But in the past week, Moroni — the 2-ton, 17-foot golden statue on top of the eastern-most spire at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors Center in Kensington — has gained newfound popularity.
That’s because the statue has been getting a makeover of sorts, and the 350-ton crane that has lifted an engineer and gilders some 300 feet into the air has proven to be an interesting sight for Beltway passers-by.
‘‘It’s apparent a lot of people see it just because we heard a bunch of trucks honking as they passed by,” said Eric Miller, the temple engineer. ‘‘I mean, you look up and see a big crane and a bunch of kooks in a man-basket up there.”
Moroni is made out of Italian bronze and covered in gold. It is named for an important figure in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the prophet turned angel who visited Joseph Smith and gave him the message needed to write the Book of Mormon.
Since the temple was built in 1974, 200,000 visitors have come annually to look at its architecture and surrounding landscape, the indoor exhibits that explain the Mormon faith and hear music concerts.
The temple serves as a landmark of sorts for the thousands of Beltway commuters who see its tall spires and Moroni standing high above the trees.
And every 10 years or so, Miller said, the 30-year-old statue needs to be re-gilded, or re-coated with a new layer of gold, but this is the first time a crane has been used, Miller said.
As the temple engineer, Miller oversees all aspects of the project. But it is the six architectural gilders’ from the Olney-based Gilders’ Studio, Inc., that have done the actual re-gilding on Moroni and one of the temple’s gold-covered paneled spires.
‘‘He’s in pretty good condition,” said studio owner Michael Kramer, about the statue. ‘‘But the panels are not in such great shape. We sandblasted them and primed them [before re-gilding them].”
Moroni took about six days for gilders to complete and they are still working to finish nearly 300 panels on the spire.
The process of gilding involves transferring sheets of paper affixed with a thin layer of gold onto a surface.
Kramer orders the gold from a special company in Italy where it is pounded down so thin that ‘‘you would need 250,000 sheets to make it one-inch thick,” he said.
The company affixes the thin gold layers onto special sheets of paper and ships them to Kramer. The sheets, which cost $20 a square foot and are made of 99 percent gold and one-half percent silver and copper, are called gold leaf.
The gilders work in pairs in the man-basket and alternate between applying a glue-like substance onto the statue and adding the gold onto the surface, Kramer said.
The project was originally slated to cost between $1 million and $2 million, but costs escalated after workers discovered it would require more work, Miller said. The project is contracted out of Salt Lake City, and Miller said he did not know how much more it would cost.
In the past the temple contracted workers that climbed the spires and did touch ups on a scaffold.
‘‘It turned out to be difficult and in some ways unsafe,” Miller said.
Which is why the temple opted to use the crane — one of the largest of its kind in the mid-Atlantic region, Miller said. The man-basket stores tools and allows the gilders to get close enough to work on Moroni. Down below, a crane operator, who communicates with the gilders via radio, is responsible for moving the crane.
Working so high in the air is nothing new for Kramer and his team, whose past work has included gilding on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Israel, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta.
‘‘We all respect the heights,” Kramer said. ‘‘You get up there and you’re doing your work. You’re concentrating on doing your work right. Some people aren’t cut out for this job. But you just have to make sure you have all your bases covered when it comes to safety.”
Miller said the equipment, including double harnesses for everyone on board the man-basket, is so safe ‘‘you’d almost have to really try hard to get out.”
‘‘Every morning the crane operator tests the crane itself to make sure it works before it’s fired up,” Miller said. ‘‘And the crane is so massive it’s weighted for so much more than is actually [put] in the basket.”
Moroni and the spires gleam brightly on a sunny day and can be seen from miles away, but don’t be fooled, said gilder Lisa Da Silva, the process of getting them to look that way can be hard work.
Still, Da Silva said, there’s nothing else she’d rather do.
‘‘It’s very quiet, very peaceful [in the air], which is really nice. And when you’re in a big city you can see everything down below,” she said. ‘‘It’s great.”