On Wednesday, January 6, 2021, the U.S. Capitol building was the target of an attack that left it ransacked and vandalized. The destruction of many irreplaceable historical wooden artifacts and objects, including doors, intricate millwork, moldings, desks, and podiums, was extensive.
Enter Nathan Kamprath, U.S. Army DEVCOM and leader of a current joint project between the Department of Defense (DoD) and Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). Recognizing the significance of the damage, Kamprath contacted FPL research engineer Robert Ross for assistance with the U.S. Capitol repair. He then connected Ross with Architect of the Capitol (AOC) historic preservation specialists overseeing the restoration of the U.S. Capitol building.
Ross, who has worked at FPL for over 30 years, knew exactly what to do.
Tucked in a dark, remote storage stall in FPL’s basement, a stack of priceless historic mahogany lumber had waited under a layer of dust since 1919 for seemingly just this moment. Ross and an FPL crew dug out the treasure and began facilitating the transfer of 78 of the 11.9 inch-by-12 foot mahogany boards.
Starting in June, this wood will be used to aid in the repair of the Capitol.
The 3,000-lb. stack of lumber is incalculably valuable. Today, mahogany has protected international conservation status and the high quality, clear old-growth mahogany originally used in the Capitol building is no longer available.
Harvested sometime in the early 20th century, this stack is believed to be part of the materials used in FPL’s early work on the properties and performance characteristics of wood during World War I. Though the geographic origin of the wood (Philippines, South America, or Africa) is uncertain, its journey can be traced through New York before it found its home in Madison, Wisconsin.
FPL has a long history of helping the DoD. A technical report from 1919, “Warping of Aircraft Propellers,” points to evidence of this lumber being originally conscripted for propeller research. During WWI, propellers were shipped to France for use in Curtiss OX-5 airplanes. Because the cross-continental trek caused potentially dangerous moisture increases in wooden propellers, FPL conducted warping research at the request of the U.S. War and Navy Departments.
“We cannot be 100 percent sure this sample of lumber was used in the study described in the 1919 report, but it is the same species combination, it fits with the research the lab was doing at the time, and it’s been in the storage stalls since 1919. Though the records are not complete, the evidence for its original purpose is more than compelling,” Ross explained.
Ross has been a part of several historically significant restoration projects over the years but when asked how he felt about being part of the U.S. Capitol reconstruction, Ross said, “It is truly a privilege and honor to take part in the restoration of one of the most important buildings in the United States. It’s at the center of our country and government. And I consider working on the U.S. Capitol the most important project I’ve ever worked on because it serves to rebuild the heart of our democracy.”
FPL’s station director, Dr. Cynthia West agrees, “FPL has a long history of significant contributions to our nation since its establishment in 1910. During WWI we worked with the DoD to improve airplane construction and parts. We are proud to offer a piece of the laboratory’s history that was used in the defense of our country to now repair our U.S. Capitol Building, the seat of our democracy. Today our work has grown from these early roots as we advance research towards a sustainable future by developing renewable wood-based building solutions and new materials from wood.”
In preparation for its 850-mile journey, FPL researchers tightly and meticulously bundled the mahogany stack in tarps. On February 25th, the lumber stack was loaded on a flatbed and left Madison, WI for the Capitol. It arrived less than a week later.
Upon receipt of the shipment, Architect of the Capitol, J. Brett Blanton stated, “I’m humbled and so appreciative of the support from the United States Forest Service. The mahogany provided by USFS is invaluable and will be used by the Architect of the Capitol to restore historic millwork in our nation’s temple of democracy.”
Traveling through more than a century of time and human tumult, FPL’s mahogany will begin its final transformation this summer. The AOC confirmed that their carpentry shop will start using the wood in early June to replace damaged wood fixtures and the doors that open to our democracy every day.
From a cursory glance, FPL’s legacy mahogany looks like a big pile of dusty boards. But if you were to get close enough, the lumber stack smells like sawdust and the momentous passage of time. Underneath the dust, a vibrancy of warmth and rich russet color seeps through. No matter how much time has passed, this wood is still alive with purpose. FPL is proud to offer the legacy of its past to heal the history of the U.S. Capitol’s present.
To find out more about the extraordinary contributions our researchers are making to the world of wood science, please visit the Forest Products Laboratory at https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/
Contact us about this story or any of our other incredible projects at https://www.fpl.fs.fed.us/news/mediacontacts/index.php
*Photo credit: MARCH 27, 2018, WASHINGTON D.C., U.S. Capitol Building & Reflecting Pool, Sunrise, Washington, D.C., USA – AdobeStock_205292273