Old Capitols in the New Century
Goodsell, Charles T., State Legislatures
Preserving the special histories of our temples of democracy while equipping them for modern uses becomes quite the challenge.
Every state has a capitol building, a symbol of state government, an object of pride. Every one of them is unique, designed to convey the character of the people they represent.
They vary in age, but most are old. Sixty percent of them were built in the 18th or 19th centuries. Many others are more than 80 years old.
Most capitols have been significantly expanded at least once, but few have been abandoned or razed. Their old-fashioned facades and interiors, rendered in architectural styles popular in Europe generations ago, give them special appeal as seats of state government.
In the century ahead, even if state legislatures undergo enormous changes, these timeless links to the past will remain in use. What will be their future over the next quarter century?
PRESERVATION, WITHIN REASON
Because of their enduring value, preservationists believe these old buildings must be kept in the best possible condition. The job is a big one: Legislatures must see to maintaining them continuously and not merely repairing when something goes wrong, and ensuring special care for features and spaces that are both old and symbolic. For instance, the gilt on domes needs replacing every few years-even if the use and expense of gold arouses public outcry, as happened in West Virginia.
More recent preservation efforts have been brought about by thoughtless remodeling in a number of capitols during the 1960s. Offices were "modernized" by lowering ceilings and covering decorative trim. As the demand for office space grew, rooms were divided up. In one egregious example, the Ohio State House's original 53 rooms eventually became 317. In some other capitols an even worse situation developed-temporary offices, called "shacktowns" or "plywood cities" were erected in corridors and atriums. And many legislative chambers were redecorated over the years without regard for the building's style or history.
The historical preservation movement of the 1970s began to influence the care of the capitols. Its overall aim was to strip away all non-historical remodeling, restore the spaces to their original state and set the stage for long-term preservation.
Two quite different methods have been used. One has been to proceed wing by wing or floor by floor, restoring the building over a period of years. Occupants move out on a "swing" basis, as is currently being done in the Maine and Wisconsin Capitol restorations. Iowa, Indiana and New York followed this approach, as did Michigan where the project involved 28 separate restoration contracts managed by one firm and an architectural coordinator.
The second plan involves gutting all or much of the building, as was done at the White House a half century ago. This drastic and costly step is sometimes necessary to correct deep-seated structural problems. Legislators and staff move to temporary quarters. The pioneer case is California, where the interior of the older west segment of the Capitol was entirely reconstructed from 1975 to 1981. Walls were rebuilt or reinforced, new or reconditioned floors were laid, a new copper dome was added, and the interior was restored to the 1900 to 1910 era. Alabama, Ohio and Texas also followed this model.
Although historical preservation and restoration will ensure a capitol's perpetual use, states face several issues. One is cost. Many taxpayers view the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in capitol improvements as extravagant self-indulgence by politicians. Some states have tied costs to other purposes, such as asbestos removal (Hawaii), roof replacement (New Hampshire), fire safety (Texas) and earthquake damage (California and Oregon). Other states have consciously sought to build in advance a foundation of public support, as in Michigan's Friends of the Capitol committee, Pennsylvania's handsome videotape on rotunda restoration and Indiana's restored-paint demonstration along a busy Capitol corridor. …