Noon, January 20, 2009. The polished brass doors on the West Front of the Capitol gleamed. Thousands of chairs glistened in the winter sun. Red, white and blue flags and bunting fluttered in a cold breeze. Hundreds of Architect of the Capitol (AOC) staff, who had helped plan, construct, secure, set up, clean, procure and organize the 56th Presidential Inauguration, held their collective breaths as the ceremony began.
"It's a very special day," said Gary Bullis, woodcrafter with the Capitol Carpentry Division, who has worked on three inaugurations for the AOC. "Our whole shop is part of it, and we take pride in the work we do to get ready for the ceremony."
Beth Plemmons, CEO for Visitor Services and new to the Architect of the Capitol in 2009, recalls getting chills as she watched the sun rise over the West Front. "It was dark, and you knew there were some people out there, but when the sun came up you could see throngs of people for miles. You could feel the energy radiating from the crowd."
As the onsite coordinator for the event, Perry Caswell remembers sitting in the top row of the bleacher portion of the inaugural platform during the 2009 ceremony, flinching at every creak and groan of the 10,000 square foot temporary wooden structure he helped design. With several inaugurations under his belt, however, Caswell knew that the stage would bear the load.
One Team, One Mission
Berry Russom, high voltage electrician leader, sees the Presidential Inauguration as a collective effort involving nearly every Architect of the Capitol employee and using the resources of virtually every division. Although the High Voltage Division is primarily responsible for ensuring a seamless transition if there is a problem with power on the day of the event, they pitch in to help wherever they can, even shoveling snow off the platform after an unexpected storm in 2005.
Carlos Elias, Capitol Building Superintendent, who is a veteran of four Inaugurations, takes the lead on behalf of the AOC, which is responsible for the entire inaugural infrastructure. He coordinates meticulously with the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC), Secret Service, military, Department of Homeland Security, Presidential Inaugural Committee, District Government, and all of the AOC's Congressional partners including the United States Capitol Police (USCP), House and Senate Sergeants at Arms, Office of Congressional Accessibility Services, Office of the Attending Physician, media galleries, Member offices and other Congressional staff.
Braving frigid temperatures, AOC employees install carpet on the inaugural platform in 2009.
Architect of the Capitol staff oversee the construction of the stands and media towers, install cabling and security fencing, set up chairs, spread mulch, build trash bins, help with way-finding, select and hang pictures in the VIP holding rooms, construct ramps, power trailers, distribute blankets and ponchos if necessary, lay carpet, adorn and decorate the Capitol with flags and bunting, and perform countless unpredictable tasks at the last minute.
Planning for 2013
Planning for the 2013 Inauguration began almost immediately after President Obama said the words, "So help me God," at the end of his oath of office on January 20, 2009. After-action meetings helped Capitol Building staff Caswell and Raynell Bennett, special events coordinator responsible for inaugural procurement actions, begin the planning process spearheaded by Elias.
As they plan for and carry out this coming Inauguration, Architect of the Capitol staff will often think of Don White, assistant superintendent for the Capitol Building, who passed away on October 26, 2009. "During prior inaugurations, Don took care of the details," said Elias. "I miss Don – he was a friend as well as a colleague." Luckily, White, who some called the "Inaugural Guru," left detailed budgets and records that provide the AOC with a thorough blueprint for the entire process.
Preparations for President Obama's second inauguration in January 2013.
The inaugural platform is constructed entirely from scratch for each ceremony, and it is the biggest task for the AOC. In June 2010, Elias hired a design consultant to make sure that plans for the 2013 platform and stands are compliant with current fire and life safety and accessibility codes.
Construction will begin after the traditional First Nail Ceremony in September when Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers and members of the JCCIC will hammer nails into a plank on the platform site. The fencing that is in place for the Labor Day concert will remain there until after the Inauguration.
On September 24, 2008, Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers joined Senator Dianne Feinstein, then-chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies; then-Ranking Member of the Senate Rules Committee Robert Bennett; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid; and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi at the First Nail Ceremony kicking off preparations for the Presidential Inauguration.
According to Ralph LoJacono, general supervisor for the Capitol Grounds Gardening Division, in September the grounds staff will begin a major cleanup of the West Front, inspecting the lawn for holes, trimming overhanging or dead tree branches, and repairing turf damaged during the concert. "We are continuously looking for potential pedestrian hazards and safety issues leading up to the Inauguration," said LoJacono, whose first Inauguration working for the AOC was in 2009.
The West Front fountain will be drained, filled with sand and wrapped securely to protect it from the platform construction that will take place above it. The Grounds Division will unroll additional fencing throughout the complex at the direction of the United States Capitol Police.
Temporary trailers will be set up on both sides of the Capitol; the first one erected will be used for security screening of the contractors building the stands. Later, another trailer on the House side will screen media, and large quadruple-wide trailers will provide facilities for the Office of the Attending Physician and the USCP.
In November, the chairs and portable toilet facilities will be brought on site, and Architect of the Capitol staff will install banners and event markers to help guests find their designated seating or standing areas. The first dress rehearsal for the ceremony will most likely take place on January 10, 2013.
Infographic of Inauguration accommodations and materials. Click to enlarge.
