The Kansas City Star Magazine

$325 million renovation restores Kansas Statehouse to its former glory

Updated: 2014-04-05T23:30:41Z

By SARAH GISH

The Kansas City Star

A year after the Civil War ended, the leaders of a still-bleeding Kansas set out to build a Capitol in Topeka that rivaled the one in Washington, D.C.

In a time when some Kansans lived in sod houses, the state’s forefathers dared to design a grand limestone monument crowned with a shiny copper dome.

“They wanted everyone to know that Kansas had a real presence,” said Barry Greis, the current Statehouse architect.

Nine workers died during the Kansas State Capitol’s construction, which started in 1866 and took 37 years and $3.2 million. The building has survived the Dust Bowl, an EF5 tornado and the Legislative War of 1893, an actual battle for the House of Representatives that involved a sledgehammer and the Kansas National Guard.

More recently, the Statehouse survived a 13-year basement-to-dome renovation that cost almost $325 million. The renovations, carried out by Treanor Architects and JE Dunn Construction, included updates to the building’s infrastructure and the addition of office space, a visitor center and an underground parking garage.

Workers also restored the Capitol’s original features, from paint stenciling on the walls to copper on the roof and dome. On Kansas Day, the building’s crown sparkled like a new penny against a cloudless January sky.

Inside, the view was vertigo-inducing: from the ground floor, the domed ceiling looked like a perfectly ornate, gilded spiderweb.

Gov. Sam Brownback’s voice echoed up through the rotunda as he dedicated the Capitol “to the glory of God and the people of the great state of Kansas.”

“It’s been a tough project and an important one,” the governor said. “The best state Capitol in America is this building.”

The battle to renovate

Now that renovations are almost complete — landscaping and some roadwork won’t be finished until spring — Kansans are getting reacquainted with their Capitol, which is expected to improve day-to-day operations for lawmakers, attract more tourists to downtown Topeka and gain recognition as one of the nation’s best-preserved historic sites.

Elizabeth Watson, a Maryland-based consultant hired to assess Topeka’s historic preservation plan, said the Kansas State Capitol is a national treasure.

Watson thinks the building, already on the National Register of Historic Places, should be considered for National Historic Landmark status, the country’s highest honor for a historic building.

“It’s a remarkable building in its own right,” Watson said. But what makes the Capitol unique, she added, is its place in history.

“Civil War soldiers saw that Capitol being built. To see the same dome (as the U.S. Capitol) rising over Kansas was a real statement of the state’s permanence,” Watson said. “It marks a moment in time in U.S. history that is really critical.”

Watson thinks the Kansas Statehouse could even be a contender for designation as a world heritage site. There are currently 21 world heritage sites in the U.S. Among them: Grand Canyon National Park, Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and the Statue of Liberty.

Getting the Kansas State Capitol on that exclusive list could be a long shot, Watson admitted. Before the renovations, though, the Capitol would’ve had no shot at all.

By the late 1990s, the Capitol was falling into disrepair. Its limestone exterior was crumbling in some places. The leaky dome had not seen major repairs since the 1960s, when debris from an F5 tornado peeled off a copper panel. Nearly all of the building’s infrastructure — from fire safety systems to water, electricity and heating systems — was severely outdated.

There were aesthetic issues, too. Murals, friezes and stenciling in the House and Senate chambers had been whitewashed to save money. Original embellishments, such as sunflowers in the copper staircases on the north and south wings, were so tarnished that they weren’t visible.

In 1999, then-Senate President Dick Bond formed the Capitol Restoration Commission and pledged to restore the Statehouse to its early 1900s glory and preserve it for future generations.

“If we don’t protect the citizens’ investment and enhance it, who will?” Bond told The Star that year.

Early estimates came in at $120 million. But construction costs rose, and so did the number of projects. Repairs to the building’s limestone were estimated at $10 million, but that price jumped to $33 million when it was discovered that some of the exterior stones crumbled when touched.

Other additions to the original plan included a total replacement of the copper on the dome and roof, an underground parking garage, and offices and a visitor center in the new 128,000-square-foot basement, which was dug out of the Capitol’s limestone foundation.

By 2007, the price tag for the renovations had more than doubled, to $285 million.

While the majority of Kansas lawmakers accepted the high cost of preserving the Statehouse (“What are you going to do? Let the Capitol fall down?” then-House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney told The Star in 2007), some put up a protest. State Sen. Chris Steineger of Kansas City, Kan., was one.

