Capitol Restoration Continues: The House of Representatives (1986-1988)


Perhaps of all the spaces John Canning & Co worked on in the Capitol building, none was transformed quite as dramatically as the House of Representatives. After careful assessment of the various artistic aspects within the chamber, it become evident that a total floor-to-ceiling restoration needed to be conducted. Over the decades, numerous changes, alterations and renovations were made to the space, each greatly altering the historic vision, making it a challenge to restore the room to its original condition.Before any workmen showed up to the job site, careful analysis was done on a variety of surfaces throughout the space to help provide clues about what the room would have looked like when it was initially completed in the late 1880’s by McPherson. A number of chemical and mechanical tests were employed to help provide information pertaining to original colors used, chemical composition of paints, and the current state of preservation of materials within the House. Through exact color matching techniques, John identified 32 original colors used to decorate the room with the help of test results from Professor Frank Matero of Columbia University. This attention to detail provided the historical integrity the preservation committee was seeking.

The ceiling posed an interesting problem for John and his team. Over the decades careless application of paint masked not only the original color scheme of the space, but also the intricacy in the plaster work. John’s team carefully removed each layer of paint and was able to uncover the original design—no small feat! While the celling has about 90% of the original stencil patterns, during the restoration additional highlighting of the stencil boarders was done to further accentuate the designs and enhance visibility from the chamber floor.

Extensive work was needed to restore the walls of the House chamber back to its original condition. During the late 1950’s the lower portion of the chamber walls were covered in acoustic tiles. Over the years, these tiles were painted over many times, eliminating any noise-dampening properties they may have possessed. When the decision was made to have them removed, the walls incurred significant damage as during the installation process, workers used a strong epoxy applied in four spots on the perimeter of the tiles to affix them to the wall. When they tiles were removed, the wall (and stencil pattern) came with it. This presented John and his team with the additional challenge of resurfacing the walls, a time consuming process, but one that would make the rest of the restoration work easier.

Identifying the original stencil decorations was a complex process. The acoustic tiles covered almost the entirety of the lower walls of the House. Fortunately for John, all hope was not lost. On the pillars against the north wall of the observation gallery, several small areas were not covered by tile and enough of McPherson’s original design was still visible to make an accurate copy.

The original design of the walls contained intricate painting and stencil work. To best match the decoration of the room, John and his team used a method known as striping to produce highly detailed geometric designs on the walls. While no longer common, striping can be found in the decoration schemes of many buildings constructed during this time period. When striping, a talented artisan is able to make long, straight lines without any raised edges, drips or fuzzy lines. This is achieved by using a beveled striping stick and rigid striping brush. The painter makes quick movements along the striping stick, with the beveled side facing inward. This prevents the paint from building up, resulting in dripping or bleeding, producing a clean, straight line without any raised edges.

By utilizing themes already seen within the Capitol, John and his team were able to overcome a number of stylistic challenges. Moreover, through the work of extensive historic and physical analysis, a cohesive and historically accurate vision was achieved. Despite working with very limited design information, the accuracy of the completed project would make McPherson proud.