The United States’ Capitol dome, along with the Statue of Liberty, symbolizes freedom and democracy to countless millions of people worldwide.
That is probably why al Qaeda crazies were so eager to slam a jet into it Sept. 11, 2001, to strike at the heart of what they so irrationally despised. Thanks to the brave passengers in the sky over Pennsylvania, the homicidal haters never got the chance that awful morning. Our Capitol remains, standing tall and proud both as an architectural symbol and an embodiment of the realities of freedom and democracy.
Lately, though, in case you haven’t noticed, it looks a bit sickly; it’s under repair. For the past year or so, just about every time news people are reporting from Washington, D.C. the Capitol can be seen in the background. It looks hazy, as if a spider had spun a giant web around it. Years ago, I heard the dome was due for repairs, but I assumed the restoration would take only a few months or so.
Earlier today, on some news show, there it was again – the dome still shrouded with scaffolding. I decided to Google “Capitol Dome” and learned some very interesting facts, many of which I didn’t know or had forgotten:
- The restoration project began in 2013, when white paint was removed, architectural ornamentations taken down and cracks patched or metal-stapled. The vast network of scaffolding was added, tier by tier, gradually, starting almost exactly a year ago. The project will cost about $60 million.
- The last time the dome was majorly repaired was 50 years ago when cracks were filled and other cosmetic repairs accomplished.
- I was surprised to learn the dome is made of cast-iron painted white, not white marble as I had thought. What happened over time is weathering had chipped and cracked the paint, causing moisture to rust and corrode many areas of the dome, so badly that water began to leak into the magnificent cupola, inside the Capitol, with its crowning glory, a fresco painting called “The Apotheosis of George Washington” on the curved “ceiling” at the very top. That work was painted in 1866 by Greek-Italian-American artist Constantino Brumidi. All of the rotunda-dome windows are also being replaced with a special-process, reinforced wavy glass.
- Construction of the Capitol dome had begun shortly before the Civil War broke out in 1861. Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on the steps of the Capitol with the partly-finished dome rising above him. The dome’s symbolic power was not lost on the great man, who compared the unfinished dome to the unfinished struggle to keep the union together. The dome was actually the second dome. The first one, lasting into the 1850s, was of copper and rather squat-shaped, verging on stunted and homely, compared to the new one, which was inspired by three towering domes of Europe: St. Paul’s in London, St. Peter’s in Rome and the Pantheon in Paris.
- The dome is actually two domes, one inside the other, and a stairway between the domes leads all the way to the top, rarely accessible to visitors. The outer dome rises 288 feet into the air; it is 96 feet in diameter; it weighs a staggering 14.1-million pounds. It is topped by a statue dubbed “Statue of Freedom.”
- Anyone who visits Washington, D.C. will be awed by the sight of the Capitol Building and its dome, not just because it’s beautiful but because the mere sight is enough to remind the viewer of the many momentous decisions made under that dome that marked our history and shaped our very lives and destinies for so many decades. I visited the Capitol twice. Each time I was awed to the point of speechlessness. It’s a moving moment that every American should experience.
- The dome-repair work is expected to be completed in time for the next presidential inauguration in 2017.
If you want to learn some more interesting fun facts and see excellent views of our nation’s Capitol, visit aoc.gov/capitol-buildings/capitol-dome.