Whenever Florian Thayn wanders through the U.S. Capitol and looks at a support column, a stone in the floor or a piece of furniture - she sees fascinating stories lurking behind them waiting to be coaxed out.
The one-time Utahn has been a historian for the Architect of the Capitol for 24 years, digging out the tales behind the surroundings. Old-timers say no one knows more about the building than she does, and no one has been researching it longer.As Thayn sits in the "crypt," a circular first-floor room directly beneath the floor of the rotunda, she enthusiastically tells how it was originally designed to be the crypt of George and Martha Washington - but their bodies were taken to Mount Vernon, Va., instead.
She looks at the floor stones and can recite what quarries they came from and how their different colors suggest what years they were mined. She points out how the stone in the center of the floor has been worn down by tourists wanting to stand in the exact center of the Capitol.
She knows all the Capitol's ghost stories and popular legends - and even knows which ones are probably true. And she tells about methods she's used to solve some of the Capitol's riddles that would rival some of the best detective novels.
Her job - officially called an arts and reference specialist - is far from anything she imagined when she left her native Idaho to study American genealogical research at BYU and the University of Utah. But genealogy research skills landed her the job and have helped her unravel many a mystery since.
The Capitol architect 24 years ago needed a researcher to help find details necessary to restore the old Supreme Court and Senate chambers. A woman in the office happened to be a member of the LDS Church, knew Thayn because of that connection and knew of the genealogy skills she used to trace her family tree and of her familiarity with the National Archives.
She told Thayn about the research job, and Thayn decided to take it. She was living in Washington because her late husband was an aide to an Idaho congressman. Her time was becoming more free because her youngest child was then in high school.
"They hired me temporarily for a three-month project. I'm still working here 24 years later. I guess I'm the typical government temporary."
Her first jobs were challenging _ restoring the old Supreme Court and Senate chambers, even though no one any longer had any idea what they looked like or what type of furniture and decorations they had contained.
"I had some beginner's luck," she said. "Everyone said don't look in such and such a book for floor plans because they already had checked it" _ much like stories that genealogists often hear about how family records were burned in a church fire so no more tracing of the family line is possible.
But just as experienced genealogists don't take such stories at face value, neither did Thayn. "I found another copy of the book. It had the floor plan that had been removed from other copies. By luck I found the only existing floor plan of the old Supreme Court," she said.
The next problem was deciding exactly what type of furniture had been inside. She resorted to her old genealogy background again to figure it out.
She started tracing who the descendants of early Supreme Court justices were and wrote them asking about the furniture. Some of the descendants happened to inherit many of the original desks and chairs and decided to donate them for the proj-ect.
The next problem was figuring out what decorations had been in the room, such as the color of carpet and the type of woodwork used. She remembered once seeing a portrait of an old Supreme Court justice. She found it was painted after he died, but the artist had gone back to the chambers to paint it. He included the color of carpet and much of the woodwork in the background.
Similar methodical research and Thayn's skeptical nature have helped solve other mysteries.
"I remember I always wondered about a narrow, curved desk in the Senate chamber that everyone called the Jefferson desk. It didn't make sense to me that Thomas Jefferson would have used it, even though he was the vice president _ because everything from that period was burned.
"One day we crawled under the desk with a flashlight and found the words `Jefferson Davis' carved in. Like a lot of family history stories, the name Jefferson desk was part right and part wrong, part fact and part legend," she said.
She has answers about often-asked-about trivia and legends about the Capitol.
"The most commonly asked question here is what is the statue on top of the Capitol. Because of the eagle headdress and loose gown the statue is wearing, the cab drivers like to tell people that it is a pregnant Indian about to give birth to the new nation. But it is a statue of Freedom."
Many tourists ask why the Senate provides snuff for its members in ornate boxes. She said the tradition started more than 100 years ago when one of the former vice presidents was an avid snuff user and tobacco chewer.
"The other senators kept stealing his snuff. So he ordered that the Senate keep two boxes of it full for the use of members. Someone must still be using it, because they keep filling the boxes."
What about the ghost stories? She can recite them, even though she personally thinks most of them result from people who may have been drinking a bit much.
The most prevalent story is about a demon cat that appears in the Capitol halls on the eve of a national disaster or when a different party is about to come to power. She said the cat appears to grow larger and larger the closer it comes but explodes and vanishes.
"Others say that John Quincy Adams comes back from time to time. He was the only man elected to the House of Representatives after being president. He died there when he was giving an impassioned speech. They say he comes back to finish the speech, which was about the Mexican War," she said.
The old House chamber where Adams died is now called Statuary Hall, and houses statues of famous people sent by the various states. "Some say on New Year's Eve and other times, the statues get down off their pedestals and dance around. I would imagine it is much more fun for them since six women are now among the statues," she said.
Thayn said she has never personally seen a ghost in the Capitol, but maybe that's because she goes home too early at night.
Still, she says the Capitol is a bewitching place. "It's easy to get Capitol Hill fever. Many people find it an exciting place to work or visit. I still get excited coming here every day."