus. But when the pandemic eases enough for them to return, the most obvious reminder of the mob attack won’t be a broken pane or a nicked piece of furniture, however carefully preserved. More likely, it will be changes to security.

The 1998 shooting, along with 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that same year, forever changed the way the public interacts with the home of the legislative branch of government. The Capitol Visitor Center provided not only a welcoming place for tourists to stand in line and go to the bathroom, but an underground fortress to shore up the defenses of a complex that would surely face further attacks.

When acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman last week proposed “the installation of a permanent perimeter fence around the Capitol,” it caused an outcry from groups invested in keeping the Capitol open, both symbolically and literally, to the public. 

Historians tend to see the story of the Capitol in terms of a few big inflection points, like the fire set by the British or the construction of the CVC. But not every violent event has brought about lasting changes. In the aftermath of the 1954 shooting, law enforcement floated the idea of putting up a sheet of bulletproof glass between the galleries and the House floor. The plan never materialized. 

Campbell, for one, hopes that as Congress decides what the legacy of Jan. 6 will be, law enforcement can rely on technology or creative solutions, not permanent barriers.

“The openness of the Capitol is a symbol of the openness of our society,” she said. “That’s what makes America unique.”