WASHINGTON -- If you've walked through Union Station's usually majestic Main Hall recently, there's no ignoring the jarring scaffolding that lines the walls or the expansive net capping its dizzying 95-foot-tall ceiling. They're lingering reminders of August's 5.8-magnitude earthquake, which warped the ceiling's plaster enough to dislodge chunks of it. In October, a piece of plaster hit a restaurant worker in the Main Hall.
Union Station officials decided not to risk it happening again and quickly launched a year-long effort to repair damaged areas. They enlisted the help of Universal Builders Supply Inc. to build the scaffolds, which restoration artisans will use to reach the Main Hall's soaring arches.
Universal Builders isn't a exactly a household name, but the New York City-based company has been behind more than a few high-profile projects. Among them, scaffolding at the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Gallery of Art and New York City's Grand Central Terminal. But its main claim to fame dates back to 1983, when for three years the company constructed a 320-foot scaffold to help workers clean the Statue of Liberty.
For that project, Universal Builders developed and patented a special type of scaffolding it calls "set-back structures," which are now being installed in Union Station.
"A lot of people refer to this as a scaffold -- it's really not a scaffold," said Universal Builders vice president Mark Tsirigos. Rather, it's a series of high-capacity aluminum structures that allow for the tying of hoists -- devices used for lifting or lowering a load -- to the building and provide runways -- a kind of walkway -- from the hoist to the building. Normal scaffolds aren't strong enough to accommodate such large projects.
"Its real first use as a scaffold was probably the Statue of Liberty, where we couldn't tie to the cladding because they were redoing the statue. It had to free-stand, which put us in the Guinness Book of World Records for the tallest free-standing scaffold structure."
For each of its projects, the company builds a unique structure that suits a site's individual needs. For Union Station, the 160,000-pound system is designed to tackle the Main Hall one rib, or about 20 percent of the hall, at a time. The scaffold includes a moveable deck that will slide on rails as the restoration progresses. Other structures will also facilitate repairs in the station's concourse area.
The design allows business to continue as usual -- restaurants and shops will remain open with little inconvenience to the estimated 100,000 people who use the station daily.
Although few would call the earthquake a good thing, it's certainly proven an economic boon to Universal Builders, which is also handling repairs at other earthquake-damaged D.C. landmarks, including the Washington Monument and the Washington National Cathedral.
But it's not as if there were a lot of competing firms. "It is a unique market," said Tsirigos.