Workers removed chunks of marble from the Minnesota Capitol exterior in recent weeks, meaning scaffolding protecting visitors from falling debris soon will come down.
But work will continue on the 106-year-old iconic building.
A report on the status of the outside marble is due in a few weeks, complete with estimates of what further work would cost and how soon it should be done. For now, however, state officials say visitors should feel safe visiting the Capitol.
“The early indication is that they were able to remove most of the loose pieces that really were presenting a life-safety concern,” said Wayne Waslaski of the state Administration Department.
Workers removed most of the loose stone by hand or with slight taps with a hammer, showing how fragile the Capitol’s exterior skin had become. Waslaski said at least one piece weighed 40 to 50 pounds.
For months, scaffolding has been in place to catch hunks of marble that could fall on visitors. A relatively small piece could hurt or kill someone it hit.
At the same time workers are trying to prevent the public from being hurt, they are trying to save the Capitol from water and modernize it.
A $4 million dome-repair project this summer is pretty much completed and planners are ready to replace the rest of the Capitol roof next year.
Inside, some water damage remains to be repaired and a dozen large windows in the dome must be replaced next year. Workers have replaced outdated air-handling equipment and are upgrading the heating system.
“There are multiple projects going on within the building,” Waslaski said.
The state has spent $13.4 million since 2008 and this year’s Legislature approved another $4 million.
Minnesota paid $4.5 million to construct the Capitol in the early 1900s.
Current work is just dealing with “the greatest vulnerabilities,” Waslaski said, not making repairs and improvements many think are needed to keep the Capitol viable.
“The big message is that what we are doing now is not addressing the needs that the building has in a comprehensive way,” Waslaski said. “We really need a comprehensive approach, just like many other states have done with buildings of the same era.”
A committee that includes Gov. Mark Dayton and key legislators is working on a comprehensive plan for the Capitol. It could be like one from a few years ago that would have funded extensive repairs and added space by building underground.
The price tag was too large and lawmakers never considered the proposal, and with economic problems now such a grand plan has little chance.
Scaffolding around the Capitol generates questions.
“Sometimes visitors think the work being done is to restore the building, which we clarify is repair work only, which until completed, restoration work can’t begin,” said Brian Pease, Minnesota Historical Society Capitol site manager.
“Overall, the public has reacted positively,” he said. “Once they find out the building is over 100 years old, they understand the need for doing repairs as part of maintaining this historic Capitol.”
The biggest problem workers face is water.
Marble is not a good material to keep out water, because joints do not seal well, so the Capitol architect designed a system under the outside dome to catch and remove the water. This summer’s work repaired and improved the system.
While some of the scaffolding soon will disappear, a large segment will remain east of the main entrance because exterior repair work is needed there. Also, temporary exterior stairs will remain in place on the back of the Capitol so workers have continued access to the very top of the dome, where copper has deteriorated and workers are fixing it.
Inside, scaffolding will stay far above the rotunda floor at least the windows at the dome’s base are replaced next summer.
A perk of the interior dome work is that a six-foot-diameter chandelier will remain on display on the first floor. It normally is 142 feet above Capitol visitors, but the one-ton light was lowered for the first time since 1979 while the dome repair began.
Artwork below the dome is due to be fixed after sustaining water damage.
“We are waiting to make sure the waterproof work we did and the drainage we installed is working properly before we repair the artwork,” Waslaski said.
The Capitol dome really is a three-dome system, one inside the other.
The outside dome is 89 feet in diameter, one of the world’s biggest self-supporting marble domes. The interior dome is 60 feet in diameter.
When weather permits, tours are available for visitors to walk in the dome system to the roof, for a view of St. Paul and Minneapolis skylines. On most days, free tours are available inside the Capitol.