By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The rebuilt cast-iron dome of the U.S. Capitol, a soaring symbol of national unity since the 19th century, was formally completed on Tuesday after a $60 million overhaul that included repairing more than 1,300 cracks and weak spots.
The project was the first complete rehabilitation of the 288-foot-tall (88-meter-tall) Civil War-era dome since 1960. It was finished in time for the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump on Jan. 20.
"It is the symbol of American democracy and a beacon of hope around the world, and we delivered," Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers said at a news conference.
The 150-year-old structure tops the home of the U.S. Congress and can be seen throughout the capital. The Capitol is a major tourist site, drawing thousands of visitors daily.
When work began in January 2014, the dome was suffering from water leaks, cracks and corrosion so bad that rain gutters were clogged with rust chips, Ayers said.
Up to 13 layers of lead-based paint were removed and 666 feet (203 m) of cracks were repaired. The structure is believed to be the biggest cast-iron dome in the world, he said.
During a tour of the refinished dome's interior, construction inspector Tom Nowell clambered up steep stairways to point out improvements, such as a new lighting system, walkways, new glazing and netting for access to hard-to-reach spots.
Underscoring the detail of the revamp, he said the replacement of a single ornamental leaf required the casting and fitting of seven separate parts.
The corroded exterior balustrade was taken apart and shipped to a Utah workshop for repair, and the scrap pieces were melted down to be reused in the new structure, Nowell said.
Far below the balustrade, workmen were hammering together the stands for the inauguration while hundreds of students marched against Trump near the Capitol chanting, "Love trumps hate."
Nowell said signs of the original construction turned up during the work. Pieces of iron were stamped with the name of supervising engineer Montgomery Meigs, a crowbar from the era was found in a hollow column, and the name of Al Ports, a rigger and painter, was found written in plaster, dated 1875.
Repainting required 1,215 gallons (4,600 liters) of paint, with the top of three coats in the color "Dome White."
The dome was completed during the 1861-65 Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln viewed its construction as a symbol of national endurance.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Frances Kerry and Cynthia Osterman)