Preservation officer shares passion for preserving, protecting US Capitol

Mary Oehrlein, a preservation officer, shares history and ongoing efforts to protect the U.S. Capitol's legacy on Leaders and Legends in Government.

The Architect of the Capitol (AOC) has one mission that can be explained in three words: Serve, preserve and inspire.

On this week’s episode of Leaders and Legends in Government, host Aileen Black spoke with Mary Oehrlein, a historic preservation officer at AOC. Her position centers on serving Congress, preserving about 15 different buildings — including the Capitol, congressional office buildings, Library of Congress buildings and the Supreme Court’s two buildings — and inspiring the people who visit the buildings and those who work in them.

Mary Oehrlein, historic preservation officer, Architect of the Capitol

“It’s really my responsibility to protect what we call culture heritage assets. Most of the world speaks of them as historic resources, but the term that we use is a heritage asset,” Oehrlein said. “And it’s my job to try to keep them, as I say, intact and available for future generations, not for 100 years, but 500 years or longer. It’s important that future generations see the same thing that we see.”

In fact, the U.S. Capitol Building has been under continuous construction since 1793, excluding a gap between 1828 and 1850. Some of that work has even been done in the middle of the night.

“This is a functioning office building. It is where Congress meets nearly every day. Even when they’re not in session, the offices are busy [and] the committee rooms are busy,” she said. “So for us to make noise during the day in construction activities is very disruptive to the business of our country … It’s a bit of a balancing act and it makes our projects a little bit slower and more costly, but it’s important and it needs to happen … [but] we can’t stop the business of Congress”

How did she land her current job? After studying architecture in school and running her own award-winning firm, she said she was just ready to try something different.

On this episode, she also discussed the historical significance of D.C. as the nation’s capital, the competition that ultimately resulted in the Capitol Building’s design and some of her favorite stories regarding the building including violent attacks, myths of potential ghosts in the tunnels and about how different artistic elements ended up there.

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