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It’s Curtains for Congress

House CAO’s Furnishing Division Dresses Up the Hill

Tucked away on the tough-to-find “WA” level of the Rayburn House Office Building is a long hallway that to the uninformed passerby doesn’t look very different from countless other windowless routes that criss-cross beneath Capitol Hill.

But if you listen closely, a soft hum of activity can be heard just beyond the bare metal doors lining the hallway. And if you linger long enough, you might catch a House employee opening the door to a room filled with intricately designed antique furniture or stacked with spools of plush carpets and fabric that come in so many colors the shelves look like enormous boxes of crayons.

If so, you’ll have discovered the small city that is the House Chief Administrative Officer’s furnishing division.

Consisting of about 60 employees and five separate shops that specialize in cabinetry, refinishing, upholstery, carpentry and drapery, the furnishing division is a small but important part of House operations. In recent years, the House has trended toward contracting out more and more of its furnishing work in an effort to watch the bottom line, but the CAO shops and others like it across both sides of Capitol Hill are likely to remain a part of Congressional operations — not just because they pad the chairs, shade the windows and give new life to old furniture, but because they provide highly skilled, on-site services that, if needed, can be called upon any time of the day and night.

“It’s the immediate need that we provide,” said Carol Swan, who serves as the textile foreman for the House of Representatives and head of the CAO’s drapery shop. “You can’t get contractors to just drop everything. They’re in it to make money. I’m in it just to serve the Members.”

[IMGCAP(1)] Having been in the drapery trade for more than 24 years, Swan has worked for others in privately owned drapery businesses and owned such businesses as well. She has participated in three Congressional transitions and is the House’s resident expert when it comes to sizing up fabrics, creating treatments for windows and gingerly guiding Members away from atrocious color choices when they pick new carpets and drapes for their offices.

Today, she’s in charge of some 4,800 windows on the House side, including 1,500 in Member offices.

Swan, a Florida native, said her shop does contract out a lot of its work in order to survive as a four-person staff. In fact, one of Swan’s ongoing contracts is with Ely State Prison in Nevada, where about 25 inmates in the maximum security prison’s drapery manufacturing program put together pre-made drapes for Member offices. By now, Swan estimates, just about every House office has draperies that were produced at Ely.

But some jobs that come up in the “we-needed-it-yesterday” world of Capitol Hill just have to be done in-house.

One example is the lying-in-state ceremony held for former President Ronald Reagan in 2004.

“They hadn’t had a presidential funeral in a while and nobody was really prepared for it,” Swan recalled.

Reagan died on a Saturday, and on Monday it was decided that Swan’s shop would be responsible for preparing the Lincoln catafalque and hanging drapes over the west entrance to the Rotunda and the construction doorway leading to the Capitol Visitor Center.

The problem was that the cover for the catafalque needed quite a bit of repair work and the House didn’t have a supply of black velvet in stock that could be used to make the drapes for the Rotunda.

So as shop staff worked to hand-stich the repairs to the cover and construct a new base for the catafalque, Swan frantically called fabric distributors to find enough black velvet to get the job done. She eventually found a company in California that was willing to ship the reams of fabric overnight.

“It was delivered to my house at 10 or 11 the next morning,” Swan said. “From there it went in the back of my pickup truck and down here. … I was constructing curtains all night for two nights. … But it all came together.”

The drapes she designed were used again this past December during the lying-in-state for former President Gerald Ford.

Of the thousands of designs that Swan has created and overseen since arriving on Capitol Hill, she has several she’s particularly proud of.

One of her first projects after taking over the CAO drapery shop was to “redress” Statuary Hall and replace the drapes that had hung there for more than 30 years. It was a project she eventually completed on Sept. 11, 2001.

She also is quick to mention her recent work to overhaul the carpet and drapes in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing room in the Rayburn House Office Building.

But when asked about her favorite room on Capitol Hill, Swan said it has to be Room 311 in the Cannon Building, which serves as the hearing room for the House Homeland Security Committee. The massive gold window treatments she designed for the room were re-created from photos from the early 1900s that Swan had studied.

“Coming from the private sector I was into making money. That’s not the case here,” she said, referencing her opportunity to work in Capitol Hill’s historic spaces.

She said she enjoys getting to know Members and helping them learn a little about her profession as she works with them to create their office spaces.

“All they have to do is pick their favorite color and, from there, I can usually guide them,” she said.

This past Congressional transition, Swan worked with all the freshman Members and said in her estimation, very few clashing drapery choices were made by the time the process was complete.

She noted that according to established guidelines, an office’s carpet and drapery are supposed to be maintained for five years before a Member can ask to have them changed. Usually, if a Member’s room isn’t eligible, he or she is stuck with whatever choice the previous occupant made.

However, over the years, “on some real bad decisions we’ve had to go in and make some repairs,” she said.

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