essenger - Vol. 1, No. 2, Page 1
Winter 1992
Conserving the nation's Capitol
     Bill Allen, Delaware '72, is a doctor without an M.D. or a Ph.D.,
but he has enough clout that the Congress of the United States takes
notice of his activity.
     A "building doctor," Allen is the architectural historian for the
United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. His job ranges from helping
designers choose paint schemes in one of the Senate office buildings
to publishing research on the history of the Capitol.
     Allen, a native of Seaford, Del., says he was always interested
in both history and architecture. "I used to make my parents take me
to Old Dover Days and A Day in Old New Castle," he recalls.
     At Delaware, Allen majored in history and art history, and, after
graduation, entered the University of Virginia's graduate program in
architectural history. He earned an M.A. in 1974 and accepted a job in
the preservation office in Jackson, Miss., later becoming the state's
architectural historian.
     In 1982, Allen joined the office of the architect of the Capitol,
whose 2,400 employees manage the Capitol, the Library of Congress, the
Congressional Office Buildings, the Botanic Gardens, the Taft Memorial
and the Supreme Court Building.
     In his position, Allen works with a team of interior designers
and architects who help in restoration work on the government
buildings.  "I'm usually one of a team that makes sure that the work
conforms to the high standards of preservation (and) shows respect for
the existing buildings," he says.
     Allen advises architects and designers on how to maintain or
restore the buildings so that they keep in harmony with the intentions
of the original designers. Before he joined the staff, it was
architects who mainly solved the historical preservation problems of
government buildings, and, unfortunately, Allen says, the buildings
suffered. "The architects had not been trained to deal with existing
buildings-classical buildings--because courses dealing with historic
preservation were not offered by 99 percent of the schools."
     As a part of the restoration/preservation group, Allen spends
time working on interior rooms of the government buildings, which, he
says, are remarkably different.  The old Supreme Court chambers,
located in the oldest part of the Capitol, are "stern, monumental,
grave and sober with hardly any ornament at all." But, the wings
designed by Thomas U. Walter in the 1850s are a riot of decoration,
replete with cast plaster ornaments.
     One of Allen's first endeavors when he arrived was to change the
paint scheme in Congressional office buildings. "When I came nine
years ago, the corridors were color-coded, like hospitals, so you had
one corridor that was turquoise, another that was a bilious green.
This was rather a silly attempt to assist visitors in getting around
the building. One of my proudest achievements was to design a
classical color scheme for the public corridors in all those
     Allen also has restored the historic Senate caucus room in the
Russell building--a room in which John F. Kennedy announced his
candidacy for President, where the Watergate hearings were held and
where the Iran-Contra hearings took place. The ceiling in this room,
Allen says, is "one of these really incredible, highly ornate ceilings
one would expect to see in Paris, but, in 1947, they put up the newest
thing-acoustical tile-and they also highlighted some of the moldings
with radiator paint."
     Allen decided to have the tiles taken down and the room restored
as closely as possible to the original intentions of the designer
(including a carpet made to echo the pattern in the original marble
floor). He also solved the room's acoustical problems.  He says it was
important not to go for a quick fix. "We thought it through and
decided to do things like beef up the fabrics on the windows so that
the cloth would absorb some of the sound that reverberates off the
marble walls."
     In addition, Allen is involved with work on the exterior of the
Capitol. Although all the buildings are in a classical architectural
style, Allen says, "after that, they part wildly. For instance, the
Capitol, which was begun in 1793 with the last addition finished in
1962, is the combination of nine different buildings, representing the
work of a dozen different architects."
     The differences in style and the various methods of construction
present their own problems. One morning in 1983, Allen went to work,
only to be told that about 100 square feet of the Capitol's west front
had collapsed. "The problem was that the stone they selected for the
original construction was Virginia sandstone, which weather just tears
apart," he says. The west front also had been allowed to deteriorate
while members of Congress debated whether to restore it or to build an
addition on that side.
     Congress immediately apportioned $47 million for the west front
restoration, which took place from 1984-1987. "That was a fascinating
project. The first thing we did was to remove about 35 layers of
paint. After all the paint came off, we were able to analyze each and
every stone on the west front. We ended up removing about 40 percent
and replacing it with Indiana limestone."
     "As the paint came off," Allen says,"we expected to see scars
from the fire of 1814 when the British burned the Capitol. I'd been
down to the White House where you can not only see that fire's smoke
damage but smell it. It's very eerie.
     "For years and years, we thought the Capitol had been painted to
cover the smoke damage of 1814," he says. "Then, I discovered that the
Capitol was never painted before 1818, and the only reason it was
painted then was to protect the stone from the weather."
     In addition to restoration projects, Allen says about half his
time is spent doing research on the architectural history of the
buildings.  For this, he often uses documents from the Office of the
Architect of the Capitol, which has continuous, uninterrupted records
since 1851. "We also have had, since 1851, this philosophy of not
throwing anything away," he says.
     "If I want to know who made the columns of the Capitol dome, I
would go to the files and not only find out who made them, but I would
find out the names of everyone who bid on those columns." This
documentation is an historian's "bread and butter," Allen says.
     Allen recently completed a research project to determine whether
the Capitol dome was designed after the dome on St. Isaac's Cathedral
in Leningrad. The project lasted more than two years and resulted in a
complete history of the dome, which, once approved by Congress, will
be published as an official government document.
     The construction of the new dome was authorized by Congress on
March 3, 1855, he says, because the original, wooden dome appeared too
small for the enlarged building. The new cast iron dome was built from
a plan that had originally hung on the office wall of the architect of
the Capitol, Thomas U. Walter.
     Allen looked at the original manuscripts from both Walter and the
supervising engineer, Captain Montgomery C. Mayes. Allen says, "I was
the first person to ever do this, and for good reason. I was the first
person who developed the ability to read the handwriting of the
supervising engineer!"
     Not only was Mayes' handwriting illegible, but as a result of a
disagreement between Mayes and Walter, "(Mayes) was banished to an
island off the coast of Florida. It makes those nighttime soap operas
look tame. There was a lot of back-stabbing, and the President and two
secretaries of war were involved. This battle between the architect
and the engineer lasted from 1857 to 1859."
     Allen's research also led to the discovery of how the statue atop
the dome, an allegorical figure of freedom, was placed there in 1863.
This research, which revealed that the statue was put up in five
separate pieces, will help future conservation efforts. Allen says,
"We're in the process right now of trying to figure out whether the
statue should be conserved in place, or if we should take the statue
down. One of the side benefits about the dome history is its detail of
how the statue was put up. Our engineers are interested because they
now know how to take it off. It's one of those things that historians
can tell engineers."
     The next time you visit the nation's Capitol and admire the
designs of the stencils on the ceiling or read a book about the
architectural history of the Capitol, remember, these are the work of
alumnus Bill Allen, building doctor.
     -Marceline A. Bunzey, Delaware '92M