Grandeur restored: Kansas Capitol renovations complete after 13 years

The Kansas Statehouse is bathed in late afternoon light. After nearly 13 years and more than $300 million the Capitol is almost better than new.
The Kansas Statehouse is bathed in late afternoon light. After nearly 13 years and more than $300 million the Capitol is almost better than new. The Wichita Eagle

When construction began on the Kansas Capitol’s East Wing in 1866, Major Gen. George Armstrong Custer had just been sent to Kansas with the U.S. 7th Cavalry to help provide protection for railroad workers and frontier Kansans.

When work began on the building’s West Wing in 1879, former slaves known as Exodusters were coming to Kansas in large groups from the Deep South to form all-black communities in Kansas.

And by the late 1880s, when work on the central building began to link the two wings together, the rise of the nation’s Populist movement had its roots firmly planted and defined by Kansans.

Kansas’ Capitol building was inspired by the state’s residents and what they thought the future would hold.

“It recognizes the dreams and aspirations of the people that started all this when they first came to Kansas,” said statehouse architect Barry Greis.

“They had a vision that they needed something to endure and last and be bigger than they were. To build this on the plains of Kansas in the 1800s when people are living in sod houses, come on ... . I mean, think about the vision they had.”

The efforts to restore and renovate the building more than a century later were just as monumental.

It took 13 years, $332 million and a lot of convincing to get Kansans to spend money on repairing the state’s Capitol when many were struggling in an economy considered the nation’s worst since the 1930s.

“I think it says we have one of the nicest state capitols in the nation and that we are willing, as a state – in a bipartisan fashion – to say this is a symbol and needs to look as fine as it can,” said Tom Averill, professor of English and writer-in-residence at Washburn University.

“I appreciate we can agree to spend that much money on a symbol for the state, but I wish we would extend some of that beauty to some of our other public buildings or other issues we might agree on. For instance, it might be beautiful if we had children not go to bed hungry. ”

Besides restoring the main building and leaking dome, the renovation included new heating and cooling systems, expanded office space, more restrooms and security. It also provided for an underground parking garage and visitors’ center.

The renovation, many say, was long overdue. For nearly eight decades, after the building was finished in 1903, any repairs or maintenance were done with a Band-Aid approach.

“I can remember back in 1958 or 1959, I was in high school and working for a cement contractor pouring sidewalks and driveways at the Capitol,” said House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell. “I can remember coming into the building then and thinking, ‘Gosh, it is a nice building, but it sure has a lot of wear and tear on it.’

“We had let the place deteriorate to the point where there was a lot that had to be done.”

The vision

In some ways, the newly restored Capitol is an architect’s dream.

There is opulence and grandeur. Copper, 17 types of marble, crystal and granite … and the story of Kansas.

“I think the Capitol building is reflective of the times it was built and what those people expected Kansas to become,” said Virgil Deana Kansas historian from Lawrence.

For 19th-century Kansans, there was no doubt “Kansas was a leader and would be a major player in the Union and for years to come,” Dean said. “The building was a reflection of the optimism of what Kansans wanted to have happen. What better way to promote a new state than to build a grand Capitol that rivals the U.S. Capitol in grandeur?”

The Capitol – which cost $3.2 million to build – is the reflection of two major 19th-century architects, Wisconsin’s Edward Townsend Mix and John G. Haskell from Lawrence.

In 1862, 20 acres of land was donated by Cyrus K. Holiday – one of the founders of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway – to construct a Capitol. Mix initially designed the building in the French Renaissance style; Haskell adjusted some of those plans when he designed the wings.

“When I hear his (Haskell’s) name, I think of major institutional, public, and religious buildings,” said Sarah Martin national register coordinator for the Kansas State Historical Society. “I think of permanent and lasting buildings.”

Haskell built the Capitol in a Classical Revival style, mixed with some ancient Greek and Roman elements. It is 17 feet taller than the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., according to the Kansas State Historical Society. The building was listed on the National Register in 1971.

“The craftsmanship is the reason it took so long to build,” Martin said. “There are references to Kansas everywhere in the building – sunflowers and the initials of KS are on this ornate building of its time.”

Capitol tour highlights

The story of Kansas is portrayed in the Capitol through key artifacts, paintings and documents showcasing a colorful 15 decades of statehood.

“When we chose to display items from our museum’s collection, we felt it was important to put at the Capitol items telling the story of how violent it was during our territorial period,” said Mary Madden, director of the Kansas State Historical Society’s museum and education. “The Capitol is a wonderful place to show visitors the best we have in the state.”

The fiery abolitionist John Brown’s sword is one of the objects on display. There is a page from the Wyandotte Constitution, adopted in 1859, which made Kansas a free, or slavery-prohibiting, state when it entered the Union on Jan. 29, 1861.

Also on display are photographs of famous Kansans, the original silk banner of Kansas and a map of the 105 counties of Kansas embedded into the floor along with photographs of places showing the Sunflower state is not tabletop flat.

As the 13-year restoration work was being completed, items workers found hidden in the building were also placed on display: rubber galoshes from the 1930s, a copper plate and a piece of paper found in the dome, along with construction tools from the original workers.

The mural “Tragic Prelude” by John Steuart Curry, featuring John Brown, is still there. The painting by Curry, a Jefferson County native and one of the Midwest's most famous artists, was immediately criticized upon completion in 1940: the Hereford bull was too red; John Brown was too big; the farm wife's skirt was too short, and the pigs’ tails curled in the wrong direction.

When Curry asked legislators to remove marble panels to give him more room to paint murals on the second-floor rotunda, they refused. Curry was so incensed he refused to sign his name to the existing murals.

The Capitol dome will soon be back open to tours – hopefully by Kansas Day on Wednesday.

The 296-step climb up a metal stairway that hugs the dome's interior – there's nothing between the railing and the rotunda floor below – will take you to the highest point in Topeka. On a good day, you can see 10 to 12 miles.

And the old cage-style passenger elevator installed in 1923 – and one of the last in the nation to be hand operated – is still in operation.

Reason to be proud

What is most striking is the color of the Capitol’s interior. Gone are the days of shabby white and gritty brown.

“The pressed copper was all black to dark brown and that was because of all the smoke, dirt and pollutants,” statehouse architect Greis said.

“None of this is new copper. We just hand polished it. It was originally here. We put a clear coat on it to maintain it.”

The colors and stencils chosen during the renovation, Greis said, were often the original colors when the Capitol’s construction was finished in 1903.

“We had no idea there was this much gold leaf and ornate design,” Greis said. “But this is what we found.”

Those were some of the lessons learned during the renovation process, Speaker Merrick said.

It had been the legislative mentality for many decades, he said, to not fix the basic maintenance problems in the building but cover them up.

“The plaster in the second floor was the old horse hair plaster and lathe,” he said. “We couldn’t just touch it up. It had to be redone.

“When you incrementally let something deteriorate, it takes a Herculean effort to bring it back to the way it was. What we learned is that you’ve got to take care of things as you go along.”

With the work now completed, Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said the building is meant for Kansans to take pride in their state.

“Our forefathers, when they set up this state and decided to build this facility so that we could conduct legislation, they built something that would last for many years,” she said.

“We have a wonderful Capitol with a history that is going to be around for generations to come.”

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