Lights! Scaffolding! Action! Capital landmarks are under repair

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 29, 2013 

— There is something new and different about the capital’s skyline.

Wrapped in 500 tons of steel framework that lights up at night, the modern design of a familiar landmark is being widely admired by Washington locals and visitors alike.

If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse, hurry. In a few months it will disappear.

The landmark is the 128-year old Washington Monument, all dressed up in stylish designer construction. Two years after a rare 5.8 magnitude earthquake fractured the stone structure and sent sunlight streaming through the cracks, repairs are on track to reopen the national icon to the public in spring 2014.

The monument is one of three well-known symbols currently undergoing a facelift or even more substantial repairs. The National Cathedral is gradually fixing the massive damage it sustained during the earthquake, and the U.S. Capitol dome is set to begin a two-year restoration next month to combat aging and weathering.

The Washington Monument has been far from the typical construction eyesore.

In scaffolding originally designed by renowned New York architect Michael Graves for the 1998-2000 restoration, it’s enfolded in gray, semi-transparent architectural mesh meant to mimic the original stonework. The 555-foot obelisk currently stands in stark contrast to the plain white marble and stone of the neoclassical museums and monuments that line the National Mall.

At dusk, that effect is amplified by the illumination of 488 sensor-activated lamps that outline the stone pattern.

“It looks so much more modern, futuristic – like the Eiffel Tower of America,” said Jurgen Meier from Hamburg, Germany, who saw the monument in its original state on his first visit to the capital in 1988. “There’s so much stone, stone everywhere around here. The metal and lights make it look less formal.”

The restoration look was so popular 15 years ago that there was a movement to make the scaffolding permanent, and efforts in multiple cities to build replicas. This time around it’s receiving equally glowing reviews.

“At first we were disappointed because we would have liked to go up into the monument, but it’s all right – it’s really worth seeing it all lit up at night like a work of art,” said Sara Williams, visiting with her husband and daughter from Seattle. “It makes for great pictures.”

Despite the water damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, repairs are on track to be completed by Nov. 15 in time for the grand reopening next spring, said Teresa Durkin, senior project director for the Trust for the National Mall.

“It’s been a relatively trouble-free process,” she said. ‘”With every construction project there is a giant risk, but when you are working on a national icon, you don’t want to leave anything to chance.”

Funding for the repairs was swiftly secured, allowing plans to be quickly drawn up and put into action. Congress allocated $7.5 million to the project just three months after the earthquake. This sum was quickly matched by philanthropist David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a private equity investment firm, to reach the required $15 million.

“In a time when federal funding isn’t certain, especially now that there is a lot of demagoguing going on, public-private partnership funding is critical to get this work done and preserve the monuments for future generations,” said Caroline Cunningham, president of the nonprofit Trust for the National Mall. “Otherwise they’re going to fall into a state of disrepair. They already are.”

Away from the city center, another Washington showpiece has been having a more difficult time in the aftermath of the earthquake. The tremor flung stones weighing more than 2 tons from the gothic towers of the National Cathedral, located at the capital’s highest point, 676 feet above sea level. The cathedral sustained more than $30 million in damage that will not be mended for years.

In contrast to the Washington Monument’s fully funded months of direct repairs, the National Cathedral has been slowly moving from stabilization to restoration. After a year of work behind the scenes, the masons set a ceremonial first stone back on the central tower on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in August 2012. On the two-year anniversary, work began to restore the interior vaulting, which will allow workers to eventually remove the black netting that is covering the ceiling.

“Of course they are both iconic Washington architecture,” James Shepherd, the cathedral’s director of facilities and preservation, said of both projects. “But when you look at the complexity of the National Cathedral and the ornate carving that went into its 83 years of construction, you can see that these are much more challenging circumstances,” he said.

About $10 million has been raised so far, leaving more than 60 percent of the necessary funding needs still unmet.

In addition to larger gifts, including a $5 million grant by the Indianapolis-based Lilly Foundation and a $100,000 gift by Partners in Preservation, an American Express and National Trust for Historic Preservation partnership that awards preservation grants across the country, much of the funding is made up by small private donations, said Shepherd.

“Every dollar counts – whatever people can give,” Shepherd said. “We’re still looking for a strategy on how to address the funding gap. We want to make sure that as we mobilize repairs that we also have enough funds to keep them going.”

The National Cathedral reopened to the public just 10 weeks after the earthquake and remains open while undergoing repairs. Since it receives no direct operating support from the federal government, the cathedral remained open during the federal shutdown during the first two weeks of October, attracting visitors who found themselves barred from the federally funded museums and monuments that usually make up a typical Washington tourist itinerary.

“It’s a bit out of the way,” said Ana Maria Gomez of Boca Raton, Fla., visiting the cathedral with her husband and two children recently. “We wouldn’t have come here if the government hadn’t shut down the other monuments, but I’m glad we did. It truly is breathtaking, and it has a very different feel from the buildings on the Mall.”

Gomez decided to leave a small donation on behalf of her family to aid the repair efforts.

Another national landmark, the U.S. Capitol, is set to undergo $40 million repairs over two years beginning in November that will see its symbolic dome obscured by scaffolding. Like the Washington Monument, it will follow the crowd-pleasing formula of having the framework mimic its structure and light up at night.

Some, like Mark Li, a 28-year-old Washington native, are taking a philosophical approach to the capital’s cycle of landmark renovations.

“I think it shows where we’re at as a country,” he said. “We still have a lot left to do, and I think the monument as a work in progress represents that.”


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