Damaged, cracked, leaking: Historic Michigan Capitol needs updates

LANSING - Major interior improvements made to the Capitol 25 years ago, as well as the safety and structural integrity of the 137-year-old National Historic Landmark, are all at risk if upgrades to its mechanical and electrical systems are not made soon, officials said Thursday.

Officials from the Michigan State Capitol Commission and contractor Christman Constructors Inc. led journalists on a rare tour of the building's attic and sub-basement, the "guts" of the Capitol where many of those systems are housed in space never designed for the maze of piping, data cables and electrical gear.

A lack of humidity control is contributing to failures of paint and mortar and to wet and sometimes leaking pipes. Valves running too close to electrical gear is resulting in code violations and potential hazards, said Chad Clark, senior project manager for Lansing-based Christman.

Clark and other officials pointed to a crack in the building's foundation, deteriorating bricks, damaged plaster, cracking furniture, wet or leaking pipes, rusting fire suppression system connections and a largely outdated heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.

John Truscott, vice-chairman of the Michigan Capitol Commission, said that by year-end, the commission will develop a plan and a proposed budget to address the issues — a project that could cost anywhere from a few million dollars to tens of millions of dollars, depending on how extensive a plan is developed and whether it's proposed to tackle all the issues at once, or phase them out in stages.

"If something is not done now, it's going to cost more later," Clark told reporters.

Each year, thousands of visitors tour the first, second and third floors of the Capitol, but the basement and attic are off-limits. Even Thursday, because much of the space is less than five feet high and crammed with fixtures, most of the basement tour was offered through use of a 360-degree camera. In the attic, a catwalk runs over the glass panels that form the ceiling above the House chamber. Those on the catwalk can look down through the glass to view the House floor and look up through other panels to view the Capitol dome.

The historic building, constructed in the 1870s, underwent a $56-million renovation and restoration that was completed in 1992, the same year it was designated a National Historic Landmark. The new paint, furniture and other elements that were part of that restoration are at risk because the interior humidity varies with the exterior humidity, Clark said.

Though in hindsight it would have made sense to address the humidity issue at the time of the renovations completed in 1992, that work was done in stages and addressed many pressing issues that were even higher priorities than some of those faced today, said Christman Senior Vice President Ronald Staley, who oversaw that work.

Truscott said Capitol maintenance costs about $3.5 million a year — a figure that could be reduced significantly with modern systems. For example, annual energy costs of about $800,000 might be cut in half if the Capitol can tap geothermal heat pump systems, he said.

It's possible bonds could be issued to pay for the work, though to arrange financing, ownership would have to be moved from "the People of Michigan" to the commission or some other state entity, Truscott said.

Designed by architect Elijah E. Meyers, the Michigan Capitol was one of the first state Capitols in the U.S. to be topped with a cast iron dome when it opened in 1879. Myers, who was from Illinois and inspired by what was then the recently remodeled U.S. Capitol, later designed statehouses in Texas and Colorado.

Last year, the Michigan Capitol Commission undertook restoration of the sandstone exterior and iron dome.

The two-year-old Michigan Capitol Commission replaced the Michigan Capitol Committee. It consists of the secretary of the Senate, the clerk of the House, two individuals they jointly appoint, and two appointees of the governor.

(2016 © Detroit Free Press)


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