Every weekday morning, Stephen Ayers, FAIA, commutes by car from his home in Maryland to his office in Washington, D.C. When he crests a particular hill on East Capitol Street, Ayers can spot his office off in the distance. It’s not your average building but the U.S. Capitol, with its spectacular cast-iron dome. “That’s when I really get energized,” says Ayers, who since 2010 has served as the 11th Architect of the Capitol. Appointed by former President Barack Obama to a 10-year term, Ayers and his staff of more than 2,000 are responsible for maintenance and preservation of the Capitol, the House and Senate Office buildings, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building, and other historical facilities in and around the District of Columbia.
It’s a job that Ayers, this year’s winner of the Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture, has never taken for granted. “I get to be a public servant and an architect in the greatest buildings in the world,” he says. “And they pay me? Are you kidding? It’s an awesome job, and it’s been a dream come true.”
Mary Fitch, Hon. AIA, executive director of the AIA’s Washington, D.C., component, praises Ayers for successfully navigating a high-profile position that ranges from the sublime to the mundane. “The job has a lot of ceremonial functions,” she says, “but at the same time, the bathrooms have to work. You have to understand how the wiring works in a 100-year-old building. These buildings are icons, but they’re also working buildings, with people in them every day.”
Ayers oversaw completion of the Capitol Visitor Center, which was over budget and behind schedule when he was appointed chief architect. He also led the restoration of the Capitol dome, which for three years was surrounded by scaffolding so workers could repair more than 1,000 cracks in it, replace missing ornament, and repaint the entire structure. Currently, Ayers and his staff are undertaking a top-to-bottom restoration of the Cannon House Office Building, considered to be “one of the best examples of Beaux-Arts architecture in the world,” Ayers says. Recently, construction workers came across a steel beam that had been signed by the entire erection crew in 1908, when the building was completed. To mimic the historic gesture, members of the current construction team etched their names into a new beam. Says Ayers: “A sense of history permeates all that we do.”
Other 2018 AIA Honor Awards: