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Under the Dome: A conversation with Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers

By Ann Gerhart
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 7:12 PM

Stephen Ayers, 48, became the 11th architect of the Capitol in May with unanimous Senate confirmation. He is the man now charged with the maintenance, construction and preservation of not only the domed center of the action but also the congressional office buildings, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the U.S. Botanic Garden and two sets of archival warehouses, at Fort Meade and Culpeper, Va. As acting architect, he oversaw the 2008 presidential inauguration and completion of the Capitol Visitor Center. He must tend to the past and invest in the future, while responding to the needs of now: 30,000 people work in the complex, and the historic, gilded spaces are thronged by millions each year.

Do you have the best job in Washington? You get to preside over having all of this be as open and accessible as possible.

We get a million visitors a year to our Botanic Garden and 21/2 million to our [Capitol] Visitor Center. That is a big responsibility that we take very seriously, this ability to touch and influence 3 [million] to 4 million people a year and their first impressions about their government and about public service and how we are doing as stewards of these treasures. That is really important to us.

I try to be. . . . And I need money to do that, and I need to go out and sell it and talk to people. We have a $600 million annual budget, about 2,600 employees. We manage 16.5 million square feet of space, over 450 acres. . . . Then the librarian [of Congress] has this vision of saving his treasures in perpetuity. And our job is to design and construct the infrastructure to enable that to happen. . . . We also are responsible for the artwork and statuary collection and commissioning new works - we just commissioned a bust of Sojourner Truth and a statue of Rosa Parks.

Is there a Friends of the Capitol group, or are you dependent on your powers of persuasion?

It's all appropriated dollars. Meaning: You still have to go get them.

You went into the military after you got your architecture degree. What made you decide to do that?

It's always been a passion of mine. I loved the military. Still do today. My father was a Marine, my father-in-law was a Marine. I just thought it was the right thing to do. And I loved the esprit de corps and the kind of respect and order and orderliness of the military. I'm kind of an orderly person. [Chuckles.]

Is there competition between the two buildings? Like when you are talking to the Army and the Navy? Between the Senate and House side?

I hope so. We work hard to generate a little competition. Because that raises the bar for everybody. We have a senior executive for this customer base, the Senate, and another one that is responsible for the Supreme Court, a different one for the library, another executive for the House [and so on].

There is an unpredictable nature to your work. You never can be sure what might happen - anthrax in the office buildings, members moving and changes in leadership.

That is a wonderful hokeypokey that we go through every election year. I suspect this year we are going to move 300 members [through seniority changes as well].

Do you track this? Do you see what [political analyst] Charlie Cook or somebody has to say about which district is leaning this way or that way? To try to see if you can anticipate any of that?

We get a sense of that. Absolutely.

Because if you are somebody who likes to be orderly, you wouldn't want to be caught on Nov. 3.

No. Surprises are bad. [Smiles.] We have been at it long enough that we know one leaving member is going to equal so many moves. The biggest thing for us is if there is a party change. Then all your leadership offices change. So that is a big deal around here for us, but we will do it: We will move every single member of the House in 30 days. Bodies and boxes, we will move them all.

Do you have to smooth ruffled feathers? Movers with diplomacy skills?

That is essential. Many people don't want to move. They are kind of sour that they have lost. Or they may not have gotten the office they wanted.

So there is this political social work component of the job.

Sure. Keeping our customers happy is important. And six square feet around here is very important.

The public may not understand, because this all looks so grand and empty through the public spaces, but you are using every square inch of space here.

We are absolutely busting at the seams. On either side [of the visitor center] are these expansion spaces of meeting rooms, and they are booked solid eight, nine hours every single day. I have walked through the buildings and you will find a member of Congress . . . giving that five- or 10-minute civics lesson that they really enjoy doing, and the students will be sitting on the stairs or standing in the hallway.

Do you help people make every inch count? Like at the Container Store, if you are fixing up a dorm room, they say 'Maximize your vertical space!'

We have a team of interior designers that works with every single member. And our team of architects will lay out the furniture.

Do you ever have people who insist on putting really tacky things in their office that you really wouldn't want there?

[Discreet pause.] Sure.

How do you deal with that?

There may be a little flexibility so a member of Congress can do a little additional decorating. But outside of a member of Congress, they pick from our standard furniture package.

Do you have a particular spot you like the best?

I like the President's Room, off the Senate chamber. It's just a magnificent space, beautiful encaustic floor tile painted by Constantino Brumidi, and the wonderful tufted furniture and the chandelier and the gilded frames are just rich. And the Great Hall in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building is also a magnificent space. It was widely written as the most beautiful building in America, and I still think it is. It is really spectacular.

Do you design now?

Not much.

Do you miss it?

Yes.

So do you do that at home? Say, I'm just going to rip off the back of the house because I need a little project?

[Laughing.] I do far too much of that at home, quite frankly.

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