Capitol Gains: Capitol Renovation Projects Are Bringing These Beloved Symbols of Democracy Back to Life

By Weiss, Suzanne | State Legislatures, July-August 2014 | Go to article overview

Capitol Gains: Capitol Renovation Projects Are Bringing These Beloved Symbols of Democracy Back to Life


Weiss, Suzanne, State Legislatures


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 tern 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. …

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