States Make Needed Upgrades to Capitol Buildings

At least ten states are considering renovations to their capitol building. Though repairs and upgrades are expensive and can take years, more than two-thirds of the states have carried them out since 2000.
May 6, 2013

By Stephen C. Fehr

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin literally had a nose for news when she took a group of journalists on a tour of the state Capitol’s basement “dungeon” in January. Gas from raw waste fouled the air, the result of collapsing sewer lines underneath the century-old building. But the nasty odor didn’t bother a hairy-legged bug crawling out of its moldy, moist habitat to say hello. “Ooh, there’s a big cockroach,” Fallin said.

The Oklahoma Capitol is one of many statehouses around the country that need fixing. Visitors enter the building under scaffolding so they don’t get bonked on the head by falling rock. The south steps are blocked off by a plastic yellow safety fence, a photo of which Fallin stuck on the front of the state budget book. “I did that on purpose to make a point,” the Republican told Stateline. “It’s embarrassing to have barricades and scaffolding outside when the public comes to visit.”

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Though Fallin stands out for her passion, she is not alone among state officials seeking capitol makeovers. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett also have called for money to repair their declining capitols, as have officials in Alaska, Colorado, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon and Wyoming.

Elsewhere, there has been a little-noticed capitol renovation boom. New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin have refurbished parts of their statehouses in the last few years, and major restorations are winding down in Illinois and Kansas. More than two-thirds of the states have carried out upgrades since 2000. They range from minor fixes, such as North Carolina replacing the carpet in the House and Senate chambers, to Virginia spending $105 million to restore its capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson, in time for director Steven Spielberg to film scenes there for “Lincoln.”

The dilemma for elected officials is how to justify the expense of overhauling capitols after years of cutting spending on just about everything else. Oklahoma’s House rejected a plan backed by Fallin last year to borrow $200 million for statehouse repairs, with lawmakers in both parties saying they didn’t want to pile up that much debt. She was back this year with a modest proposal to spend $12 million to fix the crumbling limestone that threatens visitors and develop a plan for the rest of the renovations. Lawmakers agreed May 1 to delay a planned cut in the income tax rate, freeing up $60 million in each of the next two years for the renovation. Fallin is expected to sign it.

“This is no different than a person taking care of their own home,” Fallin said.

Historic and Expensive

Oklahoma’s neighbor to the north, Kansas, has spent more than any other state on the 12-year, $332 million restoration of its capitol building. Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican who has cultivated a reputation as a fiscal conservative, did not start the project but backed a plan last year to boost spending by $17 million to wrap it up. “It’s gorgeous,” he said, “but expensive.”

Broke Illinois has piled up $9 billion in unpaid bills, but the state has spent millions of dollars since 2006 to restore its capitol. Publicly, Illinois officials have stressed the need to replace the inefficient heating and cooling system, but records show money has been used to return aesthetic features to their 1870s origins. That means hand painting decorative murals over solid cream panels, cleaning statues and fountains, conserving paintings—one 42-feet high—and reproducing bronze door hinges (cost for 12: $10,000).

“When people come to Springfield, especially the first time, they are incredibly impressed with our capitol,” Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, said. “But it was built in the 1870s so we need to constantly keep it functioning. But I think it really is a public treasure and we’re doing it in a responsible way.”

In many states, the work can’t wait: The buildings do not comply with modern fire safety and electrical codes and requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act. They need security upgrades in an era of terrorism and random shootings. And ignoring a leaky roof just leads to more damage: Crews stuck a cafeteria tray and a recycling bin under drips in in the Pennsylvania Capitol. Stalactites hang from the Missouri Capitol basement.

Minnesota is typical. The stone exterior of the 1905, Cass Gilbert-designed Minnesota Capitol is deteriorating, so workers put up canopies to safeguard visitors from errant rocks. The mechanical, ventilation, plumbing and sprinkler systems are obsolete, jacking up operating costs. The electrical system needs a boost to meet the demands of computers, copiers and printers. And the physical layout is so confusing people get lost trying to find their legislator or a committee hearing.

For now, crews have started patching up the exterior marble. Democratic Gov. Dayton and lawmakers are close to agreeing on a long-term financing plan for the project, estimated to cost $241 million. Minnesota has a $627 million budget shortfall.

Financing repairs can be daunting. Oregon estimates its planned capitol renovations will cost around $250 million. Most states borrow the money, as they do for other major capital projects such as roads. Idaho used a portion of its cigarette tax revenue to pay for its capitol makeover. Private donations helped finance Oklahoma’s dome addition in 2002. Colorado is trying to raise $13 million in contributions to cover the bulk of the $17 million needed to complete the re-gilding of its distinctive 24-karat gold-covered dome. Figuring every dollar helps, Wisconsin sells $16 holiday ornaments to augment its capitol restoration fund.

Capitol upgrades can drag on for years: Nebraska hired architects in 1995 for its capitol facelift, but the project wasn’t completed until December 2010, and it took Iowa nearly two decades to finish its capitol restoration.

Special construction challenges and materials often inflate costs: Kansas replaced a 900-pound, 19th century chandelier hanging in its capitol with a $300,000 replica. Alabama spent $128,000 on Brinton carpet from England to match the design the 229-year-old company used when the building was constructed in the late 1800s. By contrast, Idaho saved about $3 million by installing less marble, substituting bronze hand rails for antique brass and ordering factory-made instead of hand-made windows.

Sometimes the renovations reveal long-hidden features. Crews tore out walls in the 154-year-old Tennessee Capitol to reveal the original brick vaults and Roman-style arches. Architects decided to incorporate them into the update. When workers ripped up carpeting in the 98-year-old Arkansas Capitol they found the original black and white tile floor, which they refurbished. Then there were the pair of gold-bordered black and white wingtip shoes workers found while updating the Illinois Capitol, reminders of a different era.

Symbols of State Pride

Despite the costs and disruptions, many state officials say refurbishing capitols is vital—not only to protect workers and visitors, but because of their powerful symbolism. "The restoration of the Capitol is a symbol of our efforts to restore confidence and performance in our state government," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last year. Cuomo was so passionate about the 12-year project in Albany that he supervised many of the details, right down to ordering the paint on walls to be changed from a glossy to matte finish.

Many state lawmakers view themselves as stewards of the state’s most significant building, a structure that is part museum, part office building, and the place where laws are made.

State Rep. Stephen Meeks spoke with pride of the six bronze Tiffany doors on the east front of the Arkansas Capitol that workers polish daily. State Rep. Johnny Shaw, an African-American lawmaker from Tennessee, said he reflects on the irony that he serves in a capitol that slaves helped build. State Sen. John Patton of Wyoming, which is planning a $50 million capitol restoration, said, “When I first walked in the House in 1967 and looked up at the stained glass ceiling, I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ I still have that same reverence for the place today.”

Devotion to a capitol building can even lead to friendly rivalries between states. Minnesota Rep. Matt Dean, an architect, said last year during the legislative session that the austere 1930s North Dakota Capitol looked like a State Farm Insurance building compared to Minnesota’s, a grand building that echoes the U.S. Capitol. Those were fighting words in North Dakota, whose governor and lawmakers denounced Dean, who apologized.

North Dakota senators and representatives could not resist pointing out that Minnesota had a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall while oil-rich North Dakota had a surplus.

“My initial response when I heard what he [Dean] said was, with their budget deficit and our surplus, maybe we should just buy their capitol,” said North Dakota Sen. Judy Lee.</

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