U.S. Capitol renovations

A rendering of the scaffolding planned for the U.S. Capitol dome restoration. (Architect of the Capitol)

WASHINGTON -- Visitors to Washington have seen the iconic Washington Monument don a blanket of scaffolding while it undergoes repairs from an earthquake. Soon they will see a similar look at the opposite end of the National Mall.

For about two years the U.S. Capitol dome will be covered with scaffolding while it gets its first complete restoration in more than five decades, starting next month.

The project, budgeted at nearly $60 million, is handled by the Architect of the Capitol, while the National Park Service oversees the Washington Monument repairs just over a mile away.

The dome will still be visible through the scaffolding, giving it a more transparent look than the monument, said Justin Kieffer, an Architect of the Capitol spokesman. And beyond the visual transformation during the repair work, the impact on Congress and visitors is expected to be minimal.

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Kieffer said the dome is about 150 years old, "and we've been making sure that it's safe and been conducting small repairs when needed."

The cast-iron structure is the second dome to sit atop the Capitol. It replaced a smaller and potentially flammable wooden dome when it was built in the mid-1800s.

But the dome has not undergone a complete renovation since 1959-60, and more than 1,000 cracks have made it increasingly unsafe. Fixing the cracks and stopping any leaking are "required to ensure the building can last for another 150 years," Kieffer said. Another part of the restoration process is removing and replacing ornaments that are at risk of falling.

Public tours will still be conducted through the Capitol during the work, except for a few weeks when a canopy is installed in the rotunda to protect visitors. Tour groups will not go through the rotunda at that time, Kieffer said.

The Architect of the Capitol announced the contractor for the project this week and is working to establish an exact timeline to start and complete the project. TurnerSmoot, a joint venture, was awarded the contract.

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