CHARLESTON – Famed architect Cass Gilbert used marble at the West Virginia Capitol building for the same reason the ancient Greeks used it at the Parthenon. They wanted durable, polished floors that would retain their shine with minimum upkeep.
The Capitol’s marble has lost some its luster, however.
Steve Canterbury, administrator for the state Supreme Court, says years of waxing the floors have dulled the marble’s sheen. The marble underneath is fine, but the wax becomes scuffed and scratched almost as soon as workers buff it.
“It makes it look awful,” he said, looking at the floors outside the Supreme Court’s chambers. “All these scratches, that’s all in the wax.”
The Greeks, Canterbury said, cleaned their floors with mild detergents and were able to keep their temples and theaters shining bright.
“They didn’t have linoleum wax,” he said. “This could have the same glean.”
Canterbury is also a member of the Capitol Building Commission, a board set up under the states Division of Culture and History, charged with overseeing any changes to the state Capitol grounds.
He would like to see the state strip the wax from the Capitol floors and have them re-polished. He figures it would save money in the long run, since workers would not have to constantly wax and rebuff the floors. The finish also would last longer.
“Once you do this, it’s done for 30, 40 years,” he said.
The state Supreme Court recently had the wax scraped from the marble floors in the court clerk’s office.
The floors were repolished and are now treated with a mild soap whenever they need cleaning. Just outside the door, the floors are still covered in wax. The difference between the surfaces is astounding.
Anna Tatman, president of the Rosa Mosaic and Tile Co. in Louisville, Ky., agreed.
“Marble doesn’t need to be waxed,” she said. “Unfortunately people think they’re doing something protective when they wax the floors.”
The wax doesn’t harm the floors. It just doesn’t allow marble to show off its celebrated shine.
“It’s not that waxing is bad for a marble floor. It just puts a coating on the top of the marble,” she said.
Marble floors are polished before they’re installed. Tatman said that polish will hold up for many years with minimum upkeep: a daily sweeping and the occasional mopping with a gentle detergent.
A waxed floor, meanwhile, can quickly become scuffed. That requires workers to buff the floors and, eventually, put down more wax.
“It adds a maintenance cost that doesn’t need to be there,” Tatman said.
And the chemicals often used to remove wax are harmful to marble floors.
Even an alcohol-based cleaner can damage the surface so badly it must be re-polished.
“You can’t get wax off without a caustic stripper. Over time, those strippers will cause the marble to pit,” she said.
Water also should never be used to clean marble because the liquids seep into its porous surface. Tatman said the occasional drop of water won’t hurt anything, but standing water can ruin a marble floor.
“It actually breaks down the surface of the marble,” she said.
There are currently no plans to change the way the state cares for its marble floors, however.
The state General Services Division oversees cleaning and maintenance work at the Capitol. Spokeswoman Diane Holley Brown said General Services does thorough research to make sure its maintenance and cleaning methods are safe and efficient.
Waxing, she said, abides by the Marble Institute of America’s guidelines and is a common practice throughout the United States and Europe, including at the Kentucky, Tennessee and Minnesota state capitols and monuments on the National Mall.
“The waxing of the marble floor surface provides a barrier to dirt, salt and other acidic solutions,” she said. “Several historic state capitols in the region wax their marble floors as a part of the routine care and maintenance.”
Brown said the Capitol floors have been waxed for more than 40 years. It also receives a “deep scrub” and refinishing every two or three years.