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State’s $50 million Capitol rehab: Long overdue? Or questionable excess?

Updated: September 26, 2013 6:46AM

SPRINGFIELD — State construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a meticulous $50 million renovation of the Capitol that aims to restore its ornate late-1800s charm — down to the new, copper-plated entry doors, stenciled ceiling paint, sculptures of robed “maidens” and 300-pound office chandeliers.

But a prominent fiscal watchdog is questioning the state’s priorities in undertaking such an opulent makeover of the Statehouse at a time when Illinois’ bond rating has tumbled repeatedly because of the state’s $100 billion pension crisis and its stack of unpaid bills to vendors stands at nearly $7 billion.

The two-year overhaul of the Statehouse’s west wing should be completed next month, enabling state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, 13 displaced senators, six House members, support staff for the House Republican and Senate Republican caucuses and the press corps to move back in to their refurbished Capitol offices.

Capitol Architect J. Richard Alsop III, whose office oversaw the restoration work, led reporters on a tour of the nearly completed project Friday, justifying its breadth and attention to historical detail but offering no sense of how much things such as the copper doorways or hulking chandeliers in some offices cost.

“I don’t think we’ve created something new,” he said. “We have just made what was here, we’ve just shined it up.… These things are critical to public architecture, and I don’t think we’ve made the wrong move here.”

Alsop said the majority of the project’s expense was necessitated to make vital fire-safety, electrical, plumbing and heating-and-cooling upgrades, including construction of a new stairwell that did not exist earlier.

“It was a code-deficient building. We had life-safety issues. We had fire modeling that was done that showed if anyone were in this wing, or really other parts of the Capitol, there was a severe life-safety issue. You couldn’t get people out of the building. That’s why we put in the brand new stairway. And we extended the stair to the basement. Mechanical systems were failing. The plumbing systems were failing. It was really past time. We really waited too long,” he said.

But in making those upgrades, Alsop said there was a push to remain true to the 18th century baroque, 19th century classical and French Renaissance styles of architecture that Alfred Henry Piquenard employed in designing the Capitol, which was constructed between 1868 and 1887 at a cost of $4.5 million.

Layers of paint were scraped away to reveal original designs that, in turn, were recreated in hues of bronze, pink, goldenrod and turquoise. Exterior doors, which originally were oak and walnut with bronze ornamentation, were remade by wrapping new wooden doors with copper that Alsop said should last a century.

And a pair of bronze sculptures of robed “maidens” holding glass-bulbed ornamental lighting were installed on the second-floor Grand Staircase — an original concept by Piquenard that was scrapped in the 1800s because the sculptures were “thought too risqué to install,” Alsop said.

“No matter what building you decide to renovate, whether a 1950s capitol building or one from the 1860s, you’re going to find something unique about each one of them,” Alsop said. “The mindset you have to have is, what was the original architect thinking, and can I respect that and try to bring it back to what he saw for this building?”

Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago), said those moving back into the building will have a mix of new and refurbished furniture in their offices, though she could not affix a price tag on those purchases.

“We do have a little bit of difficulty in reusing some of the furniture from before for a number of reasons,” she said. “Some of the new spaces are large. Some are very small. Some have an odd shape. Some have shared spaces. A lot of furniture we had before won’t fit into the new design, and for that reason, a lot will be replaced.”

But like Alsop, Phelon said that expenditure and the project’s overall cost are worth it despite the state’s financial plight, because there is long-range historical value in the restoration work along with making the building more functional.

“You have to ask people to project beyond our current circumstances,” she said. “We’re going to do this once. We’re going to do it well, and it’s going to last 100 to 200 years. You have to set your contexts larger than our current circumstances and think about the historical value of doing it right. It may be difficult for people to do, but that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Historical renovation is expensive. The last major facelift at the Capitol was the $28 million gutting and refurbishing of the House and Senate chambers, a project that included a $38,000 clock, dozens of historically accurate $400 door knobs and a nearly $500,000 four-piece set of crystal chandeliers with a mechanized hoisting system.

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, told the Chicago Sun-Times Friday that he understands the reasons for trying to preserve the architectural integrity of the Capitol but questioned the timing of the expense, particularly given the state’s fiscal crisis and massive construction needs elsewhere in the state.

“The state of Illinois has billions of dollars in unmet capital needs at its universities, colleges and other public institutions that are not prioritized according to economic impact or safety or any other areas,” Msall said. “Because it doesn’t have a capital improvement plan, it’s impossible for anyone to tell you if this $50 million could have been something less and still met the objective of preserving the safety of the Capitol building and whether the residual funds could have been spent in other priority areas in state government.

“It will be difficult in this time of great financial distress for the state of Illinois for anyone to look beyond the sparkling rehabilitation of the Capitol building and not wonder how effective that investment will be in stabilizing the state’s ongoing fiscal and pension crisis,” he said.

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