The materials needed in 2013 mirror those ordered for the 2009 ceremony, but Bennett began procuring the materials earlier this time. For example, in 2009, the demand for security fencing was so high in Washington, D.C. – with competing requests from the National Park Service and the Secret Service – that the AOC had to order fencing from Michigan. By starting earlier, Bennett hopes to avoid that scenario. Also new this year is the infrastructure that will provide complete redundancy for all of the power required at the Inauguration.
Each inauguration brings unexpected obligations. Prior to the 2009 ceremony, Caswell donned thigh-high black trash bags in order to wade into the Union Square reflecting pool to measure its depth after someone suggested planking it for additional seating. Also that year, he and Bennett had to rent a grand piano at the last minute, which needed to be tented and heated until the morning of the ceremony. "It can be frustrating," said Caswell, "but it's also part of the fun."
Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers, Raynell Bennett and others check last-minute details on the 2009 inaugural platform.
Just as the 2009 ceremony was getting underway, Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) Logistics and Resources Specialist Marc Kochenderfer, a veteran of four inaugurations, recalls getting a call from the House Sergeant at Arms that a Member's spouse was lost in the Cannon Tunnel. "He had a walker with a chair on it but had no idea where to go. He sat in the chair while I pushed him in his walker from the Cannon Tunnel to his seat in the second row. We had to take breaks every few yards, but I got him to his seat just as Vice President Biden was taking his oath of office."
Details, Details, Details
Bullis, woodcrafter with the Capitol Carpentry Division, heads a team that hangs five huge 22-foot by 12-foot flags and bunting behind the podium. This project begins about two weeks prior to the ceremony with the installation of wooden supports the length of the flags. Scaffolding is hung off the top of the building, and Bullis and his team attach background white sheets the length of the flags. The current American flag hangs in the center, and it is flanked on either side by the American flag in use at the time the President's home state entered the union. The first American flag with 13 stars hangs on either side of those flags.
AOC employees on scaffolding hang flags and bunting behind the inaugural platform.
On the day of the ceremony, Bullis is also responsible for mounting the Presidential seal at the base of the large white speakers' podium. The seal is delivered several weeks before the ceremony, and the Carpentry Division checks it carefully to see if any repairs are needed.
During inaugural years, LoJacono selects patriotic red, white and blue pansies for the flowerbeds around the Capitol. Prior to the ceremony, his crew coats nearly the entire West Front lawn with mulch to make it easier for visitors to walk to their seats, especially if the ground is wet.
Capitol Visitor Center
The opening of the CVC in December 2008 gave the Architect of the Capitol added space for support activities as well as additional personnel on Inauguration Day. AOC staff will use 30 to 40 of the CVC's radios so that all JCCIC personnel can communicate easily throughout the 2013 event.
In 2009, during her first Inauguration, CVC Visitor Guide Ara Carbonneau helped people with disabilities find their seats on the West Front. "It was wall-to-wall people that day," said Carbonneau. "I'm five feet tall, and I literally could not see where I was standing in relation to the Capitol. I oriented myself by looking down at where the grass ended and the sidewalk began."
Patrick Wicklund, CVC visitor guide and also new to the process in 2009, helped escort a group of 50 Tuskegee Airmen from their bus drop-off point at the Reserve Officers Association building on Constitution Avenue to their seats. "It was a big honor for me," said Wicklund. "These men are heroes." To keep the men warm, Wicklund and others provided blankets and other resources.
The Day Of — What If It Snows?
Many Architect of the Capitol staff sleep in their offices the night before the Inauguration. In the morning, there are myriad details to deal with. "Some things you just can't do until the day of," said Caswell. "We line up the labor crew by the door near the terrace in case we need help with last minute specifics like relocating chairs or cleaning off fingerprints from the glass around the front of the podium."
The Capitol's Electrical Division starts its work months before Inauguration Day to ensure that the VIP holding rooms and the stage area are ready for any electrical needs. Their major role on Inauguration Day is to stand by in case of emergency. "If any lights flicker, we are ready," said Martin Blanchet, high voltage electrician.
Everyone helped to clean up the West Front Grounds prior to the 2009 inaugural ceremony, including Capitol Grounds Superintendent Ted Bechtol.
This year, as in previous years, the Capitol Grounds staff will develop a weather emergency plan in coordination with the District Department of Transportation. "All of our snow removal equipment is prepped in case of inclement weather," said LoJacono. "We're responsible for roads and sidewalks, and the labor crew is responsible for the steps. But we will all work together if there's a big storm." In 2005 when it snowed the night before the ceremony, AOC staff had to continuously vacuum the carpet on the stage until the storm stopped. "Everyone was shoveling the next morning," said Bullis. "I think even Carlos Elias was outside cleaning off chairs."
A veteran of more inaugurations than he can count, William Warley from the Labor Division who has been with the Architect of the Capitol since 1973, still finds it thrilling to work on Inauguration Day. "It's our job, but it is still exciting to see all that goes into preparing for the event," Warley said. Inauguration Day is like no other for AOC staff. "I'm proud of the work I do on Inauguration Day," said Bennett. "It's a challenge, but it is definitely an honor."
"It makes me feel very humble," said Russom, high voltage electrician leader. "It's not about politics; it's about our history as a nation."
This story is also published in the Summer 2012 issue of AOC's Foundations & Perspectives.