Capitol renovation projects are bringing these beloved symbols of democracy back to life.
By Suzanne Weiss
Corroded pipes, leaky roofs, antiquated electrical systems, moldy basements, crumbling masonry, rotting woodwork, peeling paint, drafty windows, cracked plaster walls. From subterranean chambers all the way up to the top of gold-leaf domes, signs of dilapidation abound at the nation’s 50 statehouses, which are among the oldest, grandest and most beloved buildings in America.
Today, 33 state capitols are at least 100 years old—and, of those, 10 are well into their second century. The other 17 statehouses were built between World War I and 1977. In any given year, capitol restoration and renovation projects are under way in at least four or five states—but they vary widely in terms of scope, purpose and cost.
Colorado recently completed a major rehabilitation of its statehouse dome—including covering it with a fresh layer of 24-karat gold leaf—at a cost of $17 million. The dome had been closed since 2006, when a chunk of cast iron crashed on the observation deck where school children, families and tourists flock for a spectacular view of Denver and the Rocky Mountains.
And last year, the renovated west wing of the Illinois Capitol reopened, with features ranging from new heating, air conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems, to freshly decorated corridors and stairwells, to newly exposed and repaired brick arches in the building’s catacomb-like basement. The project cost $51 million.
Oklahoma spent $5 million last year to renovate the House and Senate chambers in the Capitol. Other noteworthy undertakings in the past several years are the full-scale renovations of state capitols in Virginia, ($105 million, completed in 2007), Utah ($220 million, completed in 2008) and Kansas ($332 million, completed in 2013). Similar projects have just begun in Minnesota ($241 million), Wyoming ($225 million) and Oregon ($295 million).
Costly basement-to-dome renovations—which often involve vacating all or part of the capitol for some period of time—are nothing new. The capitols of South Dakota, Wisconsin and Texas, for example, all underwent extensive modernization and preservation in the 1970s and 1980s. Michigan took three years to renovate its 1879 capitol, reopening it in 1992 and joining 15 other states whose capitols have been designated as National Historic Landmarks. (Another 24 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) The New York capitol restoration project, started in 2000, was slated to take 14 years, but Governor Cuomo accelerated the project, completing it 18 months early and at least $2 million under budget.
Capital for Capitols
The expense and logistics of such projects have always been, and continue to be, a major challenge for states—which is why they typically are undertaken only after years of discussion, debate and delay, says architect David Hart, who oversaw the four-year makeover of the Utah Capitol and will serve as program manager of the Minnesota renovation.
“There’s a tendency on the part of state officials to work around the restoration issue as long as they can,” says Hart. “But these buildings are just tired and worn-out after 100 years, and the maintenance people can’t stay ahead of the deterioration curve.”
In Minnesota, the need for a comprehensive capitol preservation effort was identified in the early 1980s, and over the years various plans were drafted, discussed and ultimately shelved, says Senator Ann Rest (DFL). Rest, who has served in the Minnesota Legislature for 28 years and is currently president pro tem of the Senate, was among a group of legislative leaders who joined forces with then-newly elected Governor Mark Dayton in 2011 to secure funding for repairs and remodeling.
“The hardest thing was to get a commitment to do what we needed to do all at once, rather than keep applying Band-Aids,” Rest says. “I think finally it was clear that we had reached a tipping point. “
Although some states opt to fund full or partial renovations on a pay-as-you-go basis, other states, like Minnesota, have decided to pay for the projects by issuing general obligation bonds.
Over the next three years, the 104-year-old Capitol in St. Paul—designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert—will undergo a total facelift, inside and out. The weathered granite exterior will be repaired, cleaned and resealed. New plumbing, electrical, mechanical and fire-suppression systems will be installed. Furniture, frescoes, murals, lighting fixtures, elevators and rest rooms will be refurbished, and the Capitol grounds will be re-landscaped. The project also will include the addition of a visitors’ center, expanded underground parking and construction of a new, $70 million Capitol office building to serve as “swing space” or temporary offices for legislators and other occupants of the Capitol once it is vacated in spring 2015.
Exactly who will move back into the Minnesota Capitol in early 2017 and who will remain in the new building was a major point of contention that threatened to derail the entire project, Rest says. Legislators, various state officials and their staffs have long fought over allocation of space in the Capitol, which will actually decrease in net usable square footage as a result of the renovation.
“The internal politics really held us back, but we eventually worked it out,” Rest says. “Now we are moving ahead with a project that will add another 100 years to the life of our beautiful Capitol and also give us the room we need.”
Similarly, Utah’s statehouse renovation project, completed in 2008, involved construction of a pair of three-story office buildings that architect Hart says not only provided cost-efficient swing space, but also made the Capitol complex more beautiful and functional.
“We didn’t want anything to detract from the Capitol, so these two buildings have a very similar look and feel,” says Hart. “And the way they are situated actually completes the quadrangle that the original architect, Richard Kletting, envisioned back in 1916.” The entire Utah Capitol’s renovation took just four years and came in about $5 million under budget.
