- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2005

Inspectors are trying to determine what caused a basketball-sized chunk of marble to break off from the facade of the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday morning as visitors stood outside.

No one was hurt when a chunk of Vermont marble from the building’s west pediment fell 100 feet and shattered when it landed on the steps near where the visitors stood, according to the Supreme Court’s public information office.

Any number of variables may have loosened the marble, including rust, moisture, a drop in outdoor temperature, natural decay or an imperfection with the stone itself, said William Dupont, chief architect for National Trust for Historic Preservation.

And those variables could be at work on other historic buildings in the District.

“There’s lots of perfectly good reasons why something like this could happen, even to a building that’s regularly inspected and maintained,” said Mr. Dupont, an architect with 20 years experience.

More than 15 years ago, a piece of marble pediment fell off the west wing of the National Gallery of Art, said Anne Grimmer, an architectural historian with the National Park Service.

Yesterday, one of the marble blocks above the words, “Equal Justice Under Law,” fell from the facade of the building’s west pediment at about 9:30 a.m., said Kathy Arberg, public information officer for the Supreme Court.

The rectangular chunk — called a dentil — was about 10-by-12 inches in size and hung along a roof edge near its peak over the sculpture of Liberty Enthroned. The dentil appeared to have struck the left shoulder and knee of the sculpture of Authority, which is to the left of Liberty.

The dentil shattered into more than 40 fragments on the steps that visitors and tourists usually climb to enter the building.

Some visitors, including some students from Ohio, tried to pocket small marble pieces as souvenirs, said Ed Fisher, a government worker. However, authorities told the students to put the stones back.

Authorities loaded the largest marble pieces into plastic baskets and carried them away for further examination.

Later, a structural engineer and photographer from the Architect of the Capitol Office planned to use a lift to inspect the pediment. Inspectors might not be able to determine the cause immediately, but they can make sure that the other dentils and sculptures will not fall, Mrs. Arberg said.

The front door and main steps to the Supreme Court will remain closed until an assessment of the damage is completed.

Built in 1935, the Supreme Court building is one of the newer facilities on Capitol Hill, compared with the more than 200-year-old U.S. Capitol and other historical buildings.

Maintenance on those buildings is done every one-to-three years, said Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol Office, which oversees and maintains the U.S. Capitol complex.

In 2003, inspectors checked the building’s east pediment during a routine maintenance check, Miss Malecki said.

“There were no indications at that time of any issue with the stone,” she said. “We don’t know what’s up there, what may or may not need to be done, or if there are other flaws until we do a survey.”

Inspectors checked the building’s west pediment in 1992, said an official with the Supreme Court’s public information office.

Much construction is under way at the Supreme Court building and adjacent under East Capitol Street for an underground visitors’ center to the U.S. Capitol. The five-year $122 million Supreme Court building renovation includes a two-story, underground police station. However, officials said the construction and renovation did not cause the stone to fall.

Local authorities did not estimate the weight of the dentil that fell yesterday. A cubic foot of Vermont marble weighs 172 pounds, said Robert Pye, director of the Vermont Marble Museum in Proctor.

Marble is chosen for the construction of many historical buildings because it’s a very durable stone that boasts longevity, said Mr. Dupont, who has worked on projects such as the Lincoln Cottage and the Frank Lloyd Wright project in Virginia.

The marble is usually attached with iron pins, Mr. Dupont said. However, the iron expands as it rusts, sometimes causing stones to break, he said. Even large structures, such as skyscrapers, are susceptible to decay because of rusting.

The stone that fell from the Supreme Court building yesterday also could be related to rainfall last week, followed by the sudden drop in temperatures. When stone gets wet, the moisture can slide behind the stone or into crevices, push it apart as it freezes, Mr. Dupont said.

Or, the marble could have succumbed to the aging process.

“Things tend to lose energy or decay over time,” Mr. Dupont said. “Look at the ruins of temples around the Mediterranean. Things will fall over and collapse, unless people intervene with maintenance and routine inspections and repairs and improvement projects to keep it all the way it should be.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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