“They keep saying, ‘Well, it’s the Statehouse and no expense should be spared,’ ” he told The Star in 2007. “They just won’t admit that this has gone awry. … The average farmer, working family or middle-class business owner simply couldn’t afford to manage their money the way legislative leaders do.”

Steineger’s request for an audit of the contracts for the renovation project was denied; the funding set aside for the Capitol project eventually ballooned to $327 million. Of that total, $320 million was financed by bond issues, and $7 million came from the Kansas Department of Transportation. The project came in slightly under that budget.

Steineger, who lost his Senate seat to Democratic challenger Pat Pettey last year, said in a recent phone interview that although it’s important to preserve the Capitol, the cost got “way out of control” and that the money would have been better spent on educating young Kansans.

“We cut funding for education and tripled spending on the Capitol,” Steineger said.

Growing pains

By the late 2000s, the Capitol looked like a construction site.

The north lawn was dug up to make room for the underground parking garage, the dome was shrouded in scaffolding, and the entire building was dwarfed by a 340-foot freestanding tower crane — the tallest of its kind in North America.

“If you look around this Capitol,” then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said in 2008, “it’s like working in a bomb shelter.”

Last November, workers replaced the copper on the dome and roof. For the first time in modern memory, the Capitol’s top didn’t have its green patina. Many Topekans, including Edie Smith, are still adjusting to the dome’s new, old look.

“It is odd to see it a different color,” said Smith, who runs a downtown photography studio with her husband, Stephen, “but I like it. I think it’s beautiful against the skyline.”

Smith is also the marketing director for Downtown Topeka, Inc., a membership of businesses working to revitalize downtown. She said the restoration of the Capitol is helping to boost development in the area.

The Kansas Contractors Association relocated its headquarters to a building at Eighth and Jackson streets, across the street from the Statehouse. A homebrewing store called Downtown Craft Brew opened about three blocks away on Kansas Avenue, downtown’s main artery. And Downtown Topeka, Inc. recently helped facilitate the sale of nine vacant buildings near the Capitol.

Smith said the businesses going into those buildings are a mix of architectural firms, restaurants and retail shops.

Over the next two years, improvements to Kansas Avenue — which include privately funded pocket parks and pavilion areas — will make the short walk between the Statehouse and Kansas Avenue more pleasant, Smith said.

Banking on the future

So many visitors came to the Capitol for the Jan. 29 Kansas Day celebration that it was hard to find a parking spot within three blocks. Not a single visitor’s space was available in the 551-car underground parking garage.

Outside, people milled around on the sidewalks and U-shaped drive on the north side of the lawn, leaning back to snap cellphone photos of the dome.

The first thing you see when you walk into the visitor center — which is in what is essentially the Capitol’s walkout basement — is a 12-by-25-foot marble floor map of the state of Kansas, with all 105 counties represented. At left is the new gift shop, which sells everything from chocolate-covered sunflower seeds to plush box turtles (Kansas’ state reptile) and business card-size rectangles of green copper salvaged from the old dome.

Gift store clerk Charles Oroke said he couldn’t believe how fast the Capitol copper was selling.

“I’m just agog,” Oroke said. As of last week, the gift shop had sold about 500 of the $5.99 copper rectangles.

Walk past the tour desk and you’ll find a shrine of Kansas treasures in cave-like limestone corridors. Highlights include a page from the original Kansas constitution, which banned slavery, and a sword that belonged to notorious abolitionist John Brown.

The visitor center also has halls with photographs of famous Kansans (Amelia Earhart, Dwight Eisenhower, Gordon Parks) and the Native American tribes (Wichita, Kansa, Osage) who occupied Kansas before it was a state.

The Capitol’s new basement also has an auditorium, classrooms, restrooms and a cafe.

In 2010, renovations suspended the Capitol’s popular dome tours, and the number of annual visitors dropped from 60,000 to 35,000. Now that the dome has reopened, visitor center coordinator Andrea Burton is preparing for a boom.

“Most of the Capitols that have done a major renovation, their visitors generally tripled,” Burton said. “We’re hoping that will happen here.”

Burton expects the Capitol’s annual visitor numbers to rise to 100,000 to 110,000. She said that in the spring, the visitor center will launch an array of tours that focus on specialized interests such as art, architecture and history.