Wing by Wing
Kansas took a different approach to its bottom-to-top rehabilitation of the statehouse. The project took more than 13 years because the work was sequenced, wing by wing, so only a portion of the building’s occupants had to be relocated at any one time—and not to swing space, but to other wings. Disruption of legislative business was minimized by curtailing work crews’ activities during session.
The Kansas project was fraught with difficulties and additional delays, however. For a variety of reasons, what was originally envisioned in 1999 as a $120 million modernization ballooned into a full-scale, $332 million makeover. Repairs to the limestone exterior were estimated at $10 million, but jumped to $33 million when it was discovered that some of the stones crumble easily. And, rather than require various relatively minor repairs, the project managers decided the building’s copper dome and roof would be the top priority because both were in need of total replacement. The costs rose even further when the original renovation plan was amended to include a 550-space underground parking garage, a new visitors’ center and dining room, better landscaping and more extensive interior restoration.
Remodels in the 1960s and 1970s typically chopped up large spaces to make more work spaces. This results in restorations today typically producing less usable square footage. Not so in Kansas, however. Its Capitol renovation project produced quite a bit more useful space, from 365,000 square feet to nearly 500,000. Barry Greis, who, as statehouse architect, was involved in the project from start to finish, says the new space was gained primarily by putting mechanical and electrical systems in underground vaults, which made the building’s basement available for other uses. “There were varying degrees of difficulty throughout the project,” he says, “but legislators found a way to continue. Legislative leaders deserve all the credit for keeping things moving.”
Strong and steady bipartisan support is an essential ingredient of successful renovation/restoration efforts, Hart says. “These are very large, very complicated and politically messy projects—and they cross over every aspect of government,” he says. “It can quickly become daunting, and you’re constantly running into something you weren’t prepared for.”
Two major takeaways from his experience on the Utah project, Hart says, are “first, to try to keep the politics out of it as much as possible and, second, to make sure that the legislature controls the funding sequence, so they feel confident—and there are no hiccups.”
“To promote a greater level of collaboration,” Hart recommends creating a board or commission to oversee such projects. Senator John Valentine (R), a 25-year veteran of the Utah Legislature who was a driving force behind the statehouse rehabilitation, says he and other legislative leaders built “robust support” for the project by meeting, early on, with editorial boards and business leaders and sponsoring a coordinated public information effort.
The only major bump in the road, says Valentine, was organized opposition to several components of the project, primarily the expansion of underground parking. “These were social activist groups who objected to the state spending money, as they put it, so rich people could enjoy the Capitol, rather than spending that money on the needy,” Valentine says.
To overcome the opposition, legislators decided to remove the state sales tax on food as part of a tax-reform package that also replaced the three-tier income tax with a flat 5 percent tax rate. The income tax change made up for the loss of the sales tax on food, which generated about $280 million a year in revenues, according to Valentine.
Whose House is it?
The political will to carry out modernization and preservation projects is often undermined when “legislators worry that they are going to be seen as improving their digs—something that’s just for their own benefit,” Hart says. “But they should keep in mind that the public cares tremendously about these buildings. They have pride in them as symbols of their state’s history, their government and their democracy.”
Minnesota’s Senator Rest agrees, pointing out that “state capitols play a very different role in the lives of the public today” than in the past. “Every year, we have thousands and thousands of people who come to the Capitol—school kids, tourists, people with disabilities, citizens who want to attend and testify at hearings. So our goals were not only to restore the grandeur of the building, but also to make the building much more accessible to the public and much more functional,” she says.
“The Capitol is not a museum. It is where government does its work.”
Suzanne Weiss is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to State Legislatures magazine.
The Copper Conundrum
The Kansas State House is one of nine state capitols with a copper dome. But when years of hail damage caused it to leak, it became part of the state’s ambitious renovation project.
What does a state do with so much green, cast-off metal, oxidized after decades atop the more than 100-year-old dome? Some of it was donated to the Kansas Historical Society, which had a group of local artists make jewelry from it to sell in the capitol gift shop. Betty Marable says she makes around 200 pieces of jewelry a month but struggles to keep up with demand.
“The popularity has just been more than I ever expected,” Artist Kristen Haug told a local news channel. “It’s really cool to be able to repurpose something that otherwise might be scrapped. And I thought it was a great idea to have a piece of history that people could purchase to help remind them of their experience at the capitol.”
Maine, also renovating its dome, has floated similar ideas, but has yet to decide the fate of its copper. Most of it will be auctioned off to help pay for the project, bringing in around $15,000.
Lawmakers will let the facilities committee decide what to do with the rest of it, however. Committee members may very well decide that wearing a little of the state capitol makes sense in Maine, too. — Jack Queen
It Takes a Team
Full-scale state capitol makeovers are enormously complex undertakings that require collective skills of architects, engineers, construction managers and craftsmen ranging from stonemasons to plasterers to wood finishers.
