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Illinois to unveil Capitol renovation

Published: Monday, Aug. 26, 2013 11:14 p.m. CDT

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SPRINGFIELD – Two years ago, plywood walls went up inside the Capitol sealing the west wing from the rest of the building while a massive renovation project was undertaken.

The walls are about to come down and when they do, people may not recognize the place.

Gone is the institutional beige paint scheme, replaced with stenciling and colors that were there when the building first opened.

Longtime fixtures like the first floor newsstand and the basement cafeteria are also gone, as is the mezzanine that once housed offices for news outlets that covered the Statehouse.

The maidens have returned, light fixtures originally designed for the building but deemed too risqué for 19th century Illinois sensibilities and never installed.

The period flavor extends right down to the exit signs, specially designed for the project to convey a turn-of-the-century feel as much as an electric exit sign can.

The work has come at a cost. The project price tag has grown to about $50 million from the $43.3 million when bids were awarded. The project includes not only historic restoration of the west wing, but replacement of the outdated heating, air-conditioning and ventilation system, and bringing the area up to modern life safety and disability access standards.

"This project is on budget," said Capitol architect Richard Alsop. "We had money in the budget for contingencies, so we are still within our budget range."

Money for the project is coming from bonds issued by the state to pay for public works projects. Alsop acknowledged the price tag would have been lower had the work been limited to upgrading mechanical, electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems as well as required public safety and disability access improvements. More than half the cost was for "work we needed to do," Alsop said.

However, he said it would have been a mistake to ignore historical renovations while the wing was undergoing the extensive repairs.

"If we're not going to touch this wing for 50 to 75 years, let's try to bring it back to what we call its period of significance, 1867-1908," Alsop said. "It wasn't all for life safety, but as long as we are going through that step and doing renovations that are going to last 100 years, you should really take advantage of it. Having a building like this is a jewel, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with the state Capitol being a building that draws the public in."

One thing that might draw in the public are the new doors on the Capitol's west entrance. They are wood clad with copper on the exterior. Right now the copper is as shiny as a new penny, but Alsop said they will lose their shine over the next four to five months and become a deep brown.

"The original doors were oak on the outside and black walnut on the inside, but they had a lot of bronze ornamentation," Alsop said. "Bronze is 90 percent copper."

Metal-clad wooden doors are not new, he said, and without the copper the doors would probably have to be replaced in 20 to 30 years. Alsop could not provide a price for the doors.

"We didn't create the palace, the palace was already here," Alsop said. "We just short of shined it up a little bit."

Alsop also said he could not provide a cost for the elaborate light fixtures installed through most of the wing to replicate fixtures in place during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Two of the fixtures are in offices that will be occupied by state senators that once were the offices of the attorney general. The medieval-looking fixtures each have a number of small lamps that now contain bulbs, but once would have held oil to burn for light.

St. Louis Antique Lighting fabricated the fixtures relying on historical photos and its own archives of lighting fixtures, Alsop said.

Restoring the decorative painting was a similar process. In many areas, layers of paint were scraped away until the plaster was exposed. Then restorers took a step back to the first layer of paint to uncover stenciling and colors that were part of the original building. Evergreene Painting Studios did much of the work, both repainting and creating the original designs on canvas that were then installed on walls and ceilings.

If old photographs and paint samples didn't provide enough information, the state could always turn to Iowa. Its Capitol is identical to Illinois', only it is about three-fourths the size. Both were designed by Alfred Piquenard. There was a limit to Iowa's cooperation, however.

As part of the Illinois renovation, the maidens bronze light fixtures have been installed at the bottom of the staircase leading to the third floor. The maidens were designed by Piquenard and were supposed to be installed in the original building, but they were deemed too risqué for Illinois.

"There was an Iowa delegation in town who said we'll take them. They're not too risqué for us," Alsop said. "Illinois let them have them because the same architect designed both Capitols."

They are in the Iowa Capitol to this day.

No longer thought to be too risqué, Illinois approached Iowa about getting back the maidens that were originally meant for Illinois.

"We said, hey, can we have these back. They said no," Alsop said.

Illinois then asked to make molds of the maidens. Again, no. In the end, St. Louis Lighting scanned the Iowa maidens in 3-D, allowing the company to make replicas.

Some of the restorations will seldom be seen by the public. Third floor offices to be used by Senate Republicans and their staffs had the elaborate ceiling restored. The office area itself resembles a library, appropriate for a space that once housed the state library. The offices include an elevator that goes just from the third floor to a fourth floor section that will be occupied by state senators, something required by ADA codes, Alsop said.

ADA codes are indirectly responsible for the end of the cafeteria in the Capitol basement. The basement floor had to be made level, which meant lowering in some places by as much as 18 inches. That exposed the massive limestone footings that support the building. The footings weren't spaced far enough apart to accommodate a commercial kitchen, hence no cafeteria. Much of the space will now be used by the news media displaced when the mezzanine was removed.

"The mezzanines weren't done for any other reason than space," Alsop said. "That's not always the best reason to do something, just for more space."

Workers are still putting some finishing touches on parts of the west wing. Alsop said he expects lawmakers, staff and others will be moving back in by late September and the west wing reopened to the public.

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