It seemed like a good idea when it happened more than a century ago.
It was tradition in Topeka among Kansas politicians to give Statehouse furniture to retiring members, staff and employees.
Desks. Chairs. Spittoons. It didn’t matter what the object was — it was given in honor to show service.
But after the Populist uprising of the 1890s, the custom began to wear thin with some senators.
In 1901, Kansas Sen. Thomas Noftzger of Anthony decided to show the silliness of the custom and introduced a resolution giving Senate Secretary Charles M. Sheldon, who was retiring that year, the Kansas State Capitol building’s dome, which was still two years from being completed.
Senate Resolution No. 58 passed. The new Capitol dome was Sheldon’s, “his assigns and heirs, forever,” provided it was never moved from its present location.
The Sheldons kept their end of the deal.
They never moved the dome.
And, the extravagant giveaways stopped.
But now, after 111 years and a leaking Capitol dome needing some $22 million in repairs, it raises the question: Who owns the Kansas Statehouse dome?
Statehouse architect Barry Greis said last week: “It was my understanding that the resolution was done in a certain way that they truly are not the owners.”
He has proceeded as if the Kansas taxpayers own the dome.
The Sheldon family story may say otherwise.
The dome’s owners
In October 1963, the Kansas City Times reported that the dome’s owner was Ruth Sheldon Knowles of Tulsa, a granddaughter to Charles Sheldon.
When her grandfather retired as Senate secretary, he moved to Tulsa and was an oil operator until his death. His three sons eventually died and Knowles and another grandchild, Richard Sheldon, were left as heirs.
She wrote to then-Kansas Gov. George Docking telling him she was the owner. He wrote back “our dome is in good shape and no taxes are due.”
Even so, in 1966, when a tornado tore through downtown Topeka and ripped off some of the dome’s copper sheeting, the Kansas Legislature paid for the patch.
In the 1970s, with Sheldon’s grandchildren far from Kansas, they decided they couldn’t leave their property unattended. Richard Sheldon, then-chief geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C., appointed his friend William Hambleton, then-director of the Kansas Geological Survey, as the honorary custodian of the dome.
“I knew Bob Docking pretty well and when I told him I’m the honorary keeper of the dome, he said, ‘Here’s the key and the mop,’ ” said Hambleton, 90, who lives in Lawrence.
Hambleton said he’s never inspected the dome.
“They didn’t pay me enough to repair the Capitol,” he said. “About the time they made me the custodian, they shut it down to anybody going up the stairs. They kept it shut for a long, long time.”
Richard Sheldon told UPI reporter John Braden in 1977 he was pleased with Hambleton’s job performance with the Capitol dome.
“I think he’s doing the job very well,” Sheldon said. “And the evidence of it — it’s still there. I see Bill every year and he gives me his annual report.”
Hambleton said he has since lost track of the Sheldon family.
And so, who will be the next owner?
Hambleton says he is unsure. He’s not sure his son or daughter would be interested in being the official keeper of the dome.
“I think the ownership is honorary. I don’t know if it still exists,” he said.
The weight of the law
“Senate Resolution No. 58: Resolved: That the thanks of the Senate are hereby tendered to Chas. M. Sheldon, secretary of the Senate, for the courteous, efficient and faithful manner in which he has performed the duties of his office during this session; and we recognize that his diligence and ability have greatly assisted the Senate in the performance of its work, and merit high commendation.”
Lin Fredericksen, reference archivist in the State Archives Division of the Kansas State Historical Society, said resolutions can be passed without actually becoming law. She suspects this may have been the case with Senate Resolution No. 58.
“It’s kind of questionable,” said Jeffrey Jackson, professor of law at Washburn University in Topeka. “I think there is a real legal problem with the actual transfer.”
Bottom line: Kansas taxpayers still own the dome. They have to foot the bill for the repairs.
“It does serve as a reminder that the Legislature doesn’t have the power to just give away state property,” Jackson said. “Their power to dispose state property has boundaries. It has to be for some public purpose or use.”