Consider, for example, the four-year Utah Capitol project, the most challenging element of which was a “seismic retrofit” designed to improve the building’s capacity to withstand earthquake damage. It involved “essentially disconnecting the building from the ground by digging beneath it, and installing 260 rubber cushions, or isolators, that allow the building to move as the ground moves, dampening the force of a quake,” says Project Manager David Hart. Then, the Capitol’s 310,000-square-foot interior was gutted, a new steel skeleton was installed, and the stage was set for “putting the building back together,” as Utah Senator John Valentine puts it.
A number of rooms that had been divided into smaller rooms over the years were restored to their original size and others, like the Senate chamber, were enlarged. More than 500 aluminum-trimmed windows, installed in the early 1960s, were replaced with mahogany-framed, energy-efficient windows. Throughout the building, walls were replastered and repainted in their original colors. New carpets, closely matching the 1916 originals, were laid. Furniture, lighting fixtures, woodwork and other ornamentation underwent extensive restoration. New heating, cooling, plumbing, electrical and fire-suppression systems were installed.
In addition, the building’s exterior granite walls were cleaned and repaired, and the dome’s badly deteriorated stucco and plaster were replaced with terra cotta. A pair of three-story annexes were built and connected to the Capitol by an underground tunnel, along with a new central plant and two underground parking structures. Finally, extensive work was done throughout the grounds of the Capitol, which include a central plaza and fountain; a circular walkway rimmed with 433 Yoshino cherry trees; and a collection of monuments, plaques and statues.
It should come as no surprise then, that, in Utah as in other states that have undertaken extensive capitol renovations, several challenges arose involving labor and materials.
“We found that we needed a lot of specialized trades people—decorative painters, wood finishers, locksmiths,” Hart recalls. “All of the walls in the building had to be finished in plaster, so we ended up flying in more than three dozen plasterers from California and other states to add to the 35 local people we hired.”
One particularly vexing problem involved the need for more onyx—a specific, honey-colored onyx. “We were creating a new entryway that had to match,” Hart says. The original onyx came from the desert in western Utah, but that source no longer was available, forcing the restorers to look elsewhere. Their search ended in Afghanistan, where they found the honey-colored onyx still is being mined. Hart and team had the stone shipped to Verona, Italy, where it was cut and shaped to order, all under the watchful eye of Hart, who was on hand to make sure the job was done correctly.
George Skarmeas, an architect who has worked on capitol renovation projects in several states, says that kind of attention to detail and respect for a building’s history is a hallmark of high-quality historic preservation. “We like to think of ourselves as the voice of the building.”
Several of the oldest state capitols, dating to the late 1700s, have been converted into museums, but three of them—in Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts—have been in continuous use since they were built. At the other end of the spectrum are a handful of statehouses built in the 1930s (Delaware, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oregon, West Virginia), the 1960s (Hawaii, New Mexico) and the 1970s (Florida).
The large majority of capitols, however, were constructed between 1850 and World War I, when the most popular architectural styles were Italian, French and Gothic Revival, with a smattering of Georgian, Greek Revival, Romanesque and Beaux Arts.
What most state capitols have in common, says George Skarmeas, an architect who specializes in historic preservation, is that they are “monumental, elegant, with a grand entrance to a rotunda several stories high, and capped by a dome.”
Skarmeas and his team at Philadelphia-based Preservation Design Partnership have worked on restoration projects ranging from the U.S. Supreme Court building, Independence Hall and the Lincoln Presidential Cottage, to statehouses in Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
In terms of architectural style, state capitols built during the Great Depression and post-World War II reflect a strong break from tradition. Four of them are skyscrapers: the Florida Capitol , a 22-story, flat-roofed tower in the International Style; the Louisiana Capitol, a 34-story, Art Deco-style tower topped with a multi-tiered cupola; the Nebraska Capitol , a 15-story Art Deco-style tower rising from a three-story base and crowned by a gold-tiled dome; and North Dakota , a flat-topped 20-story tower adjoining a three-story legislative wing, that combines Art Deco and International Style influences.
Other distinctive capitols include Oregon’s, an Art Deco-style structure built in 1938, which has a tall, central focal point over the main entrance. It has no round columns and no portico, but contains a variety of angles and geometric shapes and is crowned by a ribbed, flat-topped drum tower that conceals an interior dome. The building has been described as “a combination of Egyptian simplicity and Greek refinement.”
The New Mexico Capitol was designed along the lines of a kiva, a round ceremonial chamber of the Pueblo people. The Roundhouse, as it’s called, has no dome or cupola and is only 52 feet tall. Viewed from above, the structure is shaped like the sun symbol of the Zia, another indigenous tribe. The building was completed in 1966.
The Hawaii Capitol , built in 1969, is a flat-topped, International Style pavilion surrounded by a reflecting pool, like an island in the ocean. The columns around the circumference of the building take the shape of coconut palm trees. Like many Hawaiian buildings, there are no real doorways from the outside—just breezeways leading to a central courtyard that is open to the sky.
One thing all capitols have in common, however, is that, in building their capitols, “leaders were trying to make a statement,” Skarmeas says.
“These buildings were meant to celebrate the distinctive heritage of the state.”