Across a circular expanse 180 feet high near the top of the U.S. Capitol rotunda, Kevin Hildebrand, the chief of the building’s Architecture division, spoke in words that echoed as they bounced off the walls. “Of course, the personification of freedom stamping out tyranny and injustice is right over my head,” he said, referring to the Apotheosis of Washington, a massive 19th century fresco featuring George Washington seated between Liberty and Victory, 13 maidens, and six figures representing War, Science, Marine, Commerce, Agriculture, and Mechanics. “It’s an amazing piece of artwork.”
And it’s one worth preserving. Over 250 feet from the ground, the nearly 9 million pound steel dome that caps the U.S. Congress has been split by over 1,000 cracks. Vulcan’s building blocks haven’t stood the test of time well, and the Apotheosis, among other artwork, is now in danger, says the Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers.
“A dozen years ago there were 300 and some cracks, a few more years there were 500 cracks, then 900 cracks, and now 1,300,” says Ayers. “Now is the time to intervene and make sure it’s preserved for generations to come.” Nearly $60 million has been appropriated over the next two years to fix structures riddled with rust and remove 14 layers of paint, some of which is lead-based, to add safer alternatives. In the spring, scaffolding will begin to be built around the Capitol.
The last time the dome received an extensive face-lift was in 1960, but the welding method used failed to keep the exterior’s iron, fragile by today’s standards, up to snuff. The Architect of the Capitol has been looking at newer techniques since at least 1990, when a bird nest channelled water from a gutter into cracks that left pools on the Capitol’s floor. The Capitol’s contractor, a Turner-Smoot joint venture, will employ a “lock and stitch” technique that will drill out the crack, tap each of the drill holes, and put in a series of pins that stitch along the crack. Perpendicular to those pins they’ll put in a series of locks that hold that stitch together.
In the meantime, the Capitol staff have been collecting the leaking water in “many, many, many” stainless steel pans and throwing it out. “There are a lot of water leaks, as you can imagine,” says Ayers.
As with any federal project, cost and timeliness is a concern. The Capitol Visitor Center opened in 2008 years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars above budget. Ayers says he is “pretty confident” that he can get it done in two years, and “certainly done” before the next presidential inauguration. He demurred when asked if he could “guarantee” the timeline. “Guarantee! That’s a pretty big word,” says Ayers. “We’re pretty confident, I’ll give you that.”
Luckily, as the Capitol’s scaffolding rises, and perhaps overstays its welcome, the Apotheosis will remain in view.