SALT LAKE CITY — The approximately 30-ton concrete roof, unreinforced marble columns and the rest of the main entrance to the Governor's Mansion are finally being fixed, more than two decades after being deemed a danger in an earthquake.
"It has just been put off and off and off, and it's basically a seismic hazard. That's where all the tours and everything come through," said Ken Willimore, a consulting engineer on what's already more than a $1.1 million project.
Willimore, who also did the original seismic study on the mansion on South Temple after it was nearly destroyed in a 1993 fire, said the needed upgrades on the west portico were left out of the nearly $8 million restoration completed in 1996.
"That was put in there, but they didn't have the money. Everything is attached to a dollar. The state has to manage their money, just like everybody else," Willimore told the Deseret News. "We've been putting Band-Aids on it ever since."
Despite the safety concerns, the project took that long to rise to the top of the priority list for capital improvements.
"Government works different than civilians," Willimore said of the more than 20-year wait.
State officials struggled to explain the time it took to get the project underway. Exploratory work at the site began 4 ½ months ago, and construction is expected to be done this October.
The construction has forced summer tours of the mansion to be canceled and some meetings to be moved to other locations. Gov. Gary Herbert continues to live in the mansion during the week, according to the governor's office.
"Somewhere along the line this project fell off the radar, and it didn't come back into focus until 2010," said Marilee Richins, operations officer for the state Department of Administrative Services.
She said the portico was re-evaluated and reinspected in 2010, when a new roof was put on the carriage house on the mansion grounds. The carriage house is used by the governor's security detail.
"It was determined that it was really a concern," Richins said of the portico, but she said the state building board chose not to fund the project. Asked why, she said it's "a very political process."
After the portico was turned down for funding in 2010, it did not make the board's priority list for projects until the state Division of Construction and Facilities Management "reprioritized it as life-threatening" in 2013, Richins said.
Thanks to an internal change by the division, Richins said now "anything that is life-threatening goes to the top of the list." So far, $471,000 has been appropriated for the portico, with a request pending for another $676,000.
Division Director Josh Haines, hired by the state last year, agreed it had taken a long time to get to what he described as a structure that could "potentially put somebody's life in danger" by coming down in an earthquake.
But Haines said he couldn't explain why it wasn't done sooner.
"I don't want to say there's a fault because I don't know the rational behind it. I mean, to me, it should have been addressed," he said. "I think it may have gotten lost in the shuffle."
Haines suggested a reason might be concern over how the public would react to the cost.
"It's a lot of money," he said. "I think part of it is everybody's always worried that it could be bad publicity, unfortunately. So was it not done because of that? I can't speak to that. But by the same token, it definitely needs to get done."
Willimore said that the portico hasn't collapsed since his original study is "actually a measure of how well that thing was put together. It wasn't as dangerous as we thought."
There also hasn't been any major earthquake activity.
"The whole thing is freestanding," Willimore said of the marble-columned portico. "It's really like a stack of cards. You get some violent ground motion, it will be knocked over."
That includes the concrete roof. Willimore said the concrete on the approximately 400-square-foot roof "turned out to be a lot thicker than we thought it was," weighing about 150 pounds per square foot or some 30 tons overall.
Mike Ambre, the division project manager for the portico, said the shaped concrete roof, between 9 inches and 17 inches thick, is being replaced with a steel deck that will be topped with foil-backed copper.
Willimore said the project is complex.
"It's amazing," he said. "All the things I've worked on, I've never worked on anything so complicated for being such a little space. (It's) just the way everything was put together."
According to the utah.gov website, the computer model Willimore created to assess the mansion's structural weakness "revealed several surprises," including that the roof, walls and floors were not connected to each other or exterior masonry.
"The building was in poor seismic condition. In order to reduce earthquake risk, structural elements had to be strengthened and 'connected'" at the mansion originally built in 1902 for mining magnate and U.S. Sen. Thomas Kearns, according to the website.
The once-stately entrance to the mansion is now a construction site, with heavy steel beams temporarily replacing the 20-foot marble columns and the stately stairs removed so a new foundation can be poured.
The marble columns were removed to make it easier to drill holes through, allowing rebar to be inserted so they can finally be attached to the new roof and what will be a seismically sound foundation.
"It's been a little bit tricky. Each step of the project takes a little bit to get up and rolling," said Michael Hill of Paulsen Construction, the project superintendent. "We're tying everything together with rebar down to the ground."
Other improvements are more cosmetic. The intricately carved capitals that rested atop the marble columns and depicted images such as a lion have worn down enough to merit replacement.
Since the restoration after the 1993 fire, there has been other work done in addition to the carriage house project, including replacing the mansion roof in 1999. The portico project should be the last project for a while.
"When they get finished with this, it will look like it's supposed to look. It will be safe," Willimore said. "And people will be happy with it."
Email: [email protected]