The Christman Co. is up to its dome in presidential history these days, and it’s about to make some more.

The Lansing-based design-and-build juggernaut recently finished high-profile restorations of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia State Capitol in Richmond and Abraham Lincoln’s summer retreat in Washington and has a dozen more historic projects on its national docket.

The Christman people are happy to tell you about these classy jobs, but they clam up fast when you ask about the most high-profile presidential project of all: the 2009 inaugural platform at the west front of the Capitol.

Two billion people will see the thing on Jan. 20, but try asking Christman’s Ron Staley what it’s made of.

“I can’t tell you that,” Staley said.

Staley is a senior vice president in charge of the company’s historic restoration group and its mid-Atlantic operations, based in Alexandria, Va.

As a history buff, Staley is well aware of his company’s momentous charge, but the Joint Congressional Committee on Presidential Inaugurations awarded Christman the job on the condition that it wouldn’t promote its role in the inaugural drama.

However, for the record, here’s what the Lansing home team has wrought: a stadium-style platform covering more than 10,000 square feet. (And it’s made of wood, with metal support poles.) That equals the size of 2005’s inaugural platform, the largest in American history.

The stands will hold more than 1,600 people, including the ingoing and outgoing presidents and vice presidents and their families, members of the House and Senate, Supreme Court justices, former presidents, governors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, diplomats, and probably a singing fat lady or two.

No pressure there, right?

“The biggest challenge was, being late was not an option,” Staley said tersely.

The whole shebang had to spring up between late September 2008 and Jan. 2, 2009, and must disappear without a trace five weeks after Inauguration Day. And it has to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To get the job done on deadline, the 13 employees at Christman’s Alexandria office called home for reinforcements.

“We brought in several supervisors and craftspeople from Michigan,” Staley said. “They spent the period from Thanksgiving to Christmas to help us detail it out.”

The project began in earnest when Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California drove in the ceremonial first nail Sept. 24, 2007.

When it came to hammering the next million or so nails, the most Staley will say is that handling the project “is a great feeling for our staff.”

It’s not hard to guess how Staley feels about building the inaugural stand. He speaks reverently of the Lincoln Cottage, a 10,000-square-foot residence about three miles east of the White House, which Christman restored in 2007.

“You walk in this house, you feel Lincoln,” Staley said. “The floors he walked on are still there, the walls are the same. There’s more historic fabric than there is in the White House, which was gutted in the 1950s.”

Staley called the cottage “Lincoln’s version of Camp David.”

“He used to commute back and forth from the White House on horseback,” Staley said. “There was more privacy there, and it’s about 300 feet higher elevation — more breezes, less humid.”

Lincoln worked on the Emancipation Proclamation at the cottage. The first dead of the Civil War, from the battle of Bull Run, were buried right next door. (Arlington Cemetery wasn’t yet laid out.)

Staley said the experience gained in restoring Michigan’s Capitol helped Christman do the same for Virginia’s Capitol in Richmond, designed by Thomas Jefferson in 1785 and restored in 2007.

Close by the Virginia Capitol, Christman is restoring the 1928 Lowes Atmospheric Theatre, a magnificent movie palace designed by John Eberson, as part of a $58 million downtown development project.

Eberson also designed the Michigan Theatre in downtown Lansing, now visible from Grand Avenue only as a fragment of an oddly terraced shell.

“Richmond kept theirs,” Staley said. “They didn’t turn it into the backside of a parking lot.”

Just around the corner from the White House, Christman is fitting the capital’s largest — and leakiest — private art gallery, the Corcoran Gallery, with a huge, $10 million skylight roof. Elsewhere in Washington, Christman is working on rehabs of the Lafayette Park Lodge in President’s Park and the Daughters of the American Revolution’s enormous Constitution Hall, the city’s largest concert hall.

“The dome in there is second only to Michigan’s State Capitol,” Staley said. “That’s my Michigan pride.”

When working on the inaugural platform or any other Washington project, Staley and his staff have to adjust to heightened security. On Friday, Jan. 16, construction operations were to be suspended in Washington until after the inauguration.
Security concerns lead to similar shutdowns now and then, but Staley has learned to go with the flow.

“We don’t have that problem in Lansing,” he said.

— Lawrence Cosentino

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