ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Drawn from a quarry in north Georgia and then meticulously carved in Toronto, the gleaming white marble for the Minnesota Capitol exterior travels quite the path before crews restoring the building put the stone into place.
When it comes to sprucing up the Capitol, a monument to Minnesota government, not just any material will do. Officials have taken pains to pay proper respect to renowned architect Cass Gilbert’s original design. It helps explain why the restoration budget is more than $272 million for a building that cost $4.5 million to construct a century ago.
A massive renovation both inside and out is kicking into high gear after lawmakers came through with $109 million in May. Approval of the final installment will be before the Legislature next year, with key political figures all behind its passage.
The renovation will include interior paint that matches original palates, glass elevators to let light shine through, and wood window frames to replace aluminum ones added later.
But few aspects are as critical as the building’s envelope, where time, decades of industrial pollution and water seepage took a toll. Brilliant white when the Capitol opened in 1905, the facade now lacks luster and its delicate features, such as scrollwork atop columns, have crumbled in spots.
Michael Bjornberg, the lead architect on the restoration, said the glimmer essential to Gilbert’s vision will return by the time all is done in early 2017.
“The way I would describe it is: That day you wake up after a snowfall overnight and the sun comes out and everything just sparkles,” Bjornberg said. “That’s what the building looked like when it was originally built. It was pretty stunning.”
It’s no small task. Every one of the 50,000 exterior stones has been analyzed and catalogued. Some need only cleaning. Others have cracks that require filling. Thousands must be swapped out. They can be as small as a 6-inch-by-6-inch ornamental leafs to pieces 4-feet wide and 2-feet tall that are as heavy as a car.
To do the job, 650 to 750 tons of marble is being extracted from a quarry in Tate, Ga., adjacent to the site where Minnesota got its original marble.
Before work began in 1897, Capitol planners endured howls of protest and legal bickering when they decided to look south rather than find suitable material within Minnesota. This time, the decision was made without drama.
The Georgia marble was cheaper, deemed more durable and carried the vibrancy the designer coveted.
“It is a beautiful, strong, substantial and enduring stone, beyond any sort of comparison handsomer than anything in the way of stone of any kind which can be found within the limits of our state,” Channing Seabury, chairman of the Capitol Commission that oversaw the original construction wrote in a newspaper column.
St. Cloud granite was used in the Capitol’s foundation.
Slabs of marble were carved into the needed dimensions on site during the original construction. Now, the pieces that need extra work are shipped to a Canadian carving facility. Traditional Cut Stone in suburban Toronto has the largest hand-carving crew in North America with seven workers, and its detail work matches the old design.
The process is laborious: A clay version is made before rubber molds and plastic casts are produced. Those are used as models for the carvers.
“Some pieces can take weeks, others take months,” said company vice president and founding partner Richard Carbino, a journeyman stone mason. “Our philosophy here is no machine can ever replace the skilled hand and eye of a carver.”
Roughly $60 million of the overall budget will go into the stone work from procurement to installation, according to the Department of Administration.
In an era where partisan standoffs over government spending are common, few lawmakers have publicly flinched at the cost of the Capitol project. Republican State Rep. Matt Dean, an architect who has served on the Capitol Preservation Commission, said pride over a building that towers over St. Paul comes with a duty to maintain it.
“The thing you really can’t get around is how expensive it is to replicate the quality and the craftsmanship that we had over 100 years ago. We had people from all over the world that were experts in masonry, carpentry and all of the different trades and crafts,” Dean said. “I’ve never come across anybody who said don’t fix up the Capitol, don’t keep that up for the next 100 years. They know it’s going to be expensive to match what’s there.”
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