At $332 million, the extensive restoration of the Kansas statehouse is a tough project to defend and an easy one to rip.
To be sure, a third of a billion dollars wasn’t the original price tag. Lawmakers thought the job could be done in five to eight years for $100 million.
But as anyone who’s done a home remodel knows, “unexpected issues” developed. Costs soared, and those five to eight years ballooned to 12. That’s what happens when you let a statehouse go for 80 years and technology explodes.
Still, the last time I looked, $332 million was a lot of money, particularly in a state where the Legislature has trimmed welfare rolls. So the question is, was restoring the Capitol to its former glory, building a gleaming new visitor center and spending all that money the right thing to do?
Well, yes, it was.
Let’s begin with the obvious. Back when I first covered the Kansas Legislature in the late 1980s, the building was a shaggy dog filled with dull brown and beige and scads of folding chairs strewn around the first floor. It was embarrassing — the ugly sister to Missouri’s gleaming Capitol on the banks of the Missouri 3 1/2 hours to the east.
Today it’s a showpiece, its now-copper-colored dome gleaming in the sunlight. The House and Senate chambers are bathed in sparkling golds and yellows with original ceiling artwork freshly restored. In a state often criticized for a lack of anything stunning, the statehouse now qualifies as all of that.
The building could never be duplicated. We couldn’t afford it.
All this is purely cosmetic, of course. What’s more important is what the Kansas statehouse symbolizes. State capitols, by definition, should appeal to our best natures — and especially the best natures of the lawmakers who work there several months a year. Statehouses should uplift and inspire and point us in the right direction because, as the Founding Fathers knew, given a choice, we tend to be all about ourselves.
With its classical arches and columns, its limestone and marble, its wildly colorful murals and no-nonsense statutes, with its football-field height topped by a Kansa warrior aiming his arrow at the North Star — “To the stars through difficulty,” the state motto goes — the Kansas statehouse now fills the bill and then some.
It’s the one place where Kansas comes together. It’s the place that links our past with our future. There’s no place in the state remotely like it.
Every eight decades or so, the people’s house is worth an update.