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Those Daring Engineers On The Arch Do This Kind Of Work All The Time

UPI/Bill Greenblatt

Who ARE those daring engineers who have been rappelling down the north leg of the Gateway Arch to check the condition of the monument’s shiny stainless steel exterior?

Officially, they’re known as the “Difficult Access Team” of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, a Chicago-based firm of engineers, architects and scientists who specialize in assessing and restoring historic buildings and monuments.

“We are building doctors,’’ says Stephen Kelley who is leading the project. “We are doing a diagnosis.”

The team has checked out cracks and crumbles on the Washington Monument and Washington National Cathedral, as well as historic structures around the world. Among them: the Cathedral of Ani in Turkey, the Endless Tower in Romania and the ruins of Qasr al-Bint Temple in Jordan.

The firm began performing a series of structural studies on the 630-foot-tall Arch in 2005. Previous reports found that the monument, which will celebrate its 50th birthday in 2015, is structurally sound. This phase focuses on stains that are visible on the Arch’s exterior. Because the area in question is approximately 425 feet above the ground, the engineers rigged up a system of ropes so they could descend from the hatch at the top of the Arch and then use suction cups to hold themselves in place while they take samples of the stains.

Rain and then high winds kept the engineers off the Arch for most of last week, but they were able to complete preliminary work and expect to wrap up the project once weather conditions improve. Even so, the analysis of their findings won’t be available for several months. Kelley said that while the climbers get lots of attention, the scientists on his team have an equally important role in the lab.

“We have two groups of rock stars,’’ he said. “The first group are the people rappelling down the monument. The second group of rock stars are my scientists.”

Below are pictures of the engineers hanging around the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral to determine damage after a 2011 earthquake in northern Virginia rocked the nation's capital. ADecember 2012 article in Civil Engineering magazine offered a detailed look at that project.

The photo at left is of an engineer checking the National Cathedral. The team at right is on the Washington Monument.
Credit Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates and National Park Service
The photo at left is of an engineer from Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates checking the National Cathedral. The team at right is on the Washington Monument.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.