- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Capitol rotunda will open to the public Thursday, complete with 6,000 pounds of safety netting installed over the last two weeks to protect visitors and staff from falling debris during dome renovations.

Visitors can still see the Apotheosis of Washington and the Frieze of American History around the large doughnut-shaped netting that resembles a pillow-top mattress.

Other artwork and statues in the rotunda are visible but still in scaffolding, which will be removed over the next few weeks, as will protective pieces of wood on the floor, according to Stephen Ayers, architect of the Capitol.

The installation of the protective netting is one of the first steps in a two-year restoration project that will fix more than 1,000 cracks in the Capitol dome. Mr. Ayers said the fixes are crucial to protect the artwork inside and the iconic dome itself from water damage.

The netting system is suspended from the ceiling with large arms that connect to the outer dome.

Architect of the Capitol, Stephen T. Ayers, stands underneath the safety netting that was installed around the inside the Capitol Rotunda, Wednesday, April 30, 2014, Washington. Five layers of safety netting where used as part of a $60 million restoration project of the Capitol dome and is the first major renovation since 1960. (AP Photo)
Architect of the Capitol, Stephen T. Ayers, stands underneath the safety netting ... more >

It’s made of five layers, each with a different job. The second layer is strong enough to catch a person, while the fourth layer is made of a much finer mesh and ensures no dust makes it to the floor. All together, the netting can support a 500-pound object, Mr. Ayers said.

The large, white doughnut will be up for about a year and a half, Mr. Ayers said.

Completing the netting paves the way for more scaffolding to be erected on the outside of the dome, Mr. Ayers said.

Though some construction and scaffolding can be seen along the West Front, visitors will start to see the bulk of scaffolding on the dome itself by the end of May, according to Kristy Long, deputy Capitol superintendent.

While other construction in the Capitol, like the Capitol Visitors Center, was drastically over schedule and over budget, the dome renovation is up against a firm deadline: Inauguration 2017. Mr. Ayers said they have allowed the project plenty of extra time to ensure the Capitol ready by September 2016, when preparations for the January inauguration begin.

“We have plenty of contingency built into the schedule and we’re confident we’ll make that date,” Mr. Ayers said.

The rotunda was originally scheduled to open Tuesday, but was delayed due to unforeseen modifications on the netting system. Justin Kieffer, a spokesman for the architect of the Capitol, said the project is still on schedule.