Above-ground floors at the Kansas Statehouse were fully open Friday to wandering visitors who gawked at the massive renovation that also comes with an eye-popping price tag.
Crews weren't quite finished with the work when the wraps came off on the first through fifth floors. They still hadn't installed some equipment and had plenty of polishing and cleaning left to do.
The workers will be moving furniture in the coming weeks. Some offices won't be occupied until the Legislature reconvenes in January.
The progress made overshadows the remaining workload. The wall board is gone after a dozen years of temporary walls blocking access to parts of the building.
Fifth-graders from Sunflower Elementary School in Paola – including some who weren't born when the work started – stood in the center of the first-floor rotunda with their necks tilted back and took in a view of the dome's new chandelier.
The renovation has restored much of the building to its Victorian-era opulence, bringing back bold colors and ornate decorative stenciling. The project has received criticism from some legislators for its cost, which is expected to reach $332 million. But the expense didn't seem to bother adults who were accompanying the schoolchildren on their tour.
“I love it,” said parent Quincy Garrett, staring up through the rotunda. “This has to look good. It's the state Capitol. We don't want to be known as a state with a poor state Capitol building.”
Legislators approved the project in 2000, seeing a need to upgrade the water, electrical and other mechanical systems and provide better offices and public meeting rooms.
State officials also were determined to make sure visitors get a sense of the building's decor and grandeur.
“It's the most iconic building in the state,” said Statehouse Architect Barry Greis of the Capitol, which took 37 years to build and was completed in 1903.
Visitors will still see exterior scaffolding and construction crews through the end of next year. The state is replacing aging copper on the building's roof and dome. Meanwhile, a new visitor basement center is a shell, and workers have yet to install a grand driveway and entrance on the north side or replant torn up grass.
Paola parent Larry Palsneier was happy to see more of the building. When he visited three years ago, the rotunda was sealed off on all floors.
“It looks good,” he said. “It's definitely a big improvement.”
Early estimates put the cost of the full renovation at between $90 million and $120 million, but that was before legislative leaders added an underground parking garage and approved an expansion of the basement for new offices. Also, the state discovered unexpected needs for repairing exterior stone and replacing the copper.
The state has issued bonds to cover most of the costs, but some legislators have complained about what they view as lax oversight by their leaders and a money-is-no-object attitude.
“The spectacular-ness of the renovation is exceeded only by its cost,” said Sen. Chris Steineger, a Kansas City Republican who's been among the most vocal critics. “I liken it to a large-group dining experience where everybody thinks someone else is paying, so they order everything on the menu.”
But Greis, the architect, said the state's founders intended for the Statehouse to be an impressive monument to a free state entering the union just before the start of the Civil War.
“We're restoring what they set out to do back in the 1860s,” Greis said, looking over the rotunda from a fifth-floor alcove. “This is the message they wanted to send to the country, as to what Kansas was and how important it was.”