$241M facelift for state Capitol awaits approval in Legislature


Restorations to the aging state Capitol building in St. Paul took a step forward last week but were met with questions about funding and timing from legislators.

The state’s Capitol Preservation Commission approved a report that recommended spending $241 million to repair and restore the 107-year-old building.

Originally designed by renowned St. Paul architect Cass Gilbert and completed in 1905, the building needs major repairs to its mechanical systems and safety features, the report said, concluding the building is at a “tipping point.”

Although the commission eventually approved the report, which is pending legislative approval, legislators addressed concerns of paying for the restoration, the necessity of the project and the timing of the construction, which could force lawmakers to temporarily leave the Capitol.

‘Tipping point’

If root problems with mechanical and electrical systems aren’t addressed now, more expensive repairs will be needed in the future, the report said.

Crews are currently working on the outer dome of the Capitol — a $13.4 million project that started in 2008.

But the latest proposal is the biggest and most expensive in the building’s history, said Brian Pease, the historic site manager of the Capitol for the Minnesota Historical Society. Pease said that he didn’t think the Capitol had ever been closed in the past for restorations.

In addition to replacing mechanical and electrical systems, “life-safety systems” in the building need to be updated, the report said. According to the report, there is no smoke control system and “only a limited sprinkler system.”

The current Capitol is the third in the state’s history. The first, built in 1853, burned down in 1881 and was replaced by a second that served as the Capitol until 1905 when the current building was finished. The second Capitol building stood until 1938, when it was torn down.

The report recommends moving some offices to make the building easier to navigate, and fixing some of the exterior stone in order to prevent debris from falling on visitors.

“We’ve all got chunks of stone in this office that have dropped off this building as souvenirs,” said Senate Majority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester.

Questions arise

Rep. Larry Howes, R-Walker, said there are “a whole lot of questions that need to be answered” before legislators approve the restoration. The session convenes Jan. 24.

Howes, chairman of the House’s Capital Investment committee, said that he opposed paying the $241 million up front but would be more open to paying for the restorations over a few years.

Senjem agreed.

“I think we will, at some point, take a more incremental approach,” he said.

David Hart, the architect who presented the report, said he was wary of funding the project in smaller chunks, which could leave the project unfinished by future legislators if the money is not put down first.

Regardless, Senjem said he thought an initial chunk of the proposal was possible for bonding in 2012.

Gov. Mark Dayton will unveil his bonding request Tuesday but said it won’t include money for Capitol restorations because the request was finished before the commission approved the plans.

Howes said he was unsure of how the restoration plans would affect a bonding bill. He said the Vikings stadium issue could complicate matters.

Legislators on the commission also addressed other issues such as the construction timeline and potential relocation of state employees.

Only the party with a Senate majority, currently the Republican Party, has office space in the Capitol. The Senate minority and both parties in the House of Representatives have offices across the street in the State Office Building.

It’s possible that legislators wouldn’t be able to hold session at the Capitol for up to two terms. The report didn’t specify an alternate location if construction forced out legislators.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, proposed exploring an around-the-clock style of construction that would keep legislators out of the Capitol for less time.

But Howes said that plan could cost more in overtime pay for workers and for extra security.

Restoration could begin as early as this summer and last until 2016 if it’s put in a bonding bill this session, according to the report.