Kansas statehouse visitor center opens to the public

01/02/2014 5:39 PM

01/03/2014 6:56 AM

Kansas residents and officials used words like “cool” and “awesome” Thursday to describe the restored grandeur of the statehouse as the doors to a new visitor center opened.

The festivities marked the completion of the nearly $330 million restoration project that took 13 years. Gov. Sam Brownback, Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast and members of the Kansas Historical Society cut a ribbon to open the new center.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Travis Johnson, 8, who came to the event with his Cub Scout den. “I want to come back again so I can see the dome.”

The space becomes the public entrance to the building, which was constructed over 37 years starting in 1866. Visitors will enter the building from the north at the ground level and pass through limestone corridors that form the foundation. Photographs and other artifacts tell the history of the state, its people and landscape.

“Thank you for what you have done to make our city such a top-class city,” Wolgast said.

The renovations started in 2001 under Republican Gov. Bill Graves. They have included upgrades to offices, meeting rooms and mechanical systems. Some previously drab rooms and hallways have been restored to their original 19th-century opulence.

Early estimates of the work pegged the cost at $90 million to $120 million, but that was before legislative leaders added an underground parking garage and approved an expansion of the basement for new offices.

The state also discovered unexpected needs for repairing the exterior stone and replacing copper on the roof and dome.

“I have some prepared remarks, but before I get into them, isn’t this awesome?” Brownback said at the ribbon-cutting.

During the renovation, crews discovered many unknown features of the building, including fireplaces, ornate stenciling and doorways between rooms that were closed off during previous restoration efforts.

Much of the exterior work has been completed, though some of the final pieces of landscaping won’t be installed until spring. A concrete driveway that previously encircled the building was replaced with paver stones. New lighting was installed along sidewalks, but lights that previously illuminated the building were not replaced.

Michael Flax, a Topeka junior high school principal, said the renovations were impressive. He made his first visit to the building two years ago when construction was still going on.

“I think it’s a showpiece worth every dime,” Flax said.

The historical society manages the space and a new gift shop, which includes souvenir pieces of the original green copper dome that has been replaced. The society estimates that the renovated statehouse could attract more than 150,000 visitors annually, based on similar experiences nationwide at other renovated capitol buildings.

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