Stately race against time to restore Capitol dome before 2017 inauguration

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The man in charge of mending the 1,300 cracks in the cast-iron dome is confident but Donald Trump has suggested work will not be finished a year from now

With the inauguration of a new president almost exactly a year away, the jostling between Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and others is not the only race being eagerly watched in Washington.

It is fervently hoped that when the 45th president takes the oath of office outside the Capitol on 20 January 2017, a $60m project to restore the buildings august cast-iron dome will have been completed. After all, a great deal of national pride is at stake.

TV viewers have become accustomed to seeing Washington politicians and pundits holding forth while the scaffold-shrouded dome looms in the background. Should the greatest expression of the worlds greatest superpower still look like a building site on inauguration day, critics will have been handed a gift-wrapped metaphor for American imperial decline.

Trump has already stirred the pot.

Theyre going to take all of the scaffolding down, pay millions of dollars to do that, millions, he told a rally last September. And then after the inauguration, theyre going to put it back up again and pay millions of dollars more.

The claim was denied by the project architects and, with a year to go, they are still confident of fixing the domes 1,300 cracks.

Joe Abriatis, construction manager for the dome restoration, insisted: The project is on schedule. The biggest challenges are the logistics and industrial processes since we are working on top of a historic and occupied building.

He added: The US Capitol dome is a symbol of democracy around the world and the AOC [Architect of the Capitol] is committed to preserving it for future generations.

To some the dome seen in countless movies and TV shows including The West Wing, House of Cards and The Fixer is also a symbol of American power, with all its contradictions. Its hilltop location was chosen by George Washington. The Capitol was built by black slaves living on nearby farms and plantations and named after the heart of the Roman empire. In a local touch, columns inside are topped by carvings of corn and tobacco leaves.

It has housed Congress since 1800 and its artworks, chandeliers and tiled mosaics speak of refinement and grandeur. But in the early days members of the Senate its name another nod to Rome dirtied the place with dogs, mud and tobacco.

Designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, the Capitol dome is made entirely of cast iron. This means it expands and contracts as the temperature changes, making it very different from masonry domes found around the world.

Construction began in 1856 and continued despite the civil war. If people see the Capitol going on, President Abraham Lincoln said, it is a sign we intend the Union shall go on. It was finished in 1865.

The dome is crowned by the bronze Statue of Freedom, designed and sculpted in Rome, a classical female figure with sheathed sword, shield and wreath along with a feathered helmet intended to reference Native Americans.

A timelapse video of work on the Capitol Dome.

The central rotunda beneath the dome is modelled on the Roman Pantheon, complete with a 180ft fresco of George Washington in the pose of Jupiter painted by Italian-American artist Constantino Brumidi in 1865. Lincoln, John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan are among the elite to have lain in state here.

It became our national stage, one tour guide said.

Yet today that stage is an eyesore. Visitors must strain to look through a clutter of scaffolding at four giant canvases retelling the American revolution, a bust of Martin Luther King and statues including Eisenhower, Jefferson (the first president inaugurated here), Reagan and Washington. The interior of the dome is obscured by a white safety net in the shape of a doughnut.

In a nearby room, incidentally, a plaque honours the passengers and crew of United Airlines flight 93 whose sacrifice on 11 September 2001 may have saved the US Capitol from destruction.

The domes last major repair was in 1959-60 and it is suffering the effects of weather and age, including corrosion and cracking. The first phase of the current project included the restoration of stone and cast iron at the base of the dome, also known as the skirt, and was completed on time within budget in September 2012.

Efforts are now focused on restoring the cast-iron elements, repainting, installing fall protection and bird deterrent systems and gradually removing scaffolding. The authorised budget for this phase is $59.55m.

Abriatis said: There are a number of activities involved in this project admin, scaffolding assembly, paint stripping, repairs, painting, trailer mobilisation, etc.

However, they do not all occur at the same time so the number of people will vary over the course of the project, but a current estimate is approximately 100 people a day. Workers are from across the country.

In addition, the National Mall is partially closed and fenced off so its turf can be restored, again with a deadline of January 2017.


The Capitol building at night, without scaffolding. Photograph: Richard T Nowitz/National Geographic/Getty Images

The Capitol has heard Franklin Roosevelt declare, The only thing we have to fear is fear itself and John F Kennedy pronounce: Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.

No one is watching preparations for 2017s inaugural speech more keenly than the United States Capitol Historical Society. Ron Sarasin, its president, said: Im looking out of my window at the Capitol dome and it will be nice when the scaffolding is removed. It distracts from the beauty of the building.

From everything we know, the work is going well. My understanding is that the scaffolding will be removed long before the inauguration.

He added: Theres never been a major renovation of the dome. Its important work and was long overdue. It apparently has a thousand cracks and pieces have been falling off for years but, once this work is done, it should be good for another 150 years.

It is truly one of the most recognisable buildings in the world and the fact its going to be at its best for the inauguration is good.

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