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Minnesota’s National Register historian, Denis P. Gardner, has written a book chronicling the Capitol’s history and restoration. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)
Minnesota’s National Register historian, Denis P. Gardner, has written a book chronicling the Capitol’s history and restoration. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Book recounts Capitol building’s history, renovation

Editor’s note: This article was prepared for Minnesota Lawyer’s sister newspaper, Finance & Commerce, to coincide with the Grand Opening of the renovated Minnesota State Capitol, which takes place Aug. 11-13.

The Capitol is a Renaissance Revival structure, a style of architecture popular in the 19th century and focused on classic Italian modes of design. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

The Capitol is a Renaissance Revival structure, a style of architecture popular in the 19th century and focused on classic Italian modes of design. (Staff photo: Bill Klotz)

Not that long ago, the Minnesota State Capitol, while still an impressive structure, was definitely showing its age. Now, thanks to a four-year, $310 million restoration project, the 112-year-old St. Paul landmark is the talk of the town — and the toast of the town during this weekend’s celebrations.

The State Capitol has plenty of stories to tell. The saga of the original construction and the restoration project is the subject of a new book by author and state National Register Historian Denis P. Gardner. “Our Minnesota State Capitol: From Groundbreaking through Restoration” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $19.95) traces the building’s history, from the clashing egos during the design phase through the meticulous restoration project completed this year.

“The book was triggered by the restoration,” said Gardner, who has written two other books about Minnesota history. “We’ve never had a restoration project like this. The Minnesota Historical Society thought it would be a good idea to highlight the Capitol at this moment in time.”

The Capitol is a Renaissance Revival structure, a style of architecture popular in the 19th century and focused on classic Italian modes of design. Revered Minnesota architect Cass Gilbert won a design competition, but soon found himself at odds with the seven-man Board of State Capitol Commissioners, mostly over budget issues.

That’s when Channing Seabury, the leader of the board, becomes the hero of the story, Gardner said in an interview.

“The governor at the time, John Albert Johnson, was the ex-officio president of the board, but it was really Seabury who shouldered the load,” said Gardner. “He ran a lot of interference for Gilbert and had to massage egos on both sides.”

Once finished, the building exemplified Minnesota’s blossoming urban centers and contained several engineering touches that were novel at the time, such as its own heating plant and the second-largest self-supported marble dome in the world.

The building’s restoration was a work of art in itself. On the fix-it list were crumbling exterior marble and stone, cramped public spaces and antiquated mechanical, electric and plumbing systems.

“We knew we couldn’t fix everything, and that we shouldn’t fix everything,” said Ginny Lackovic, who was HGA’s project architect for the exterior portion of the restoration. “We were conscious of preserving as much of the historical material as we could.”

The task for Lackovic and her colleagues was integrating the new with the old while orchestrating essential repairs to the exterior. “We had to balance new and old and come up with a plan that would leave the building looking like a unified whole,” she said.

One head-scratcher for HGA’s architects was the fully exposed, free-standing columns that circle the Capitol. Because the columns are load-bearing, extra care had to be taken to leave enough original material in place to keep the building stable.

“That was one portion where everyone kind of swallowed hard,” Lackovic said. “It took planning and execution at another level.”

Along with structural issues, there were also aesthetic concerns: The artwork throughout the building was in almost uniformly poor shape. Inside the old Supreme Court chambers, a mural of Moses accepting the Ten Commandments was covered in soot, and other paintings were torn or otherwise damaged.

Washington, D.C.-Page Conservation was responsible for the art restoration, which ranged from simple cleaning to complex repairs to the artwork and underlying surfaces.

“That was the part that impressed me, the before and after of the artwork,” said Gardner. “I don’t think most people know how dirty the art was. The colors just pop now.”

“Our Minnesota State Capitol: From Groundbreaking through Restoration” was released on Aug. 1, and will be part of a series of events marking the Capitol restoration.

“The Historical Society Press did a great job of creating an outline and researching the images,” said Gardner of the project. “It’s a very enjoyable subject, so it wasn’t really hard work.”

Restoration couldn’t be done piecemeal

Editor’s note: This excerpt is from “Our Minnesota State Capitol: From Groundbreaking through Restoration” by Denis P. Gardner. The excerpt is reprinted with permission from the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Historic preservation as policy when contemplating care of the capitol received a substantial boost with Governor Rudy Perpich. A major part of the project involved locating displaced historic furniture and returning it to historic spaces. This was a significant undertaking of the Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS), an institution uniquely positioned for the task as the state’s principal repository of historical information. Moreover, it managed the capitol as a historic site. Since that early preservation effort, the MNHS has been intimately involved with any discussion of alterations, restorations, and rehabilitations at the capitol.

By the 2010s, state leaders began to coalesce around a plan for a comprehensive restoration on the capitol. This was spurred in part by a few events, one being a planned $4 million makeover of the capitol dome in 2009. Initial work on that project revealed that the capitol was suffering in many areas, as the CAAPB [Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board] had been claiming for years. Unsettling events helped illustrate the point. In 2010, a section of the Gemini zodiac inside the upper reaches of the capitol dome— a work of fine art composed by prominent artist Elmer Garnsey— broke free and wafted downward. Fortunately, because of work taking place in the dome, its fall was arrested by a construction tarp, limiting further damage to the valuable mural. This event was followed in 2012 by the iconic image of Representative Dean Urdahl hefting a stone scroll while speaking in the House chamber. His prop had been removed with a few taps of a hammer, proving that the capitol exterior was shedding stone.

Further investigation convinced the reluctant it was time to pony up for the state’s principal monument. A comprehensive master plan was completed in early 2012. Although the state legislature wrangled somewhat over timing, funding, and overall scope, the state’s leaders understood that comprehensive restoration could no longer wait and that the aesthetic delight that is the State Capitol need not forever be blemished by piecemeal repairs.

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