ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — The Minnesota State Capitol remains closed to the public for the rest of the year, as it undergoes a massive three-year restoration.

Much of the work is repairing and updating the state’s most visible landmark.

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But there is also a remarkable conservation effort underway to save the world-famous paintings and murals inside the 111-year old building.

There’s a remarkable rescue underway for Minnesota’s most valuable artwork.

“All of these painting were very, very dark. Somewhere between brown and black,” Arthur Page, the nationally-renowned Washington, D.C.-based conservationist, said.

Page spent months rediscovering the original, spectacular State Capitol wall murals.

“There’s a mysterious central figure,” Page says, pointing to a large mural decorating the old Minnesota Supreme Court Chambers that has been obscured for decades under grime, smoke, varnish and water damage.

Dozens of the million dollar murals that decorate the Capitol were painted by the greatest artists of the 19th century, some of the same artists who decorated the Library of Congress in the 1890s. They created towering pieces of art that no living Minnesotan has ever seen.

Page oversees the discoveries, uncovering sparkling works of art. Moses and Confucius. The Roman Senate. The English court.

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“These worried me,” said Page, looking up at murals now returned to their original, bright condition. “These murals were very dark. But more importantly, the coatings on them were very tough. They were much tougher in some ways than the artist’s original paint underneath.”

The Capitol art suffered from years of inadequate restoration: Smoking inside the building, discolored varnishes, heavy repaints and a century of wall damage.

Page and his team of conservationists painstakingly apply splashes of hot water, followed by wet strength paper until dirt and varnish loosens. More damaged art requires organic solvents to separate layers of varnish, paint, canvas and wall adhering to each other.

That’s under 20 stories of indoor scaffolding. Workers are carefully removing and repairing damage to the huge ceiling murals on the inside of the top of the Capitol dome.

“You can perhaps see that the painting is moving,” says Page, pushing the canvas. “In other words, there are significant parts of this painting that are no longer properly attached to the wall.”

High above the Senate chamber, conservationists use 600 sterile cotton swabs a day to clean vast painted surfaces inch by inch.

“To show you what the unclean painting looked like when we started,” says Page.

The project is vast, but the attention to detail — every detail — is sharply focused.

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When the project is completed in 2017, the State Capitol will look exactly as it did on the day it first opened in 1905.