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Why Is Architect of The Capitol Post Still Vacant?

July 15, 2009

By C. J. Hughes

Correction appended July 28, 2009

In late April, in time for his symbolic 100-day anniversary, President Barack Obama finally rounded out his Cabinet, with the Senate confirmation of Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

But one White House nomination is still forthcoming for a job that has relevance to the design world, even if most Americans don’t know of its existence: the Architect of the Capitol (AOC).

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Photos courtesy Wikipedia
With a $540 million budget and 2,500 employees, the office of the Architect of the Capitol is responsible for the upkeep of 16.5 million square feet of space in 28 buildings, plus 450 acres of grounds. It also hires designers for major expansion projects, like the recently completed Capitol Visitor Center (entrance of the building is pictured above).
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With a $540 million budget and 2,500 employees, the office of the AOC is responsible for the upkeep of the U.S. Capitol Complex, which includes the Capitol, congressional offices, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the U.S. Botanic Garden, and a power plant, among other facilities. In total, the office oversees16.5 million square feet of space in 28 buildings, plus 450 acres of grounds. It also hires designers for major expansion projects, like the recently completed Capitol Visitor Center.

Since February 2007, architect Stephen Ayers, AIA, has helmed the office on a temporary basis. But even with new leadership in Washington, there’s no rush to make him or anybody else the permanent head, lawmakers say. Typically, the President nominates a candidate from a list provided by Capitol Hill. That person then requires Senate confirmation.

“We are very much aware that it’s something the committee needs to address when it can,” says Jean Bordewich, staff director of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, which would handle confirmation hearings. “But this has been a pretty busy legislative session.”

Ayers took the AOC reigns in February 2007 from Alan Hantman, who stepped down, as law dictates, after a 10-year term. That summer, a bi-cameral, bi-partisan committee of lawmakers submitted a list of three recommendations for Hantman’s replacement to President Bush, according to reports, though Bush never nominated one. Bush could have also named a different nominee, thought he passed on that opportunity, too.

Besides Ayers, according to reports, the 2007 list of Congressional picks included Donald H. Orndorff, an architect and construction manager at the Department of Veterans Affairs. It also featured Kemel Dawkins, a non-architect who works as the vice president of campus services for Duke University, though Dawkins later withdrew his name, according to reports. (Spokespeople for Orndorff and Dawkins did not return calls for comment.)

With a changing of the guard on Capitol Hill, as the 110th Congress has given way to the 111th, committee memberships have been altered, too. It’s not clear if the 14-member panel that can pick AOC candidates will tinker with its predecessor’s selections. On one hand, many members have privately expressed confidence in either Ayers or Orndorff, sources say, though the committee has a new chairman, Senator Charles Schumer, who would likely need to okay the picks.

Ayers says he hopes to be chosen. “I’m having a great time right now, and I would love to continue to serve the Congress in this capacity,” he says.

Ayers, 46, a former Air Force captain, helped the military rebuild Voice of America radio stations in Greece, Albania, and Germany early in his career. In his current capacity, he’s overseen completion of a project he inherited: the Capitol Visitor Center, a 555,000-square-foot, three-level underground space designed by Baltimore-based RTKL in collaboration with former AOC Hantman. When it opened in December, it was three years late and $356 million over budget.

Other projects completed on his watch include expansion of the Capitol’s off-site refrigeration plant, and renovation of a movie archive for the Library of Congress in Culpepper, Virginia.

Plus, he’s involved with ongoing upgrades of electrical and plumbing systems at the Cass Gilbert-designed Supreme Court, which, despite being part of the judicial branch, also falls under Ayers’s jurisdiction. The interiors haven’t been modernized since the building’s 1935 opening.

Ayers is not the first temporary AOC. Indeed, three of the nine people to lead the AOC office since its 1867 inception have been part-time appointments, like William Ensign, who served from 1995 to 1997. Some were not even licensed architects, like the prolific David Lynn, who gave D.C. much of its modern gloss. Lynn’s contributions include the Longworth House Office Building (1933), the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory (1933), and the Library of Congress Annex (1938); he also piped in air-conditioning to lawmakers’ chambers and offices.

Though its role has been muted while the job search is in its pre-nomination phase, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) did provide its own recommendations to the joint selection committee in 2007. The four-name list did not include either Ayers or Orndorff, though its contents are confidential, says Andrew Goldberg, the association’s chief lobbyist.

While the AIA has not endorsed a candidate, it does hope Congress acts soon. It’s tough for a temporary appointment to do the job, especially when appearing before committees, “and talking about the tough choices you have to make,” Goldberg says. “Having the imprimatur of being confirmed is helpful.”

 

Correction: The original story incorrectly referred to Ayers being a former Air Force "lieutenant captain."

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