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Election Over, Inaugural Planning Ramps Up

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Crews prepare for the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. 2009.
Crews prepare for the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. 2009.

Inauguration is almost three months away, but preparations for Washington's most pomp-and-circumstance-filled political event started nearly three years ago. Sabri Ben-Achour speaks with the Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayars to find out why that preparation is so elaborate, and how the work will affect people trying to get around on the Mall. Following are highlights of their conversation.

On the inauguration planning process: "Inaugurations happen every four years, so once they happen, just a month after that, we do a hot-wash and we gather everybody back together, and we pick apart that inauguration. What went great? What went wrong? What can we do a better job at? How can we tweak the chairs or the stage or the platform or the music or the sound system or the Jumbotron. You name it, we do that right after that inauguration and we capture all of that on paper. And then two years later, a year away from the next inauguration, we begin to pull that back out. So a year ago on this construction for the platforms here on the west front, we started that process of reviewing the design work, getting construction contracts procured and awarded, and as you can see today, right after Labor Day, we close down the west front and start construction. And we'll be under construction until about the middle of January."

On construction: "The west front of the Capitol has a plaza, and a set of stairs, and a beautiful fountain, and a ring of trees around that fountain. Well, all of that is covered up by these grand stands that seat some 1,600 people, and another several hundred people above that, so all of those people sit in a stadium-style platform that we build out of wood, every four years. To the left and right of this platform will be tall media stands, and then right in front of these platforms where there's a little bump out where the president stands. Right in front of that is a television tower. So we have the base of the platform finished now. You know, we turn the fountain off. We fill the fountain with sand. We build a structure out over the platform, and you can see where the president stands. It's actually 25 or 30 feet in the air, out over this fountain.

On how inaugurations have changed over time: "Well the inaugurations of presidents were typically held on the east front of the Capitol for many, many years, up through 1981, I believe it was with President Reagan. He moved to the west front of the Capitol, and I think primarily that move was for making it more accessible to the people. We can fit more people on the west front, and of course they can flow all the way out through the National Mall. And since then, the stadium stands that we build every four years have been tweaked a little bit, but quite frankly, not that much.

On what the Architect of the Capitol does when not preparing for an inauguration: "At the same time it's a presidential election year, this is a congressional election year, as well. There are a number of congressmen and senators that won't be returning that have retired or lost elections, so we move all of their offices around. We're busy with planning for that at the moment. But other than that, our job is to serve, preserve and inspire. So we serve the American people, we serve the Congress, we maintain and build and preserve all of the facilities that are entrusted to our care. And with 2.5 million people visiting this Capitol Building a year and another million people visiting our Botanic Garden, providing inspirational visits and educational visits is something that's important to us as well."

[Music: Inaugural Construction: "New Coat of Paint" by Tom Waits from The Heart of Saturday Night]


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