A Washington icon is currently in hiding, as the colossal Capitol Dome sits ensconced in a 1.1-million-pound network of metal poles and wooden planks.
Clad in bright orange safety vests, workers walked up and down a staircase entrenched in the dome's scaffolding Tuesday, high above the spot where dozens of reporters huddled for an update, watching and shivering on a blustery November day. But the construction workers have a job to do. It's one they'll be working through the cold and the heat to finish, as the recently completed scaffolding system—a milestone in the dome's restoration process—launches the nearly $60 million project into the next phase.
"The purpose of the scaffold is a very practical one," said Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers. "With its completion, workers are now able to access the dome freely and can use the equipment necessary to begin the restoration work in earnest."
It's the first restoration in almost 55 years, and it's a lengthy process to repair the dome, which took workers 11 years to build—from 1855 to 1866—and cost the nation more than $1 million, according to the Architect of the Capitol's website.
Rain, snow, and sleet have weathered the cast-iron dome over the years. Paint is peeling. Decorative ornaments are rusting.
That's why more than 12,800 inches of cracked cast iron need to be repaired, some windows replaced, and three layers of paint—the top coat called "Dome White"—applied.
Now, with the scaffolding complete, the restoration process can proceed with its four major steps:
- Blasting off the paint. Equipment removes the layers of paint through tubes, sending it into trucks down below. Workers wear specialized gear for this; one suit looks like a white spacesuit with a contamination mask protecting the face. Decorative elements are also removed during this phase.
- Rust aversion. After the paint is gone, it'll be time to prime the cast iron. The goal is to avoid rust, which could begin forming within four to eight hours of paint removal.
- Mending the dome. The dome has more than 1,300 cracks, Ayers said. Crews will drill each crack, put in special pins, and install a locking mechanism. Tightening the pins pulls the cast-iron plates together. In this phase, decorative items will also be reattached.
- 1,215 gallons. That's how much paint will be used to recoat the dome.
"So, when the next president is sworn in," Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota told reporters on the Capitol roof, "the people of America can see their Capitol and the dome and will be comfortable and confident that, just like this great nation, it's here for the long term."