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Thrilled to Be in Jefferson's Shadow
At the start, Skarmeas was told that there was little hope of discovering any original materials.
"I was floored by this," he said. "We are in Virginia. We don't throw things away. We were pleasantly surprised. We found there is a tremendous amount of 18th-century fabric still in place, and we were able to discover it and make sure it was preserved."
Some discoveries were made after layers of paint or plaster were painstakingly removed from walls or ceilings. Among the 18th-century materials discovered was the railing on the second floor of the rotunda. Workers also found nails from the original construction.
Skarmeas said the exhilaration of making such a discovery lasted about 10 seconds. "You know why? Because you realize that 'now I have to do something very responsible about this,' " he said. "Yes, you get very excited at first, and then you realize the tremendous responsibility you have about treating it right."
Working on a Jefferson building is unusual, in part, because, as Skarmeas pointed out, the former president and Virginia governor designed only four projects -- Monticello, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the Poplar Forest plantation near Lynchburg and the Capitol.
"What are the chances of working on one of the four?" Skarmeas asked.
With the opening today, Skarmeas said his work is not complete. He is writing a book about the project to preserve a record of the work for posterity, including the architect who might be chosen a century from now for the next renovation.
Although he cannot know what Jefferson would have thought of his work, he imagines what the great man might say if he were able.
"If Jefferson walked into the building, I would want him to say: 'You took care of my building, George. Thank you,' " Skarmeas said.
Senior producer Laura Cochran of washingtonpost.com contributed to this report.