Interview by Ann Cochran
My mother was an artist — a painter, a decorator — and her sense of design rubbed off on me. Growing up, I was always drawing and building. In high school I excelled at drafting, and a teacher found me a part-time job with a local machine company. That work gave me the confidence to apply to architecture schools.
I never imagined I’d achieve this position — 11th architect of the Capitol, with an annual budget of nearly $600 million. That’s a big number, but with a staff of 2,200, my office oversees almost 18 million square feet of indoor space, 553 acres outdoors, a multitude of projects and events. Each inauguration and State of the Union is thrilling. It’s a privilege to witness history up close, but as a member of the U.S. Capitol Police Board, I have continuous security and law enforcement radio chatter in one ear, so I am often reviewing our evacuation planning during landmark speeches.
Twice a year or more, I testify before Congress to identify priorities that are a mix of the mundane and the magnificent. To put it in perspective, we have a backlog of more than $1 billion of deferred maintenance. Replacing a worn-out air conditioning system in the Capitol building isn’t nearly as fascinating as restoring the frescoes in the Brumidi Corridors, but without heating or air conditioning, the artwork deteriorates. To move projects forward, I need bipartisan and bicameral support. I have to be open, transparent and apolitical yet politically attuned. Relationship-building with staff and members of the House and Senate is a significant necessity.
The next phase of the Capitol Dome restoration is an example of careful communication. The $60 million investment to repair more than 1,000 cracks had to be weighed against other priorities, and the two years of work will be disruptive, even though the Capitol will remain open. Someone of high rank once tried to convince me we should install solar panels on the dome. So I often have to be able to say no without using the word “no.” [But] integrating technology is one challenge. It’s not easy to install modern conveniences in a 220-year-old masonry building. You can’t just cut a hole through a five-foot-thick sandstone wall to install an electrical outlet or conduit for fiber optic cable.
As stewards of history, our ultimate goal is to leave the buildings and grounds in better condition than when we came. Benjamin Latrobe, the second architect of the Capitol, had an incredible sense of light and shadow, symmetry and proportion. One of my favorite spots in the Capitol is the Old Senate Chamber that he designed. When I walk the halls on quiet evenings, I think about those who walked the same halls before me and try to imagine their concerns.