The Beautiful, Painstaking Restoration Of The U.S. Capitol

Just in time for an inauguration no one expected.

In 1792, an ad appeared in newspapers along the East Coast. It advertised a design competition for the new U.S. Capitol, with a prize of $500–not chump change, in those days–and a deadline of four months. In the end, 13 people submitted designs, which were “fairly crude,” writes historian and architect William C. Allen, and formed “a remarkable body of evidence regarding the state of architectural draftsmanship and design ability in America at the close of the 18th century.” Ouch.


The building we ended up with–designed and built in fits and starts over the next 100 years–is like a lot of the neoclassic architecture of Washington D.C.: So familiar, it’s almost unnoticeable. But all of that 200-year-old construction requires a huge amount of upkeep and stewardship on the part of the government, led by the agency known as the Architect of the Capitol. And last week, after almost three years of work spanning workshops across the country, the AOC announced it had finished a badly needed restoration of the Capitol dome itself–a few months early, in fact, ahead of the 2017 inauguration.

The building, which took decades of work to finish and was still being expanded during the Civil War, needed a huge amount of work. Its dome, completed at the end of the Civil War, needed to be stripped of lead paint and rust–its intricate ironwork repaired and in some cases replaced–and repainted. Its exterior also needed repairs on more than 1,000 cracks, including replacing some of the detailed ornamentation with newly cast replacements, made in a foundry in Utah. Which meant the AOC not only had to cloak the exterior in 52 miles of scaffolding, but build a giant “doughnut” of netting around the interior to protect it.

“It is incredible to see the intricacy and to realize that these decorations were created at the time of the Civil War,” writes construction manager Joe Abriatis in a post about the project. “There are little lines and indentations the size of your pinky fingernail that cannot be seen from the ground and that have been obscured under a dozen layers of paint.” The painstaking process of removing those many layers of paint–and replacing them with three distinct layers of white, totaling some 1,215 gallons–has taken years.

It’s not over yet, though: The AOC says that restoration will pause for the inauguration of President-elect Trump, and then continue elsewhere in the building. But for a structure that took more than 100 years to finish, another year or two is nothing.

[Photos: via the Architect of the Capitol]


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.