Fixer-upper: State Capitol building is closing for 4-year, $200 million renovation

Published: Sunday, Aug. 1 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

The state Capitol renovation project has three basic goals: Make the Capitol safe, make it functional and make it look like it did when it was new.

Scott Winterton, Deseret Morning News, KSL-TV Chopper 5

On Saturday evening, Utah's premiere public building, the Utah State Capitol, will close for four years. It will close for renovations, the cost of which will come to $200 million.

When the project is finished, the Capitol will be safer than ever before. It will be safer from earthquakes and fire and evil-doers. Asbestos and lead will be gone. Even traffic safety will improve, when pedestrians have their own walkways. There may even be a new roundabout at the top of State Street.

The Capitol will be modernized as well, with better access for people with disabilities. It will have new plumbing and sewer, new wiring, double-pane windows and energy-efficient lighting. It will have new communications systems, including one for video conferences and production. In the offices, hardwood floors will be restored. High ceilings will be uncovered.

The Capitol will be totally updated — and yet, it will look like it did when it was new, back in 1916. With underground parking and a new plaza, bordered by two new office buildings, the entire Capitol Hill will be more formal and imposing. The Hill will, for the first time, look like the place it was designed to be.

If you were to walk through the building right now, with David Hart, architect of the Capitol project, you could get a preview of what the public will see on Aug. 7. On that afternoon, every Utahn is invited to a celebration given by the Utah Heritage Foundation and the Capitol Preservation Board.

Lisa Thompson, of the Heritage Foundation, says they are hoping at least 1,000 people will come to the party. The open house offers a chance to take one last look inside the Capitol, to see the demolition that's already been done, to see the new Senate and House office buildings, and to learn about the restoration.

Architects and engineers will give tours. Kids will get to mess around with gold leaf and go on a treasure hunt and win a prize.

Visitors will see plans and specs and a model of the seismic base isolators, the rockers that soon will be eased into place under the building — to help it stand instead of crumble when the "Big One" (earthquake) comes.

Everyone gets a photo taken, too. And then you are invited back, in four years, to have your picture taken again in the same place. You'll be able to see how you've changed and how the place where you stood has changed. (Here's one hint: When you come back in four years, you won't be standing on the same green tiles that now cover the floor beneath the rotunda. Originally these squares were made of glass. The main floor was designed to let light filter down to the floor below.)

When Hart describes the research leading up to the remodeling, his voice speeds up in excitement. He makes the years of research sound like an adventure. He talks of uncovering pieces of parquet. Uncovering the egg and dart design in the cornices. Finding the original paint in the governor's office — a beige wash used to cover the walls before the fabric that had been ordered finally showed up.

Hart talks of analyzing the soil on Capitol Hill, of digging down more than 300 feet and never finding bedrock, only sand and silt.

He talks of searching for, and never finding, the original chandeliers from the governor's board room. (If you know where they are, please call him.) He talks of coming across, quite by accident, the Olmsted Brothers' original site plans.

When pressed, Hart can explain his assignment in simple terms: Make the Capitol safe, make it functional and make it like it was.

A longer version of his assignment can be found in a thick sheaf of paper titled "The Utah State Capitol Planning and Historic Structures Report," prepared by the architectural firm of Cooper/Roberts.

Historian Martha Bradley's portion of that official report explains how the Capitol came to be.

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