Crumbling Minnesota Capitol Reaches ‘Tipping Point’

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The foot-tall chunk of marble sitting in a state administrative office once was part of the Minnesota Capitol’s ornamental scrollwork, one small detail on architect Cass Gilbert’s century-old jewel. Now, it’s mainly a reminder of this aging building’s many deferred needs.

Time has eroded the marble’s fine detail to the point that it’s barely visible. It was plucked off the building by hand during a recent inspection of the Capitol exterior, and conservators say it’s just a small example of $241 million in urgently needed restoration work that will only grow more expensive with time.

“They’re big projects, they’re scary projects, they’re inconvenient projects,” said David Hart, a Utah-based consultant to the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission. “But they’re projects that have to happen. It’s time.”

The spending would address a lack of fresh air circulation, outdated plumbing and tangled electrical wiring so systematic that only a major overhaul will do, the commission says. The building’s sprinkler system and emergency stair exits need updating. And the commission wants to improve public access to legislative offices and create more flexible meeting spaces.

The money won’t come easily. Gov. Mark Dayton didn’t include any funds in his proposed bonding bill. Minnesota’s budget situation is precarious, and other construction projects with more vocal supporters are vying for attention — like the Minnesota Vikings’ bid for a new stadium.

Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said the Capitol’s exterior needs repairing. Some of the other items don’t appear as necessary, he said.

“It would be nice to have a larger meeting room, but at what price?” Senjem said.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, a Grove City Republican who sits on the commission, is aware of the tough road ahead. He wants to spread the renovation over two or three bonding bills, and is hoping for bipartisan support.

“We’re going to put significant money into this project, this year,” Urdahl said. Later, he added: “It’s a question of if we don’t do something, will we ever be able to catch up?”

Many states addressed expensive Capitol restorations during the 1980s and 1990s, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Minnesota is one of a handful that has relied on piecemeal fixes.

In Colorado, a balcony once open to visitors was closed off to protect them from parts breaking off the Capitol’s cast-iron dome. Oklahoma’s statehouse saw large barricades sealing off the public from cascading chunks of limestone and mortar. Oregon put off changes to make its building less vulnerable to earthquakes, though experts believe a severe one could kill people inside.

Much of the exterior of Minnesota’s Capitol is headed in the same crumbling direction of that marble chunk, according to the Minnesota State Capitol Preservation Commission. The structure, which features the second-largest stone dome in the world after St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, was erected in 1905 at the hand of architect Cass Gilbert. He also designed the United States Supreme Court building.

Today, it’s one of only a few state Capitol buildings of its age that’s yet to undergo a large-scale renovation. Some say the need merits the $241 million price tag, even during a lean time. The issue is coming to a head this year after a decade of planning and a century of small-scale quick fixes.

If approved, the project is slated to start this year and could take five years to complete.

According to the commission, the building has reached a “tipping point” at which certain upgrades changes must be made in one to two years or the building will be beyond preservation and instead demand constant upkeep or complete replacement.

This would mean a loss of cultural and historic value unseen in other states, said Greg Donofrio, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Minnesota.

“The prominence and significance of Cass Gilbert as an architect is really pretty difficult to over-emphasize,” Donofrio said. “We have one of the first major works of a master architect right downtown in St. Paul.”

Less comprehensive Capitol overhaul initiatives in the last decade were never fully implemented, and often didn’t reach consensus due to clashes over money and priorities.

The necessary electrical, plumbing and mechanical updates reach a combined cost of about $43.1 million, said Wayne Waslaski, a director with the Department of Administration who’s working with the commission. He said they would be cheaper and last longer when done alongside interior efficiency renovations. The exterior stone restoration would cost $17.6 million.

“When you’re making those major system changes, you’re going to impact every room in the building,” Waslaski said. He added that historic lighting and paint work restoration in public spaces is needed, but could be done later.

But Senjem said funding the project in a $241 million lump is “inconceivable.” He said Urdahl’s plan of funding over time might work, but that future legislatures can’t be committed to the project.

Though the building contains health and safety risks, much of the restoration initiative will rely on public support for what many inside the Capitol refer to as “the people’s house.”

Rich Polk of Eagan only came to the building once years ago, but recently returned while on a visit to St. Paul — one of the 120,000 people who annually tour the statehouse.

“It’d be a shame if we as a state can’t maintain our Capitol,” Polk said. “They’ll do something. They can’t just knock this down.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • Louis de Pitera

    Let’s build a football stadium and allow the Capitol fall down for lack of repair.

    • Lost State

      I was thinking the same thing…let’s get that stadium for the Purple pukes first, then Tubby needs a new Barn (itsacoming), then lets think about the Wolf’s and Lynx needed$250M in upgrades and then Mariucci is in need of ………
      What s State adrift in priorities….not to mention having no money to do any of these things….and the SOB’s will put the Gawd Almighty Sports Gods ahead of anything and everything.
      I’m lucky – we will be living in this Lost State only for another 2 years. That’s 59 years of watching it crumble down around me little by little. Montana , here we come

    • With Louis!

      Glad this was immediately covered as this was my thought too! Those that run this state are disgusting!

  • Drop Kick

    Let’s fix what we have before building anything new.

