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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington’s capitol gets a clean dome

OLYMPIA – The sandstone dome on the Capitol is once again the color of beach sand as the first phase of a $3.4 million cleaning and restoration project of the iconic building nears completion.

For more than two weeks, workers in harnesses and on scaffolding have moved slowly up, down and around the dome, power-washing the sandstone masonry with a special fluid that helps kill the lichen and dislodge dirt that has built up in the porous rock over the past six years.

As long as the weather holds – temperatures above freezing, no high winds that could dislodge washers from precarious perches – the workers from a Seattle company specializing in masonry restoration will continue on the lower parts of the building. They hope to finish cleaning the cupola, the ornate band that circles the bottom of the dome, the parapets and the plaza area of the structure, formally known as the Legislative Building, by the end of the year.

If the temperatures drop below freezing, however, work will stop to prevent damage to the sandstone, which absorbs water and would be damaged by successive rounds of freezing and thawing.

The dome starts some 185 feet off the ground, and with the cupola rises another 102 feet. It is the tallest masonry dome in the United States, and the fifth tallest in the world.

That porous nature accounts for the need to wash the dome about every six or seven years, as the masonry retains water in the wet Puget Sound climate. Dirt collects, lichen thrives. When it was last cleaned in 2012 as part of a major preservation project, the state decided not to use cleaning agents to protect the surfaces of a historic structure.

That led to the dome darkening much more quickly from vacation beach bright to something close to Exxon Valdez spill yuck. The dismal appearance didn’t go unnoticed by legislators when they returned to Olympia for the 2018 session. The Senate’s senior member, Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, gave an impassioned speech about the dome’s near-historic shabbiness.

Allowed rare access to the lantern-shaped cupola on top of the dome, Sheldon had been given a close-up look at the condition of the dome from above and bemoaned its sorry condition. He suggested the dull grayness of the dome affected the mood of the people working under it.

Sheldon’s proposal to add $3.4 million for the cleanup was approved, as was a line calling for the state to allow access to the dome under approved supervision and special guidelines. Gov. Jay Inslee, however, vetoed trips to the dome, saying the fire department warned that access is so narrow there’d be no way to get a gurney up to get an injured person down.

This time around, contractors are using what are being described as “gentle cleaning agents” on the masonry, and a followup spray of a compound that and state officials hope will slow down the lichen growth and keep the dome lighter, longer.

Just how much longer remains to be seen, but at the very least, lawmakers will not be able to blame the dome for any moodiness in the 2019 session.