$241M facelift for state Capitol awaits approval in Legislature

The building needs major repairs to its mechanical systems and safety features.

by Kevin Burbach

Restorations to the aging state Capitol building in St. Paul took a step forward last week but were met with questions about funding and timing from legislators.

The stateâÄôs Capitol Preservation Commission approved a report that recommended spending $241 million to repair and restore the 107-year-old building.

Originally designed by renowned St. Paul architect Cass Gilbert and completed in 1905, the building needs major repairs to its mechanical systems and safety features, the report said, concluding the building is at a âÄútipping point.âÄù

Although the commission eventually approved the report, which is pending legislative approval, legislators addressed concerns of paying for the restoration, the necessity of the project and the timing of the construction, which could force lawmakers to temporarily leave the Capitol.

âÄòTipping pointâÄô

If root problems with mechanical and electrical systems arenâÄôt addressed now, more expensive repairs will be needed in the future, the report said.

Crews are currently working on the outer dome of the Capitol âÄî a $13.4 million project that started in 2008.

But the latest proposal is the biggest and most expensive in the buildingâÄôs history, said Brian Pease, the historic site manager of the Capitol for the Minnesota Historical Society. Pease said that he didnâÄôt think the Capitol had ever been closed in the past for restorations.

In addition to replacing mechanical and electrical systems, âÄúlife-safety systemsâÄù in the building need to be updated, the report said. According to the report, there is no smoke control system and âÄúonly a limited sprinkler system.âÄù

The current Capitol is the third in the stateâÄôs history. The first, built in 1853, burned down in 1881 and was replaced by a second that served as the Capitol until 1905 when the current building was finished. The second Capitol building stood until 1938, when it was torn down.

The report recommends moving some offices to make the building easier to navigate, and fixing some of the exterior stone in order to prevent debris from falling on visitors.

âÄúWeâÄôve all got chunks of stone in this office that have dropped off this building as souvenirs,âÄù said Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester.

Questions arise

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said there are âÄúa whole lot of questions that need to be answeredâÄù before legislators approve the restoration. The session convenes Jan. 24.

Howes, chairman of the HouseâÄôs Capital Investment committee, said that he opposed paying the $241 million up front but would be more open to paying for the restorations over a few years.

Senjem agreed.

âÄúI think we will, at some point, take a more incremental approach,âÄù he said.

David Hart, the architect who presented the report, said he was wary of funding the project in smaller chunks, which could leave the project unfinished by future legislators if the money is not put down first.

Regardless, Senjem said he thought an initial chunk of the proposal was possible for bonding in 2012.

Gov. Mark Dayton will unveil his bonding request Tuesday but said it wonâÄôt include money for Capitol restorations because the request was finished before the commission approved the plans.

Howes said he was unsure of how the restoration plans would affect a bonding bill. He said the Vikings stadium issue could complicate matters.

Legislators on the commission also addressed other issues such as the construction timeline and potential relocation of state employees.

Only the party with a Senate majority, currently the Republican Party, has office space in the Capitol. The Senate minority and both parties in the House of Representatives have offices across the street in the State Office Building.

ItâÄôs possible that legislators wouldnâÄôt be able to hold session at the Capitol for up to two terms. The report didnâÄôt specify an alternate location if construction forced out legislators.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, proposed exploring an around-the-clock style of construction that would keep legislators out of the Capitol for less time.

But Howes said that plan could cost more in overtime pay for workers and for extra security.

Restoration could begin as early as this summer and last until 2016 if itâÄôs put in a bonding bill this session, according to the report.