- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Thomas Whetstone pointed at a 2-foot crack on the third floor of the Wyoming Capitol.

The fissure meanders for a few inches then rips through the painted motif of a Roman fasces, a wooden bundle tied around an axe that symbolizes magisterial power. A few touch ups on the paint job haven’t been able to hide the fracture.

“If you can cover it and it stays covered, great. But if it keeps revealing itself the building is trying to tell us something,” he said.

Whetstone is a senior project principal for HDR Architecture in Denver. He is the man in charge of finding faults and fixing the Capitol’s 128-year-old framework.

As the Wyoming Legislature’s budget session proceeded below at breakneck speed, he stood next to Suzanne Norton. She’s the other Capitol nitpicker and knows where to find all the cracks, corrosion, mold, safety hazards and other code violations in the building. As the state’s project coordinator with the Department of Administration and Information, she’s tasked with overseeing the upcoming renovations.

Norton and Whetstone see beyond the eye-catching Victorian veneer of the legislative chambers. They look at the Capitol as a ticking time bomb. As they walked around the building, they highlighted a myriad of defects. Each flaw was additional proof for rehabbing the home of state government.

Along with more cracks were loose bricks, an outdated ventilation system, pell-mell wiring and splitting wooden beams supporting the top of the Capitol dome. There are missing bolts in the dome’s cross bracing and chipped gilding on the dome’s iconic façade.

The building’s fire and smoke suppression is non-existent. Many of the pipes are a disaster waiting to happen, Norton said.

A bill appropriating $259 million for a Capitol face lift and makeover to the neighboring Herschler Building has been approved by the Legislature and sent to Gov. Matt Mead. The state began saving for the renovations in 2003 and has $105 million in the bank. If Mead signs the bill it will provide $37.5 million each year for the next four years to help pay for the project.

Three lawmakers out of 90 voted against the project. The majority are on board with spending the money but there was some squabbling over the details: When will it begin? Will the offices of the five elected officials remain in the Capitol? Will there be new furniture? What color paint?

“We don’t have any answers yet,” said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, during a House floor debate. He is on the Joint Legislative and Executive Task Force for Capitol Reconstruction and Renovation. It’s overseen two studies about the building’s condition. Once the bill passes, he said, the Legislature will allocate money for a third and final study to help answer the questions.

During the same debate, Rep. Matt Greene, R-Laramie, expressed skepticism with the project — even though he voted in favor of it.

“How often do we appropriate a $259 million check when we don’t know what the end result will be,” he said with skepticism.

Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, voted against the bill when it was in the Senate. He isn’t convinced of the price tag.

“I love the place, and I want to preserve the character,” he said. “But it’s an unfathomable amount of money.”

Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau addressed his chamber on the need for a new Capitol. He is a volunteer firefighter and derided the building as a “chimney.” If a fire erupted the building would fill with smoke and be a life hazard within five minutes, he said.

“We’ve been lucky and dodged bullets for 100 years,” he said. “But it’s about time we start addressing the needs and make a Capitol that fits the needs of the 21st century, not the 19th.”

Wyoming wasn’t even a state when contractors laid the first cornerstone in 1887. The Capitol Building Commission threw a party in celebration. They smoked two steers, two hogs and 10 sheep to feed 4,000 people. They ended the night with a dance, said Suzi Taylor, a reference archivist at the Wyoming Sate Archives.

The territorial governor, F.E. Warren, dedicated the building in 1889. At the time, Cheyenne was only slated to be a temporary capital city. But it used the building as leverage to cement the capital status in a 1904 election that asked voters what city should host government, said Phil Roberts, a history professor at the University of Wyoming.

Two major expansions occurred since the building’s dedication. One was in 1890. The other was in 1917, drafting what is now the current framework of the Capitol. There have been 15 minor touchups on the building since 1980.

Historical integrity is a term touted by advocates for the renovation. Norton and Whetstone are the first to admit they are walking a fine line in preserving history and modernizing the building. Fewer than 20 capitols nationwide are recognized as National Historic Landmarks. Wyoming’s is on the list.

“The difficulty is providing services to all spaces in a way that doesn’t damage the historical fabric,” Whetstone said.

A quick glance upwards at the resplendent Tiffany-styled glass and paintings in the rotunda offers a high-plains recollection of a wild west that no longer exists. Artists from the Works Progress Administration painted the state and territorial seals in the rotunda in 1934. Work was under the direction of Jeanette Kaiser of Casper. Libbie Hoffman and Frank Lewis of Cheyenne assisted her. The glass arrived during the second renovation in 1917. No one is sure who made it and when.

The careful eye can even find a purposeful flaw in one of the hand-carved spindles lining the stairwell leading up to the House chambers from the first floor. Unlike the hundreds that line the balconies and staircases, it’s the only one that’s upside down.

Legend has it an Amish woodworker did it on purpose, Taylor said. As he placed the inverted spindle into Wyoming history, it’s purported the man said, “God is the only one who can make something perfect.”

The widespread charm of the building also lies beyond the main thoroughfares.

A roped-off stairwell on the third floor leads to what’s known as the attic. It’s a skeleton with a planked floor and minimal lighting. There are no lobbyists or lawmakers hurrying around. The only presence is the din of the overworked ventilation system.

The attic is also the entryway to the interior of the rotunda. Flood lights blast the stain glass to provide the illusion of sunlight to people working below. A dead moth rested on a pane of the glass.

As Whetstone and Norton walked from the base of the dome into the drum of the structure, there was an abundance of signatures and initials carved or drawn on steel beams and wood. At the top of the dome was Gov. Matt Mead’ s signature dated July 2013. The initials CWH were from 1913. One of the oldest in the attic is from July 1895.

The dome’s porthole windows provide a 360-degree view of Cheyenne. The snowcapped Front Range rises in the south. The plains lay flat to the east.

Back in the busy, occupied sections of the building, Whetstone addressed a decoration that annoys him. There’s a technique in French architecture where mirrors provide the illusion of openness in small rooms, he said.

Mirrors hang above the entrance way to the House and Senate lobbies. Elevators and jutting walls cramp the areas. Mirrors create the illusion of a staircase headed in a direction that does not exist.

Whetstone said the elevators will be moved, the walls redesigned and the mirrors scrapped.

“We want this building to be truly open,” he said. “There will be no illusions in government.”


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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