  • MrB

    Leave it crumble just like our democratic process has done when it comes to the leaders of this state getting anything done together!!!

  • Bob from S MN

    To heck with a stadium lets preserve this building, at least it is worth it and we don’t need to decide where to build it.

  • Voter

    Meanwhile while Republican Amy Koch and that other republican ‘Family Values’ man are getting busy in the bathroom…the capital is falling apart…

    • oh brother

      Yeah, because all the problems just cropped up during the last few years you knee jerk idiot.

  • @Kevin...

    shut up kevin…

  • Brett

    Just let it FALL DOWN. Only problem is, where will all of the LIBERALS go to WHINE? IMO, the measure of a good government should not be measured by the building that officials do business in, but in what the quality of the legislation that comes out of the legislature, regardless of where such agreements are met.

    • Hal

      Conservative stupidity. Further proof the education system is broke and we nrred to get rid of all of the partisans

  • John

    I love all these ridiculous blogs. We need to fix the Capitol. If the Repubs scuttle the idea, then we know the stance they are on. Of course we have to fix the building. It doesnt seem to be done because the repubs hate to spend any money to fix anything. We have bridges, highways and Schools falling apart. All the repubs want is non union labor to fix our bridges and our beautiful Capitol building. I have heard that I can find guys that will work for 20.00 an hour. If we live in a Right to Work State, i can find guys who will work for 6.00 an hour. This is a perfect example of the race to bottom. I bet repubs can find someone that can work for even less.

    • Hal

      Do you think the repubs care if the labor is leagal or not? Bottom line you know.

      • Pauline

        tsk tsk … work on spelling Hal.

        • Fred

          can’t argue against the idea?

  • Lola Lee

    I say let it fall down and crumble and then put congress and it’s ‘people’ into an old school that is needed for repair.

    • An eye for an eye

      Amen and make sure it’s loaded with asbestos and lead.

  • silvertogold

    I know, let’s tear down the capitol, build a multipurpose building on that site…
    Capital/Stadium. We can call it the “capital stadium”.

    Oh, this leaves too many fun response…

    OK. I’ll go first;
    next time there is a stalemate at the capitol, it would be settled by a coin toss – performed by Zigy himself.

    come on guys’ – jump in!!

  • left is right and right is wrong

    So this building is falling down and all the commenters on the left fail to recognize all the “deferred maintenance” that took place over the past 32 years, before the Republicans came into power. I think I need a selective memory too, so I can forget it was my party that had control of the purse strings for 32 years while the the 35W bridge was never inspected properly, and the same 32 years while this building was falling apart and not being properly maintaned. Of course it was also my party that loosesd the rules for borrowing under the Clinton administration that caused the housing crisis, but of course we blame it on the lack of financial industry oversight during the Bush administration just so our party does not look bad.

    • Thomas

      Why are you all making this political – it’s been brought up time and time again and the issue dies. Both parties always to busy getting deeper into our pockets on their other preferred pork projects. Before you rightys keep yapping further look at Bachmann’s Bridge to Nowhere cost. You leftys – hell, I don’t have to say a thing. You’ve never seen a Ghetto project that didn’t have “merit” lol
      Both parties suck – and you folls defend your own. sick sick sick

  • @@Kevin

    shut up @Kevin

    • @@@Kevin

      shut up @@Kevin

  • Sam

    “…$241 million in urgently needed restoration work…”

    $241 million??? WHAT! Does this include a private marble jacuzzi for each member? Indoor heated parking with complimentary car washes? Sushi bars?

    Tear it down and put them in poorly heated Quonset huts.

    Maybe then they would get their damn work done and stop fooling around.

  • Kevin

    example of $241 million in urgently needed restoration work ……Move all the Somalians there……then let it fall on them….its a win….win….

    • Llp

      How bout moving all inr KKK trailer trash

      • Kevin

        I would but I am white and I dont know what “inr” means……….but hey Llp I am sure you live off oc Cedar and love Somalians….but learn English……

    • Llp

      How bout moving all the KKK trailer trash

  • david nystuen

    Before any stadium, fix the capitol. Then in the fall, clean house of the Republicans in the legislature.

  • King

    How about the people who works in the building pay for the repairs to the building. Like the reporters from WCCO, KARE11, KSTP, FOX9, the Republicans and Democrats who SUPPOSE to work in the building. NO PUBLIC FUNDING for the repairs. Not every Minnesotan will every go and visit the building so why do those people have to pay for the repairs.


  • aeiou

    It’s symbolic of the crumbling political situation. Maybe if we grind the current legislature into hamburger and combine that with mortar, we could say it was fixed by the people. MN is a very sad place to be right now. We are engaging in a social civil war that is spending millions, which could have been used to fix the capitol.

    As soon as I’m constitutionally disenfranchised, I just won’t give a d@mn.

  • Rufus Larkin

    The MN Capitol Building is like a lot of buildings around here, which are architectural wonder’s on the outside yet smelly and crumbling apart on the inside. The Capitol is bad, but the cake has to go to the new Minneapolis Public Library, which in the space of a mere 6 years has developed an unbearable permanent defecatory, derelict odor usually reserved for seedy social hangout buildings 30 year old or more.

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