Capitol's crisis: all's crumbling on the West Front

When Ronald Reagan took the oath of office on the Capitol's California-facing western side, an architectural dispute which has nettled Congress for more than 15 years was renewed.

The problem: the graceless aging of the Capitol's West Central Front, the only exposed portion of the original sandstone Capitol Building.

Most of the building has been cocooned within sturdy marble additions over the years, but the unprotected west facade has grown soft and crumbly.

In 1965, a 40-pound hunk of decorative "egg and dart" molding fell off the West Front, sparking heated debates over how to best fix up the wall.

Some congressmen, along with the architect of the Capitol, George M. White, want to see a marble extension built which would cover up and support the troublesome sandstone. Others favor a monumental patching job for the historic wall. But a loggerhead over which approach to take has persisted till today.

Work crews spruced up the wall for the Reagan inauguration by removing rotted-out timber supports from thebase and rolling on a new coat of white paint.

"The inauguration reawakened the issue," says John McGinty, an architect familiar with the woes of the wall.

But since lawmakers seem more concerned with buttressing the economy than shoring up the West Front, a resolution of the problem may be farther away than ever.

On March 3, the Commission on the West Central Front of the US Capitol -- established by Congress to consider proposed solutions for the wall -- decided to put the project on hold for at least another year. Budgetary constraints are blamed.

Sen. Mack Mattingly (R) of Georgia, chairman of the Senate's Subcommittee on Legislative Branch Appropriations and an avowed budget "watchdog," pushed for the delay on the grounds that it was not the right time to start such a costly project.

The architect of the Capitol's office estimates the cost of restoration at about $50 million and a marble extension at $58 million.Many observers say these high price tags gave the commission little choice but to defer action.

"You can't cut education programs and then pay for multimillion-dollar building programs in downtown Washington," says Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D) of South Carolina, who favors restoration and heads up Senate opposition to the "extensionists."

Senator Hollings dispatched letters to his Senate colleagues shortly after the inauguration, giving "a little history and background" on the issue and extolling the virtues of restoration.

"Everyone's mind is on the budget," says Hollings. He has turned his sights toward next year and the many new senators who have never had a chance to vote on the issue.

Hollings hope to quietly garner support for restoration in preparation for when budget skies are blue again. He especially hopes to win over the members of the West Front commission. Hollings says the chairman of the commission, Vice-President George bush, is "keenly" aware of the economics of the proposals but is "basically a restoration man."

Observers familiar with the controversy say that it comes down to a question of office space -- something which members of the House of Representative have little of in the Capitol Building.

The proposed extension would add more, than 147,000 square feet to the building, about 80,000 square feet of which would be usuable office space, according to a spokesman for the architect of the Capitol. The House generally has favored extension; the Senate has wanted restoration.

"I sense that it's got to ultimately be deal with," says Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California, new chairman of the House Subcommittee on Legislative Branch Appropriations. "The issue shouldn't be left fallow simply because people can't agree what should be done."

But Congressman Fazio emphasizes that this would be the wrong time for action -- even if the two sides of the rotunda could agree on a single solution.

Meanwhile, the special commission on the West Front now has two reports prepared by separate architectural consulting firms -- one considering extension , the other restoration.

"With the reports submitted 18 months ago," says Elliott Carroll, spokesman for the architect of the Capitol, "they have more complete documentation of the plans, including cost estimates, than ever before."

The extension plan, according to Mr. Carroll, is the favored solution of architect White because it follows an earlier master plan for enlarging the Capitol and supplies needed structural support in a way similar to the "flying buttresses" on Gothic cathedrals. The new front also would sport a white marble surface, an aesthetic plus.

But the American Institute of Architects doesn't agree. A special task force , which included architect I. M. Pei, appointed by it to study the West Front proposals found that the extension did not fulfill any master plan and would detract from the appearance of the building.

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