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Pickford Theater in the Madison Building.

Capitol Reflections: ADA and Historic Buildings

The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) works to continually improve physical access across the Capitol campus, using creative solutions to ensure the grounds and buildings provide access to all, while maintaining and preserving the historic fabric and character of Capitol Hill. While we have made great strides in accessibility over the past 25 years, there is always room for improvement.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) this month, Executive Architect Kevin Hildebrand, Preservation and Architecture Branch, Design Services, at the Architect of the Capitol shares one of his favorite projects that increased accessibility around the Capitol campus.

How have you managed to work the ADA into your designs for historic buildings, given they were built before accessibility needs were recognized?

Accessibility is an integral part of the Architect of the Capitol's design criteria for renovation and restoration projects on Capitol Hill.

Initially, projects were focused on providing accessible entrances to all of our facilities. During the 1990s, ramps were sensitively cut into the Capitol's north and south entrances. At the Library of Congress Jefferson Building (pictured above), where the main public entrance is only approachable by a monumental staircase, the covered entrance immediately below the staircase was modified to provide an accessible entrance. Subsequent projects were undertaken to renovate public accommodations, such as restrooms to ensure that all visitors and staff had accessible accommodations available. 

The renovation of the Pickford Theater (pictured above) in the Madison Building comes to mind as a particularly creative example of bringing accessibility to a historic building. Prior to renovation, the theater was completely inaccessible to anyone in a wheelchair.

During the renovation, one vestibule and the seating tiers were modified to accommodate wheelchair access to the theater. Care was taken to maintain the architectural character of the original theater by designing the modifications in matching materials of white oak wall treatments, statuary finished bronze railings and copings, and bronze clad doorways.

The original theater walls were finished with oak slats spaced evenly over an acoustic bronze mesh. This contrasting finish of light and dark vertical strips created problems for some audience members when events included sign language interpreters. Focusing on the movement of the interpreter was creating a sense of vertigo in some audience members. By infilling the spaces between the slats with matching oak material behind the podium, we solved the vertigo issue.

An assisted listening loop was also introduced into the theater to allow amplified sound for both hearing aids and provided headsets.

Additional stories from this three part series: ADA and Life Safety and ADA and the Visitor Experience.

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