WEST JORDAN, Utah (AP) — More than a century ago, Robert Baird’s great-great grandfather befriended Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and led his family across the plains with other Mormon pioneers.
A generation ago, Baird’s father was commissioned to restore the 85-foot-tall, 150-foot-wide cast iron sign for Salt Lake City’s ZCMI department store, a task Baird described as the first major cast iron restoration in the country.
Today, Baird is shaping molten metal into ornamentation that will adorn the U.S. Capitol dome by early next year.
It is a job, he said, that he’s “been training for my whole life.”
Baird began working in the foundry at age 16, and he and his brothers inherited Historical Arts and Casting from their father.
The company was founded in 1973 and has worked on pieces for the California statehouse and other clients, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. A cast iron fence is leaning against the factory wall, destined for a Mormon temple under construction in Philadelphia.
Most recently, the Architect of the Capitol commissioned Historical Arts and Casting as a subcontractor. The company is now in the process of churning out more than 100 pieces of cast iron for the Capitol dome’s restoration.
Atop the nation’s Capitol, workers are still assessing the structure’s damaged and missing pieces. Pieces that are not salvageable will be hoisted down and shipped to Utah to be replicated.
The company is producing ornamentation like rosettes and scrolls as well as structural pieces like gutters.
Factory workers also receive some intact pieces that match the broken ones. These are used to create molds before being shipped back to Washington.
“It’s a great job. It’s a prestigious job,” said Steve Brown, the project manager for Historical Arts and Casting.
The company is making an effort to save every scrap of historic material during the process, including melting down the unsalvageable pieces and using the iron in their replacements.
Baird said his foundry is unique because it uses a wide range of skills and trades to manage the process of creating these pieces under one roof. He said it’s the only foundry of its kind in the country.
The dome’s original pieces were made in Baltimore and New York City in the 1850s and 1860s and unloaded in Washington using ox carts and horse carriages, said Joe Abriatis, the construction manager at the Capitol, during a press conference at the foundry Tuesday. By now, some pieces are missing and badly damaged.
As workers began removing layers of paint and inspecting the structure, Abriatis said they noticed intricate details that hadn’t been seen since the dome’s last restoration in the 1960s. He said they have also found the name of the original project’s manager stamped in several places.
When the dome was built, it was popular to use paint impregnated with sand to make the material look like stone, Baird said. That’s why the dome appears from a distance to be limestone.
“The dome is incredibly unique,” said Baird, who explained that his company is incorporating new technology to waterproof and protect the iron.
“With the proper restoration, the dome will survive another 150, 200 years,” he said.
Baird’s foundry works with iron, bronze and aluminum to create specialty pieces like those that will be shipped to Washington.
On Tuesday, tradesmen were working at furnaces and benches to create the heavy iron pieces. The gutters the company is producing weigh more than 300 pounds apiece.
The workers will make molds out of hardened sand, pour the fiery liquid metal into casts and later remove a black, smoking product. Afterward, the piece is sprayed with a coating to prevent rusting, which can happen almost immediately in certain conditions.
Devin Rockne has been a part of this process for 21 years. On Tuesday, he manned the furnace and poured molten metal from a crucible while wrapped in aluminum, fire-resistant coat.
“It’s kind of like being cooked in a tin foil dinner,” said Rockne, who admitted that his job can get “a little warm.”
He said it is “cool” to be working on material for the Capitol dome.
But in the end, Rockne said, “casting is casting” to him — no matter the product’s final destination.
(Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)