Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

`Most Famous Manmade Landmark' Gets Facelift

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

`Most Famous Manmade Landmark' Gets Facelift

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Looking straight up from the Capitol Rotunda's stone floor, the circular white-plastic shape resembles a giant powdered doughnut, its hole framing a painting of George Washington serenely presiding over the heavens.

It's a surreal vision, almost as if Christo, the Bulgarian-born artist who wraps famous structures like the Reichstag in Berlin, had left his mark on the pre-eminent symbol of the United States.

But there has been no art attack on Capitol Hill. "This is serious business for us," says James Ellison, an assistant to the Architect of the Capitol, even as he concedes that the rotunda now looks "like Christo had struck."

The architect's office is engaged in the first phase of an ambitious $44 million rehabilitation project to reverse the effects of decades of seeping water, rust and layer upon layer of paint that has accumulated since the Capitol dome was completed just after the Civil War.

That means identifying and documenting hundreds of cracks and breaks in the dome's cast iron plates and scraping away toxic lead- based paint.

The plastic doughnut is the visible layer of a four-layer custom- designed safety netting deployed, just below the Washington painting in the eye of the dome, to keep debris from falling on the heads of people below. That allows the rotunda to remain open for tourists and congressional ceremonies while work goes on above.

Behind the outer plastic, Ellison explains, is a 3.5-inch diamond netting able to withstand a 500-pound impact. Behind that is a finer .75-inch webbing. And behind that is plastic sheeting to contain the dust.

Initially assembled on the rotunda floor, it took three weeks to hoist in place. "It's there simply in the event a piece of iron should fall, Ellison said, adding that the only feasible alternative was to build a scaffold from the floor up.

Weighing nearly 9 million pounds, the Capitol dome rises 287 feet from ground level to the feathered head of the Statue of Freedom, which has crowned it since 1863. …

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