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2-year renovation starts for Capitol's famous dome

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WASHINGTON (AP) - A world-famous symbol of democracy is going under cover, as workers start a two-year, $60 million renovation of the U.S. Capitol dome.

Curved rows of scaffolds, like Saturn's rings, will encircle it next spring, enabling contractors to strip multiple layers of paint and repair more than 1,000 cracks and broken pieces. The dome will remain illuminated at night and partly visible through the scaffolding and paint-capturing cloths. But the Washington icon -- and portions of the Rotunda's painted ceiling that lies below -- will be significantly obscured for many months.

The project is beginning just as the nearby Washington Monument sheds scaffolding that was used to repair damage from a 2011 earthquake.

Half-completed when Abraham Lincoln stood beneath it to summon "the better angels of our nature" in 1861, the Capitol dome has since towered over Washington, which limits building heights to 130 feet. Time, however, has let water seep through hundreds of cracks. The water attacks cast iron, which "continues to rust and rust and rust," said Stephen T. Ayers, Architect of the Capitol.

This first major renovation in more than 50 years should add decades of structural integrity to the dome, which Ayers calls perhaps "the most recognizable symbol across the globe." The $60 million undertaking will heal inner wounds, he said, without changing the way the dome looks from the ground.

Much of the work will be done at night and on weekends. It won't be as flashy as the 1993 helicopter removal and return of the 19-foot Statue of Freedom from the dome's top.

The Capitol's crowning piece is actually two domes, one nested under the other like Russian dolls, and separated by a web of cast iron braces hidden from view. From the ground it looks like a massive structure that would be too heavy for the building to support if it were indeed made of the solid stone it appears to be.

Instead, it is cast iron painted to look like masonry. The lighter material and open space between the inner and outer domes create a physically sustainable structure. But it's by no means puny.
The dome's iron and masonry weigh 14.1 million pounds, said Kevin Hildebrand of the Capitol architect's office. He led reporters up narrow, spiraling stairs that reach the Rotunda's top, and then give access to the in-between world of girders separating the two domes. Ultimately the steps lead outdoors, to a panoramic walkway beneath the 12-columned lantern, or tholos, topped by the Statue of Freedom.

After a 1990 rainstorm left puddles on the Rotunda's stone floor, workers found that bird nests had clogged gutters atop the Capitol, helping water penetrate outer walls and streak interior surfaces.

Then they found bigger problems. Hundreds of cracks and pinholes in the cast iron exterior added to the seepage.

Pans now capture the water. Congress finally agreed to spend $60 million for a better, more lasting solution.

"It is the symbol of our country," Hildebrand said. "It is an icon that has to be preserved."

The 150-year-old cast iron is low-quality by today's standards, he said.

"It's an archaic material," Hildebrand said. A dome today probably would be built with glass and steel, he said. But Capitol workers must deal with relatively brittle iron that doesn't respond well to welding.

First they must remove, capture and safely dispose of several layers of lead-based paint. When they reach bare iron, they must quickly prime and paint it section by section, Hildebrand said, because it will "flash rust" in eight hours.

To mend cracks, workers will drill and tap damaged areas, and then insert steel pins. "Metal stitching" will complete the process.

Before repairing water damage inside the Rotunda, workers will hang a giant doughnut-shaped drop cloth just below the painted ceiling. Rotunda visitors whose necks can stand to crane will still see "The Apotheosis of Washington" through the doughnut hole. The 4,664 square-foot painting, 180 feet above the Rotunda floor, depicts George Washington becoming god-like, aided by figures from classical mythology.

"If these repairs are not made, the artwork in the Rotunda, including the Apotheosis of Washington and the Frieze of American History, are at great risk of damage due to water leaks," says the Architect of the Capitol's Web site. "There is only one Capitol Dome," it says, and the office "is committed to preserving it for generations to come."

The architect's office will update the renovation's progress at www.aoc.gov/dome.
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Follow Charles Babington on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cbabington.

Join the discussion

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Louis December 29 2013 at 6:54 AM

For 60 million, you'd think they would just replace it....after all, everything comes to the point where it costs more to fix than to replace.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
sworth5487 December 29 2013 at 9:05 AM

We can't afford a $60m renovation of anything right now, especially when the government is cutting unemployment and vital social programs for the poor. The dome can wait!

Flag Reply +4 rate up
cshae89546 December 29 2013 at 10:22 AM

The roof while expensive is not the big problem. The big problem is the trash that fills both houses when congress is in session.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
Bill smith December 28 2013 at 9:33 PM

60 million....they are not worth 6 bucks....lets sit in a tent. Fix the Capitol but keep THEM out.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
2 replies
buddyboygabe Bill smith December 28 2013 at 9:46 PM

and, no bid contract, just like ACA website, from $billions dollars tax payers tab

Flag Reply +3 rate up
1 reply
wmichalek buddyboygabe December 28 2013 at 10:23 PM

Just like the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were contracted-no bid, no questions asked, no controls and no oversight. The largest transfer of funds to the wealthy in the history of the Republic. Only those were $B instead of $M. All while putting a tax cut in place so the wars were (and are) being paid for on credit, and the government expects private funds and charities to take care of the damaged survivors of those pointless wars. Some bargain, wasn't it?

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AUNT Bill smith December 28 2013 at 11:27 PM

Yes sir...

Flag Reply 0 rate up
Gerald December 28 2013 at 9:29 PM

They clean it from wall to wall.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
Leslie December 28 2013 at 9:21 PM

Shocking price tag? Why in the world would anyone be shocked about the price if our government has anything to do with it? The shock will be if they actually do it for the amount approved or come in under.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
3 replies
tricountyconst December 28 2013 at 9:18 PM

I am glad they are perseving the Dome at a time were it can be done without letting it go to the point of total panel removals. The cost will more then double but at least it will still cost less then a total replacment.....St Peter Basilica dome in Rome is tended to the same way with great care.......

Flag Reply +3 rate up
jsim111933 December 29 2013 at 9:30 AM

What is REALLY NEEDED is a complete renovation of the occupants of that building,replacing the DOME HEADS would be MUCH BETTER for the United States.

Flag Reply +8 rate up
azukameche December 28 2013 at 9:03 PM

Hmm! 60...what? and those blabbermouths cant get anything done. what a waste!

Flag Reply +1 rate up
gmgpjandon December 28 2013 at 8:48 PM

Oh my! That really bothers me. Sure do wish we could follow the money trail.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
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