Since Stephen Ayers became architect of the Capitol in May 2010, he has been reluctant to speak on the record with the press and has encouraged the some 2,600 employees who serve in his office to do the same.
Of course, the architect isn’t a member of Congress, and his main job is the maintenance and preservation of the Capitol complex—not stepping into the spotlight. Still, his office has deflected inquiries into a surprising number of matters. National Journal alone has been rebuffed when asking whether cleaning crews were questioned or addressed after burglaries into House offices, when and how an electric-car charging station will be constructed in House and Senate garages, and what will become of the Capitol Dome now that Congress has delayed funding for its repairs.
Even requests about the uplifting story of Jack Sypult—the Senate Paint Division supervisor who has been working to restore masterpieces inside the Capitol since he graduated high school 30 years ago—have been denied.
Ayers’s press secretary, Eva Malecki, says she has been told not to comment on pending legislation and to keep all of the agency’s employees from speaking to the media. Ayers did give National Journal Daily a tour of the Capitol Dome in July to inspect its condition, but Malecki shortly thereafter wrote: “I would appreciate it if you would not quote Mr. Ayers directly, but would use what he said on background as well. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to establish that during the tour—but time was limited and we had a lot to see.” She also asked to review quotes to be used on background, which means on a not-for-attribution basis, and asked that photographs of Ayers taken for the story not be used.
Following its own policy, NJ Daily did not comply with Malecki’s request to change the rules regarding Ayers’s conversation after the interview. Malecki said Ayers declined to be interviewed for this article.
Publications large and small have felt the odd silence. New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer received the only approved and on-the-record quote from Ayers since he became architect, but even she reported that the office was “unusually careful” in its dealings with her.
Former Roll Call editor Debra Bruno said, “We could rarely get anything out of the AOC, not even light feature stories.”
By comparison, Ayers’s predecessor, Alan Hantman, was loquacious, though his legacy may be part of the reason Ayers has been so circumspect. Hantman gave many on-the-record interviews, but most were about the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center, which, rightfully or not, was shrouded in controversy. The project began as a $100 million, five-year plan and became a $600 million project that was still unfinished during its seventh year of construction when Hantman left in 2007.
Ayers took over as acting architect and finished the CVC job at the end of 2008, but getting the job permanently was another matter.
He had been trained as an architect, beginning in the military as a staff architect at Edwards Air Force Base in California. From there, he traveled to Europe with Voice of America, designing and constructing sites for their broadcasts in Germany and Greece. He returned stateside in 1997 and began working for the architect of the Capitol, during Hantman’s tenure, as assistant superintendent of Senate Office Buildings. He rose through the ranks over 10 years to become chief operating officer by the time Hantman left. But his experience and dedication to the office wasn’t enough to make him a shoo-in for Hantman’s post.
The search committee, for the first time, wasn’t seeking to nominate an experienced architect, but an experienced communicator. “The architect of the Capitol transformed from a sleepy maintenance organization to one that was in a fairly high-profile position,” said a former Hill aide familiar with the selection process. “I’m not sure that they had prepared their press operation for the kind of public affairs that would usually accompany a project of this scope.”
The leading candidate was Kemel Dawkins, a facilities manager at Duke University who had also overseen crews, construction, and maintenance at Yale and Stanford. But the American Institute of Architects, of which both Ayers and Hantman are members and honorary fellows, protested the appointment of Dawkins because he was not a licensed architect. Dawkins withdrew his nomination.
In 2010, Ayers was appointed to the post, where he’s earned praise for lowering energy emissions, addressing safety hazards, and completing the first phase of the project to restore the Capitol Dome.
Still, troubles abound when you’re charged with one of the world’s great edifices and surrounding buildings. The Russell Senate Office Building recently received the highest classification of safety hazards for its fire-escape routes by the Office of Compliance, and the Capitol Dome has 1,300 cracks and is shedding lead paint—all while Congress, afraid to spend money on office repair while Americans are being foreclosed upon, has repeatedly rejected the architect’s budget requests for repairs.
“The money is tight,” Ayers laughed while leading the aforementioned tour of the Capitol Dome in July. As is his style, Ayers dodged any further questions about the difficulty of his job.
This article appears in the September 20, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.