Chandelier's returns highlights Capitol restoration efforts

10:03 PM, Jan 17, 2013   |    comments
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - For Minnesota history buffs, it was day to celebrate another milestone in preservation.

The one-ton, beaded glass chandelier has been cleaned and repaired.  And after being in storage for two years, the orb on Thursday was returned to its home on the ceiling of the Capitol dome.

"It's a very exciting day, and it's one more step in this restoration of the Capitol building," Sen. Anne Rest of New Hope, a member of the Capitol Preservation Commission, told KARE.

From the first floor it appears to be a tiny ball, but that's only an illusion created by the staggering dimensions of the dome itself. In truth, you could squeeze several people inside the chandelier if it were hollow.

It's been lowered to the floor only six times since 1905, according to Sen. Rest.  It came down in 2010 to make way for repairs of the dome.  And, since it was down anyway, the Minnesota Historical Society restored it to its original sparkle.

"It had to be refurbished. Bulbs had to be replaced, it had to be cleaned because of all the water damage over the years," Rep. Dean Urdahl of Grove City, another member of the preservation commission, told KARE.

"It's not easy to move that chandelier up and down. It's a major project and takes quite some time."

The chandelier is lit once a year on May 11 for Statehood Day, and on other occasions deemed special enough to warrant flicking on those hard-to-replace bulbs.

The raising of the chandelier was one such occasion, and the Historical Society marked it with a ceremony complete with speeches and songs.

As soon as the ball reached its normal position, a switch was flipped and beams of warm incandescent light burst through the glass beads. The crowd of lawmakers and history lovers burst into applause, and the singing resumed.

Renovation and Restoration

It was a spectacle that would've made Capitol architect Cass Gilbert proud.   What he wouldn't appreciate, however, is the fact that the current keepers of his masterpiece have been forced to play catch-up to repair the ravages of time and Minnesota weather.

"This is the number one building in the state of Minnesota. This is symbol of the state," Rep. Urdahl remarked.

"We have to take care of it. We have to restore it and bring it back so that it can be here for another 100 years."

The chandelier came down so that construction crews could repair leaking windows in what is the second largest free-standing marble dome in the world.  They also repaired the finial atop the dome to its original golden luster.

Urdahl is asking fellow lawmakers to approve $109 million in additional bonding, which would be the latest installment in a Capitol renovation estimated at $240 million by consulting engineers.

He knows it won't be easy in the era of tight budgets, when lawmakers are more prone to pay for capital projects in more of a piecemeal fashion.  And his request comes just one year after the Legislature okayed $44 million in bonds for restoration.

Crews are currently repairing stone work around the exterior, and replacing some of the architectural details that have fallen off or crumbled.  Urdahl agreed that was badly needed.

But now, he says, it's time to focus on things Capitol visitors don't see with the naked eye.

"The leaking windows and the stains on the artwork on the murals in this building, we've been addressing those," Urdahl explained.

"That new money would be used for the systems for the building, the mechanical, the electrical, basically we are attempting through this to modernize the building.

The wires and pipes that snake along the ceilings in the Capitol basement are a constant reminder that technology has changed in the last 108 years.

But any work done at the Capitol must be approved by several oversight committees, to make sure it doesn't violate the structural or historic integrity of the building. And it has to accommodate the human traffic in a place that functions both as a museum and the seat of state government.

That's why it seems at time that the restoration is moving at a glacial pace.  But bringing the "People's House" up to 21st Century specs must be done in a way that preserves the way it looked in 1905.

Of course, when lawmakers are successful convincing their colleagues to invest in restoration, it does create a few construction-related headaches.  And the visuals aren't quite as compelling when it is draped in scaffolds and surrounded by cranes.

"I hope in my lifetime, quite frankly, that I'll be able to see this capitol without scaffolding or sheeting covering it!" Rest laughed. 

(Copyright KARE 2013. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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