Capitol Dome damage is so bad, 'We're going to lose it,' warns senator

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Lawmakers are rallying around the 150-year-old U.S. Capitol Dome, weather-whipped and torn open by acid rain, worried that if an 11th-hour restoration isn’t fully funded, its most important traits could be lost forever.

“If this work isn't done,” warned Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., “we're going to lose the dome, we're going to lose it as it truly, historically is.”

A big fix, added Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is needed, “so that we don't lose these treasures forever.”

The two Senate appropriators are joining to help Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers secure the money needed to complete the $60 million restoration projection, set to go into final stages next month with the erection of scaffolding to surround the whole dome, just like that done recently at the Washington Monument.

The interior is also in need of restoration, and the Capitol Rotunda is temporarily closed as interior safety netting is installed to begin that $21 million project.

Pockmarked with about 300 cracks and broken stone about a dozen years ago, there are now 1,300 cracks in the dome’s exterior covered with a dozen layers of lead-based paint that allow water to seep in and stain the interior. Some stone carvings are so damaged that it’s hard to make them out.

Worse: Falling stone is a safety threat.

At an appropriations subcommittee hearing this month chaired by Shaheen, Ayers showed several photos of the damage, including a four-foot-tall carving of a baby. “This piece of stonework has lost all of its features of its face, and from weather and acid rain, you can no longer tell that it's anything other than the outline of a baby. It's lost its nose, it's lost its eyes, lost all of its facial features,” he said.

Congress is expected to fund the project, one of over 20 emergency fixes on the Capitol campus, and Ayers said it should be done in time for the next presidential Inauguration in January 2017.

The House has moved forward with funding, and the Senate is expected to follow in May. One insider suggested that members would rather spend less on it, but realize that restoring a piece of American history can’t be skimped on.

“The dome is such a symbol for our country,” said Hoeven. It “says ‘America,’ says ‘Freedom.’ ”

Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at pbedard@washingtonexaminer.com.