Office in the sky

Madison’s famous Capitol dome gets a masonry facelift.

Towering high above just about everything else in Madison, the Capitol dome received an important facelift last summer thanks to a collaborative effort between the state of Wisconsin, GRAEF, the structural engineers of record, and JP Cullen, the Janesville-based contractor hired to replace worn mortar joints on the Capitol’s domed roof. While such maintenance is considered routine and scheduled about every 20 years or so, the job site is certainly not.

Last August through November, a team of tradespeople worked on arguably the state’s most treasured rooftop. JP Cullen has been involved in many Capitol building projects through the years, but this was the first opportunity for Mark Ihlenfeldt, engineer and drone pilot, and Tony Hanus, masonry superintendent representing the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, to work together on preserving the dome’s exterior.

Their jobs were very different. Ihlenfeldt supported the dome workers and coordinated repairs to ensure a successful project with zero injuries. Hanus was in charge of managing the general construction — tradespeople, materials, and all activities related to masonry repairs.

Rising to 284 feet at the top of the golden Wisconsin statue, the 104-year-old Capitol building is not the tallest rooftop Ihlenfeldt and Hanus have worked on together — the terra cotta spire on Milwaukee’s City Hall tops it at 353 feet — but the historical, political, and aesthetic reverence made this job particularly special.

“You don’t get a chance to work up there very often, so you can’t pass up the opportunity. You’re doing a service to the state. It’s very fulfilling,” notes Hanus.

The current Capitol building opened in 1917 and was constructed with what has become a very pricey granite exterior — Bethel White granite, to be exact. Three feet shorter than the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., Wisconsin’s statehouse has the only granite dome in the United States, which makes it both unique and vulnerable.

“There’s a lot of movement up there from the weather so mortar doesn’t hold up well,” Hanus explains.

“It’s a stone roof and if the joints leak, water will leak through.”

The last time the Capitol received a good cleaning was 2000–2001 when the exterior was sponge-jetted, and joints were tuckpointed and caulked.

Last summer, the JP Cullen crew inspected, removed, and replaced joints on the dome with a high-performance sealant designed to last longer than mortar.

“The products used on the Capitol building are there for a reason,” Ihlenfeldt states. “Only the very best products are used. It’s not like going to a local hardware store and buying a tube of caulk!” Nearly 95% of the dome’s mortar has now been replaced with sealant.

This particular job, Ihlenfeldt comments, was completely about access, collaboration, and getting the right people at the right place at the right time during the height of COVID-19. “Everyone worked very hard to make sure this project went well. GRAEF did impeccable work. This was the State Capitol, after all.”

Challenges were numerous. Materials were lifted by a crane to upper decks and then manually carried out onto the roof. Levels of scaffolding around the lantern, just below the feet of the Wisconsin statue, were built in place.

Four movable swing-stage scaffolds on wheels were also built on the side of the Capitol. Providing the platforms from which the masons, cleaners, and laborers worked, the scaffolds were raised up and down as work progressed.

“This project was 100% tie off, meaning everyone and everything, from a tool to a piece of Kleenex was tied off because you had to assume it could go over,” Ihlenfeldt says. “But other than being really windy and having a great view of downtown Madison, the job was pretty cookie cutter.”

Safety first

Ihlenfeldt and Hanus are members of a small group of JP Cullen workers certified in rope access emergency training and rappelling. They train regularly, often alongside area fire departments, but it’s a certification they hope they’ll never have to use. “The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has pretty clear standards on this,” Ihlenfeldt says. “If you’re going to put someone at risk, you have to have a plan to rescue them.”

Long before roof work could begin, drone photos had mapped every inch of the Capitol dome’s surface in preparation, but it’s a two-part process, Ihlenfeldt notes.

“A drone isn’t going to show you everything. It will tell you 99% of the story but that last 1% is a big deal, and that’s physically getting there, seeing it, and comparing the drone’s picture to what is actually happening.”

“Safetyfied” with harnesses, hard hats, and ropes, Hanus and Ihlenfeldt handled that final 1%. Climbing over a balustrade near the top of the Capitol, they rappelled down to a landing area at the very top of the dome. “The first time you go down it takes your breath away,” Ihlenfeldt admits.

Rappelling around the dome, the duo inspected areas the drones noted earlier.

“This is a unique job, but we do this type of work all the time,” states Hanus.

When the masonry crew arrives, the project begins in earnest. The Capitol dome’s surface has 24 “ribs,” 16 panels, and scrolls at the bottom. It was bracketed to isolate panels, allowing work to be divided between crew members.

“If someone was working on rib one, panel eight, for example, everyone knew where that was,” explains Ihlenfeldt. Working from top to bottom, all joints were removed and replaced with sealant.

Communication was efficient. Workers could call for advice or expertise from either Hanus, Ihlenfeldt, or engineers on the ground, sharing cellphone photos of what they were seeing in real time and receiving quick responses. “There’s no reason to put a highly skilled engineer or anyone else at risk if technology allows us to communicate by phone,” Ihlenfeldt states.

Climate change and UFDs

Working almost 30 stories up, wind is a constant companion. Likewise, the amount of sun and shade can change the temperature dramatically from one side of the dome to the other. Frequently, the wind blew upwards, peppering the crew with debris from the street below.

Ihlenfeldt recalls one particularly brisk morning when he overdressed in a long-sleeve sweater. After rappelling into position, not only was the sun unrelenting on his back, but it also was reflecting off the dome. “It gets hot up there!” he laughs now, cursing his own stupidity. “I had all my gear on and couldn’t take my sweater off because it was under the rigging and equipment.”

Hanus chuckles. He won’t forget it either. He also won’t forget the wildlife circling at that height, including red-tailed hawks, owls, and a peregrine falcon, but he was much less impressed by wingless visitors — uninvited drones. “At any given time, people were flying drones and taking photos, like mosquitoes,” he grumbles, estimating that they had a dozen such encounters with unidentified flying drones.

“We put a lot of effort into making sure we are legal, coordinating with the Federal Aviation Administration and the police department. Then here we are on the side of the dome and all of a sudden there are two or three drones buzzing around about 20 or 30 feet away. We have no idea where they came from or where they went, but we knew they were there.”

As the project neared completion, workers grew more than cognizant of approaching November weather. Throughout the project some crew members took socially distanced breaks inside the dome, high above the Capitol rotunda floor and just feet away from a mural in the oculus.

“We staged a lot up there,” Ihlenfeldt comments, noting only one problem: “We were 150 steps from the nearest bathroom, so we always had to plan ahead!”

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