If what happened at the Ohio Statehouse is any indicator, Burton has good reason to expect crowds. In 1996, Ohio completed a $132 million renovation to its Capitol that updated offices, restored historical details and added a “Crypt” to the ground floor similar to the visitor center at the Kansas Statehouse.

Before renovations, the building was cramped and outdated, said Luke Stedke, communications director for the agency that oversees the Ohio Statehouse.

“It was awful,” Stedke said. “Some of the offices were 4 feet by 4 feet. You had a desk, a chair, a phone and a door that wouldn’t shut.”

Tours were pretty much nonexistent until after the renovations. These days, the Ohio Statehouse attracts about 73,000 students each year, Stedke said, and about half a million people come through the building for government work and special events.

Those who tour the Kansas Statehouse will feel like they’ve stepped back in time. Last month, Elaine Montgomery of Effingham, Kan., visited for the first time in more than 50 years.

Montgomery, a retired postmaster who’s visited the monuments in Washington, D.C., at least 10 times, last visited the Kansas State Capitol as an elementary school student. On a Wednesday afternoon in January, she listened intently as tour guide Ashlee Baraban pointed out the birds and pineapples in the restored stenciling on the Statehouse library walls, and the glittering gold leaf detail on the ceiling of the ornate Senate chamber.

“I am so impressed,” Montgomery said, shaking her head. “It’s gorgeous, everything about it. Just exquisite.”

The lifelong resident of Kansas — where the state motto means “To the stars through difficulty” — said the renovations were worth it.

“This is our Statehouse — we need to take pride in it,” Montgomery said.

“It’s what holds our state together.”

A quick tour of the Kansas Statehouse

Planning a tour of the newly renovated Kansas Capitol? Don’t miss these 10 memorable details.

The dome: In November, workers replaced the old copper dome, which was coated with a green patina, with shiny new copper. Expect the polished-penny color to last 40 to 50 years, said Statehouse architect Barry Greis. “The original probably turned (green) in 15 years because of the sulfur in the air,” Greis said. Back then, “we were burning coal and wood, and all that affected the atmosphere.”

Ad Astra Per Aspera: Atop the dome stands a sculpture of a Kansa Indian warrior poised to shoot an arrow to the North Star. The sculpture was installed in 2002 and is named after Kansas’ motto, Ad Astra Per Aspera. That’s Latin for “To the stars through difficulties.”

The dome chandelier: Look up from the rotunda at the interior dome and you’ll see a replica of the original chandelier, which was donated to a scrap metal drive during World War II.

Murals on the ceiling of Representative Hall: During renovations, workers uncovered painted-over murals on the ceiling of Representative Hall. The murals, which represent justice, history, law and liberty, were probably painted over to eliminate the cost of maintaining the art. Good thing: The paint protected the murals from cigarette smoke during the decades before smoking inside the building was banned.

The number 34: Kansas was the 34th state to enter the union, so you’ll see that number in hidden details all over the Capitol. The visitor center has a 34-star American flag, and globes on the lamps in the Senate chamber are hand-carved with 34 stars each.

The infamous sledgehammer: During the Legislative War of 1893, Populists and Republicans literally battled over control of the House of Representatives. After the Populists barricaded themselves inside the House hall, Republicans used a sledgehammer to break down the door. The fight had to be decided by the Kansas Supreme Court, which voted in favor of the Republicans. The infamous sledgehammer is on display (near John Brown’s sword) in the visitor center.

John Steuart Curry’s murals: The Capitol is home to many stunning murals, but the most famous is John Steuart Curry’s “Tragic Prelude.” The expansive painting depicts bearded abolitionist John Brown, arms outstretched, holding a gun and a Bible. In the background, prairie fires and a tornado capture the chaos of Kansas before the Civil War. Curry, who had a disagreement with the state over his controversial murals, left them unsigned.

The cage elevator: The hand-operated “cage” elevator, installed in 1923, is the fastest way to navigate the Capitol’s five floors.

Kansas’ first flag: The original Kansas flag design was vertical, like a banner. The horizontal shape was adopted in 1927 after the U.S. Capitol refused to fly the banner.

Limestone foundation: The walls of the new visitor center are actually the Capitol’s limestone foundation. The limestone comes from a Geary County quarry that also supplied stone to Allen Fieldhouse at the University of Kansas and Ahearn Fieldhouse at Kansas State University.

To reach enterprise reporter Sarah Gish, call 816-234-4823 or send email to sarah@inkkc.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/sarah_gish.

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