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Capitol repairs have only just begun

While scaffolding has been removed from the very top of the Minnesota Capitol dome after the final golden ball was repaired and covered with new gold leaf, it remains in place elsewhere as repairs and rennovattions continue. Don Davis | Bemidji Pioneer

ST. PAUL - The golden ball atop Minnesota's Capitol dome is as shiny as anyone alive today has seen it.

It was unveiled last month, 434 feet above the ground, freshly repaired and with new gold leaf covering it. The dome system beneath it, with three domes inside each other, also is newly fixed.

But below the second-largest self-supporting marble dome in the world, the 107-year-old Capitol building is hurting.

Paint is peeling off the cafeteria ceiling, renovated in 1999 when 22 layers of paint were removed to reveal the original design. Nearby, leaking drains have ruined much of what used to be an ornate judges' dining room. At the base of the dome, water from 1980s-era windows defaced paintings.

The list goes on. Water and time show their effects on the Capitol, inside and out.

"It is not unusual for buildings that have exteriors at the 100-year mark to have to undergo extensive repair work," said Wayne Waslaski of the state Administration Department and a coordinator of a Capitol renovation project.

A dozen other century-old state capitols, including in Wisconsin and Iowa, have undergone renovation, Waslaski said, with only Minnesota's left.

Fixing the Capitol, which hosts 300,000 visitors a year, is a multi-year project but just how long it takes, and how much gets done, depends on legislators and governors in coming years.

So far, two major projects have begun.

One is removing blocks of marble that could fall off the outside of the Capitol and hurt or kill a visitor below. The biggest chunks have been removed, with work continuing to repair water damage, mostly in the southeast part of the main Capitol entrance.

Dome repair is the second project.

A marble dome, for all if its beauty, is lousy roofing material. Water easily leaks through joints, so architect Cass Gilbert designed a three-dome system to provide a drainage system under the marble outside. That drainage system has been updated, and a humidity-control system installed.

Excess humidity and just plain running water have damaged walls and even paintings under the dome.

Twelve leaky windows at the dome's base are to be replaced yet this year, costing $1.3 million and completing most of the dome work.

Also happening now is reconstruction of the Capitol's west steps and construction of a new tunnel under University Avenue on the Capitol's north side to improve access, along with upgrading an existing tunnel that carries utility cables.

Next year, a two-year project to replace the Capitol's 241 windows below the dome will begin, and exterior stone repairs will continue.

By Dec. 1, state officials must give Gov. Mark Dayton and state legislators an idea of how much money is needed for the next year's work. In the spring, a comprehensive planning effort should produce a document detailing exactly what needs to be fixed, when it should be done and how much it will cost.

Lawmakers have approved more than $60 million for the project, with about $200 million more expected.

Some suggest shutting down the Capitol for a couple of years, or whatever it takes, and moving government elsewhere as work continues. While that could allow work to finish faster, it also could increase the cost because the state would need to pay for new space.

Most officials appear to lean toward a more gradual process, in which the House and Senate chambers would be available early each year and Capitol employees would be moved elsewhere as needed.

However the details work out, Christopher Guevin of the Administration Department said the end result will save taxpayers.

With more energy-efficient windows and better heating and air conditioning systems, "our operational costs should drop significantly," Guevin said.

While the outside will be safer, Waslaski said, the exterior will not be renovated.

Artwork such as eagles and large "M" decorations have eroded over the last century, a process known as sugaring. That will not be fixed with this work, he said, but may be needed in the future.

Also, Waslaski warned, state leaders need to keep Capitol funding flowing even after the current project is finished.

"If you fix it and don't maintain it, we will be back in the same situation," he said.

If a good maintenance plan is enacted, Waslaski said that the Capitol could last another 100 years before a major renovation is needed.