Art stained in Capitol riot will soon be restored, costing at least $25,000

Oily dust from fire extinguishers damaged eight busts and paintings near the House chamber doors

Capitol workers remove damaged furniture on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7, 2021. The oily, dusty residue from fire extinguishers discharged by rioters caused damage to statues, the House curator said.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Capitol workers remove damaged furniture on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7, 2021. The oily, dusty residue from fire extinguishers discharged by rioters caused damage to statues, the House curator said. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 24, 2021 at 2:27pm

The project of restoration continues at the Capitol, as workers now turn to artwork damaged by oily dust from fire extinguishers wielded on Jan. 6, the House curator told lawmakers Wednesday.

Farar Elliott said there was no evidence that specific objects in the House collection were targeted by the insurrectionists who stormed Congress that day, but eight pieces would require unexpected restoration. Her office will need at least $25,000 to cover the cost of repairing them, Elliott told the House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee.

The objects were covered in fire extinguisher powder that contains oily yellow dye and other chemicals that can stain materials like porous stone, Elliot told the panel. The restoration process includes the removal of the dust and then treatments with a chemical solution.

“In the coming weeks, we will begin conservation treatment to remove chemicals and accretions and dye before they cause permanent discoloration and harm,” she said.

Elliot was joined at the hearing by Architect of the Capitol Brett Blanton and by Catherine Szpindor, the House’s chief administrative officer.

While many lawmakers focused their questions on security and how the building was not sufficiently protected in the run-up to the riot, several remarked on the importance of preserving some of these historic objects and questioned whether $25,000 would be enough to restore the damaged House objects.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, the committee’s ranking member, acknowledged the historic nature of the attack and the challenge of balancing the need to repair the damage and the desire to preserve some marks to make sure the event is remembered in the proper context.

That’s especially difficult in the Capitol, which functions not only as the home of the legislative branch of the U.S. government, but also as an office building and a museum. She encouraged the witnesses to loop in the committee when deciding what to keep and what to repair.

“It’s my hope that the AOC will work with the curators and the House community when making these decisions,” she said.

Stained busts

The damaged House items, which were located near the House chamber doors, included five busts (four of them depicting former House speakers), plus a statue of Thomas Jefferson and portraits of James Madison and John Quincy Adams.

The busts were wrapped in museum-grade plastic to prevent further damage after they were found to be contaminated.

In her statement to the committee, Elliott said there were 219 objects on display Jan. 6. The House collection of statues, paintings and photographs totals more than 13,000 items.

Staffers were able to step in and save several important artifacts during the riot, she said.

“Quick thinking by a journal clerk secured the House’s 1819 silver inkstand, the oldest object in the Chamber. Sergeant at Arms staff evacuated the Mace from the Chamber,” she said in her prepared statement to the committee.

Blanton told the panel that the platform being built at the time for the presidential inauguration was “wrecked.” Sound systems and photography equipment were either damaged beyond repair or stolen.  

“Two historic Olmsted lanterns were ripped from the ground, and wet blue paint was tracked all over the historic stone balustrades hallways of the Capitol,” Blanton said.

Most of the initial damage was isolated to broken glass, doors and graffiti, and objects maintained by the AOC — including statues, murals, historic benches and original shutters — all suffered varying degrees of damage, primarily from pepper spray accretions and residue from chemical irritants and fire extinguishers.

Blanton did not go into detail about repair costs. A request for comment from the AOC after the hearing was not returned.

“Many members have asked about preservation of damaged items as a remembrance of this sad day,” he said in a prepared statement. “We have identified damaged materials from that day, and those were turned over to the Department of Justice.”

He did not address whether they would be returned or what would happen to them. While the AOC has already replaced broken windows and doors, “we preserved the panels for a potential presentation or display,” he said.

Who looks after which parts of the Capitol can get complicated quickly, and is broken down into fiefdoms. The AOC oversees the upkeep and preservation of over 17.4 million square feet of facilities, including House and Senate office buildings and 580 acres of grounds on the Capitol campus. Its collection includes thousands of artworks.

But the Senate and House curators have their own historical collections. The House CAO handles furniture on the House side, and the Senate Sergeant at Arms handles furniture on the Senate side.

The Senate curator did not respond to a request for comment from CQ Roll Call.