Capitol restoration should have ‘big wow factor’

Tom West, West Words
Tom West, West Words

So there I was, 65 feet above the ground, swaying on the scaffolding just outside the Minnesota State Capitol Building, attending the largest convention of stone carvers in the nation.

Or so someone said.

The ECM Editorial Board received a personal tour April 10 of the ongoing restoration of “the People’s Building.” When you see it close up, it’s a fascinating — and huge — project.

The Capitol, designed by Cass Gilbert (the same architect who drew up the train depot in Little Falls) has 23 different types of stones in its structure, but the exterior is mostly two: soft marble from Georgia and granite from St. Cloud.

Our first stop on the tour was to see the work being done to restore the marble. The Capitol has suffered through 109 Minnesota winters since opening in 1905. The marble is now showing the effects of that. Over time, the elements have pitted the marble. Every tiny crevice that could retain water before it evaporated or ran off has done so.

In Minnesota, some of that water has turned to ice before drying off. The result is “sugaring,” meaning the marble is beginning to disintegrate, effectively turning to sand. Decorative pieces are losing their definition and character. In 2009, some larger pieces began falling.

The photo accompanying this article shows the difference between the new stone — taken from a quarry in Tate, Ga., one mile from the quarry for the original stone that was shipped north. The new stone is on top, and the original carved stone is below.

Calling the stone carvers a “convention” is a joke. These highly specialized workers number seven. Opportunities to restore state capitols and similar stone buildings do not come along every day. The convention will go on for a while. These workers will be restoring or replacing an estimated 55,000-60,000 pieces of stone. Each stone is treated individually because each is in a different state of deterioration.

The photo shows one of the decorative pieces on the east wall, just below the roof. The original stone was carved to look like lady slippers, the state flower.

Moving on, we were told a number of 5-foot by 7-foot windows have been replaced already with energy efficient glass. Capitol workers, we are told, have said the suppression of noise from traffic rushing by on University Avenue has made a huge difference.

Climbing down from the scaffolding, the steps for which had the same steepness as those on a Navy ship, our next stop was the basement, where workers are replacing the underpinnings of the building, Under the basement floor the original workers had poured a very fine sand, almost like powder. The underpinnings go down only six inches. Workers are replacing 35-40 locations because the new underpinnings have to go down four feet to accommodate new ductwork for heating, cooling, plumbing, electrical and communications routing.

How does one replace the underpinning on a building made up of thousands of tons of stone? Very carefully.

Each underpinning is done one half at a time. The hole is dug and then concrete under high pressure — 3,000 psi — is forced in layers.. Each half takes several days to do.

This project is much more than a little exterior work and slapping on some paint. The plan is to preserve the character of the building while modernizing it to accommodate today’s needs and technology.

As soon as the Legislature adjourns this spring, workers in the east wing of the building will be moving out. Roof replacement starts this summer.

In summer 2015, the governor and the attorney general will be kicked out of the West Wing temporarily while work begins on their spaces.

On the second floor, where the legislative chambers are, a new lunch counter will be constructed and the outdoor balcony will be repaired. Elevators will get new glass doors.

The basement will be opened up for more public use, and the area that serves as the media quarters will be modernized as well. (When I worked there, it was often referred to as “the dungeon.”)

The original building cost $4.5 million to build — about $90 million in 2005 dollars. The restoration will cost $273 million.

Still, that’s less than a third the cost of the new Vikings stadium. A corollary project, a $90 million Senate office building, has stirred controversy over its necessity. But there shouldn’t be any controversy about preserving the most distinguished looking public building in the state.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he expects there will be “a big ‘wow’ factor” when the restoration is completed in early 2017.

I do, too.


Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He can be reached at (320) 616-1932 or email