Metal is a foundational part of the buildings under the Architect of the Capitol's (AOC) care, metal conduits carry electrical wires through the buildings, metal ducts carry air that cools and heats the buildings, in fact metal is used in nearly every job in some form. The AOC sheet metal teams fabricate, persevere and restore anything metal across Capitol Hill.
This includes the roof of the United States Capitol and its iconic "Walter dome" recognized around the world as a symbol of American strength and freedom. During its construction from 1855 to 1866, perhaps the greatest threat to the dome was the outbreak of the Civil War. Since that time nearly 150 years ago, while the Union was restored, multiple forces have been unrelenting in their attack on the Capitol Building—time, weather and nature.
On the Job
Today, a small unit of men has the task of protecting and preserving this most important American icon. Led by Bryan Glotfelty and headquartered beneath the U.S. Capitol like "Men in Black" accessible only by a secure elevator, the men of the Capitol Sheet Metal Shop go to battle monthly with the forces of wind, water and wildlife.
On a cold winter morning—the wind blowing a steady 20 miles per hour and a wind chill in the teens—Larry Neal and Mark Focht of the Capitol Sheet Metal Shop climb through a locked door out into an open space within the dome skirt (the area around the foot of the dome). This is their base camp next to the original sandstone walls built in 1824 by Charles Bulfinch in support of the first dome of the U.S. Capitol.
While Neal is a bit more understated, Focht is not shy about the pride he has in his shop. He says wryly,
"We do it all. If it wasn't for our shop none of the other shops could function. Everyone needs something metal to do their job."
- Mark Focht, Capitol Sheet Metal Shop
Setting out from their small roof encampment to begin their inspection of the Capitol Building's roof and dome, personal protective equipment and tools in hand, they begin the climb up to the top of the dome via the 365 stairs installed during the construction in the late 1850's.
They make their first stop about 85 feet above the floor of the Rotunda at the Peristyle Level. Here that small exterior ledge is accessible only with proper safety equipment. This level has many downspouts that carry water runoff down through the skirt.
Each downspout must be inspected and any debris must be vacuumed out.
"Copper's worst enemy is dirt," says Focht.
Heading up another 30 feet they reach the boiler plate level with a more accessible ledge that has a balustrade (railing around the edge). Along the interior base of the balustrade is a two- inch gap for drainage covered by wire mesh that traps dirt, seeds, and other wildlife deposits. To ensure proper drainage the balustrade, running the entire circumference of the dome, must be cleaned by hand, broom or vacuum.
Once the walk around the balustrade has been completed, Neal and Focht head up to the balcony 210 feet above the Capitol’s East Front plaza.
Here, wooden floor boards must be unscrewed and removed and then all the debris must be removed for proper drainage. Next, they head into the Tholos and pedestal of the Statue of Freedom completing the top-to-bottom dome inspection. Heading back down to the roof of the Capitol Building, another key aspect of the inspections is the examination and repair, where needed, of nearly 100,000 small copper panels covering the roof that remain true to the original construction.
In order to make any repairs, the Sheet Metal Shop team carries fire pots that resemble a portable blacksmith's shop; along with a 20-pound propane tank and trim irons in order to solder the plates together ensuring a waterproof seem across the roof.
Thanks to the efforts of AOC sheet metal employees the work of the United States Congress and Supreme Court can continue in safe and comfortable environment.