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Minnesota Legislature

State of disrepair

Published (5/13/2011)
By Nick Busse
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A worker examines deterioration around a panel of marble near the finial (the top of the Capitol dome). The building’s damaged masonry is among the many problems lawmakers hope to address. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Administration)Every year on May 11, officials commemorate Minnesota’s admission as the 32nd state in the union by lighting the crystal chandelier that hangs from atop State Capitol’s inner dome. But not this year.

“If you look up, instead of seeing our beautiful dome alight, you will see a catwalk and a lot of serious damage to our dome,” said Rep. Diane Loeffler (DFL-Mpls). “And that’s because this grand old building is starting to fall apart in a lot of different ways.”

The view from outside isn’t much better. For several months, visitors to the Capitol have had to pass under scaffolding that protects them from the building’s crumbling marble exterior. Pieces of stonework as heavy as 22 pounds have been removed to prevent them from falling on passersby.

“Something desperately needs to be done,“ Rep. Dean Urdahl (R-Grove City) said. “If one of these things slid off, those canopies would be as effective as paper stopping a falling rock.”

The ungainly steel and wood contraptions that now blight the view of Minnesota’s iconic State Capitol are merely the tip of the iceberg. Architect Cass Gilbert’s 106-year-old monument to the state’s democratic institutions has suffered from decades of neglect. Hampered by budget woes, lawmakers are struggling to come up with a comprehensive plan to fix it.

Beginning in 2000, proposals were floated for an extensive renovation. A comprehensive plan would involve knocking down walls to upgrade plumbing and wiring, replacing obsolete heating and ventilation systems, and expanding office and hearing room space. But with cost estimates for the project rising as high as $260 million, budget problems have delayed the plans indefinitely.

A visitor passes under scaffolding covering the Capitol’s west entrance. Fears of injury caused by deteriorated stonework falling off the marble exterior prompted officials to place protective structures around the building. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid) To address certain immediate concerns that couldn’t wait, in 2008 the Legislature appropriated $13.4 million. With this money, workers have been busy making a wide variety of repairs — many of them on the dome. They repaired extensive water damage, installed new drainage and ventilation, and reinforced the dome’s steel columns. But as they did their work, they also found evidence of new problems.

On April 12, Wayne Waslaski, director of real estate and construction services for the Department of Administration, showed members of the House State Government Finance Committee photos of what they found — cracked cornices, clogged rain leaders, peeling plaster and fractured, discolored, water-damaged masonry.

“Some of our major systems are beyond their useful life. And so then it just becomes a risk assessment on how much longer you can go,” Waslaski said.

Workers discovered they could break off pieces of marble just by tapping it with their fingers. They removed as many loose pieces as they could find, but to be safe, they erected scaffolding over the doorways and fenced off much of the area around the building.

“You’re never 100 percent sure that you got all of the pieces, and so that’s why you have the protection in place,” Waslaski said.

Whether lawmakers can fund the full $260 million renovation project, he said certain projects will ultimately have to be funded for the sake of public safety. On top of the damaged exterior, outdated plumbing, electrical, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems have created a range of safety issues inside the building. Also the roof, the drainage system, and the terrace on the west side of the building — among other things — are all in need of repair or replacement.

Workers discovered they could break off loose pieces of the building’s marble exterior, like these stone carvings, just by tapping on them with their fingers. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Administration) Then there are the security problems. A report released April 1 by a bipartisan panel described a number of security vulnerabilities — some of which can only be addressed through potentially costly upgrades to the building’s facilities.

“Really, from a prioritization standpoint, it’s pretty easy. You’re first focused on life safety issues, and then you’re focused on what’s presenting the greatest risk to the building itself,” Waslaski said.

This year, a pair of bills is progressing through House committees that might get the ball rolling on restoration.

Loeffler sponsors HF1286, which would instruct the department to conduct a structural risk assessment to identify the most critical and immediate safety concerns. Meanwhile, Urdahl sponsors HF1455, which would establish a State Capitol Preservation Commission. Combined, the two bills are intended to kick-start a process that has been stalled for many years.

Loeffler’s bill would provide what she calls a “laundry list” of repairs for lawmakers to take action on next year. Her intention is to address only the short-term needs that impact safety and security.

“I think forward progress on some of these basics has been at times slowed as we’ve looked at grander plans,” she said.

Urdahl’s bill would address the building’s long-term issues. The commission proposed in his bill would draft a comprehensive plan that includes pre-design for a multi-year renovation project. Urdahl is betting that next year’s bonding bill could include “significant dollars” for the purpose.

The current round of repairs should be wrapped up later this year, after workers repair the finial (the gold lantern atop the dome) and replace the windows in the drum (the mid-section underneath the dome). As they weigh the costs and benefits of additional repairs, lawmakers will have some tough choices to make. For example, Waslaski said repairing the roof of the building alone will likely cost $9 million.

It won’t be easy, but supporters say it’s an obligation to the public that lawmakers must fulfill.

“We’ve been entrusted with the care of this beautiful building for the long term,” Loeffler said.

Loeffler’s bill was approved April 12 by the House State Government Finance Committee, and now awaits action on the House floor. A companion, SF1262, sponsored by Sen. Ann Rest (DFL-New Hope), awaits action by the Senate State Government Innovation and Veterans Committee.

Urdahl’s bill has been incorporated into HF1061, the omnibus legacy bill, which he also sponsors. It awaits action on the House floor, and has no Senate companion.

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