Monday, December 19, 2011

The Sword of Damocles, or Giving Toppled Themis Her Due.

November 18, 1882, The Sun, Page 2, Column 2, Will the Roof of the Assembly Chamber Tumble on the Assembly?

The architects of the Capitol at Albany have replied to the report of Gov. CORNELL'S expert Commission as to the question whether the vaulted ceiling of the Assembly Chamber ought to be taken down. There is no conclusive agreement of professional opinion in regard to the stability of the roof, nor is there likely to be such an agreement. The public must draw its own conclusions from the facts as it gets them.

The point of immediate interest is whether the Assembly can safely use the Chamber at the coming session. Is the vaulted ceiling likely to go to pieces "all at once and nothing first," like a soap bubble or the deacon's wonderful one-hoss shay? [a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes] There is a vague apprehension to this effect. Some of the gentlemen whom Gov. CORNELL has consulted on the subject evidently fear that the ceiling may tumble in without warning, covering the floor with flattened legislators. Harper's Weekly observes that the Assembly is not likely to sit next winter in a room with a stone roof which may fall upon it "at any moment." Probably not. That would be adding unnecssary solemnity to the responsibilities of office.

But this apprehension of a sudden collapse of the structure is sheer absurdity. The vault could give way only through a failure in itself, a failure in its abuttments, or a failure in its supports. Let us look briefly at the three possibilities in turn, to see whether common sense affords the members of the Assembly any ground for expecting a catastrophe next winter.

If the vaulted ceiling itself gave way, it would be because it was defective either in material or in form. Sandstone is the material of which this ceiling is constructed. The present Capitol Commissioners, we believe, make a mistake of not using sandstone in their work, but the fact remains that the great and lasting achievements of architecture, from Karnak to Cologne, are in sandstone. The Governor's Commision have tested the sandstone used in the Capitol. It is found to be "not uniform in quality or strength." But if it has been found that any particular piece of sandstone is not of the quality or strength required by the particular work assigned to it, the fact is not reported. Nor is it shown that the central vault is improperly constructed as to form. There is abundant evidence to the contrary. The side vaults, those over the walls on which Mr. HUNT'S paintings need some attentions: but the Commission agree that the defect in their construction can be readily remedied. As far as the vault itself is concerned, the ceiling is all right. There is no danger that it will suddenly tumble of its own accord.

Will it fall through any fault in the abuttments? The immense weight of the vaulted roof tends to spread or crush the walls and piers supporting it. The Governor's Commission criticizes the system of half arches and iron rods by which the lateral pressure of the vault is resisted; and as an original proposition there is much force in their criticism. They do not, however, express any fear, or intimate that there is the slightest reason for fearing, that the system will suddenly give way through the failure of the abutments. The Commission have discovered no indications of such an event; and the indications would be unmistakable were it impending.

The remaining source of danger is in the unequal settlement of the foundations. Here there is always danger when a huge mass of masonry is based upon anything but solid rock. The Capitol at Albany is built upon a bed of wet clay. The Commission report that the inequality of settlement has not as yet gone far enough to "imperil the safety of the structure." On the contrary, they find evidence that the settlement of the foundations has ceased, at least for the present. Since a year ago there has been no change perceptible by instruments.

The Commission are of the opinion that the foundations of the Capitol may yield when the bed of wet clay is finally dried out. But that remote possibility, depending upon a gradual geological process, affects not only the roof of the Assembly Chamber, but also the whole Capitol, and the whole town of Albany. If this possibility furnishes sufficient reason for taking down the vaulted roof of the Assembly Chamber, it affords equally good reason for taking down the entire Capitol, and, indeed, for removing Albany itself to some other and securer site. Nobody imagines that the foundations are going to dive suddenly into the clay after remaining motionless for a year. Even it they are sinking gradually and sinking unequally, the legislators will have plenty of warning—they will have weeks and months, and probably years, in which to escape from underneath the falling roof. They need not be alarmed now. From all that has appeared thus far in the technical discussion about the vaulted roof, there is no more reason to believe that it will collapse suddenly than there is to expect that it will violently explode. Whatever may be the verdict of remote times in regard to the stability of the roof, there is no immediate danger of its coming down on the heads of the legislators. It would be folly for them to abandon the Chamber in a panic. And it would be a grotesque piece of folly for them to leave it and occupy, as is proposed, the room directly underneath, where they would be in precisely the same, danger, if there was any danger.

It was a great mistake to build the Capitol where it stands. The vast structure is in several respects a monument of costly blundering. Jobs, changes of plan, professional jealousies, artistic inconsistency, and practical uncertainty have combined to give it a most unfortunate character. It ought to represent the best art of the age; it is, in fact, an architectural hybrid, like the TWEED Court House, with its remarkable addition. It ought to stand as solid as the Pyramid of Cheops; architects and builders are debating whether the roof will tumble in, and how soon the foundations will sink into the bowels of the earth. There is nothing assured and irrefutable about the new Capitol except the fact that it has cost the people of the State an enormous sum of money. It would be a gain every way if the undertaking were abandoned even now, and the seat of government transferred to this city, where it properly belongs.

The panic about the roof of the Assembly Chamber gives new force to these truths. So far as the safety of the Assemblymen this winter is concerned, however, the alarm is unnecessary.

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