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Illinois Capitol set for $224 million renovation

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Illinois State Capitol

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield was completed in 1888. 

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Ornate chandeliers dangle from the Illinois state Capitol’s 20-foot-high ceilings, which are cloaked in elaborate decor and supported by pink scagliola columns. The clickety-clack of footsteps on beige, maroon and dark teal marble floors reverberate through its airy rotunda.

The elegant sights and sounds of the Capitol will soon be masked by dusty specks of brick and mortar and blaring power tool drills as the 19th century symbol of state government business undergoes a massive renovation this year to meet 21st century needs.

It will be the second major construction project on the building in a decade and will force some legislative sessions to find new locations for the next few years, while also being a temporary inconvenience for school groups and other tourists who won’t get to see the historic structure’s full grandeur.

The project also presents a hefty price tag for Illinois taxpayers: $224.3 million.

The renovation is focused on the building’s north wing and will include an underground parking garage, an underground conference center and a two-level welcome center for visitors.

In addition, there will be updates of everything from heating and cooling systems to plumbing and ventilation.

“Unfortunately, when utilities and infrastructure are challenged to outlast their recommended lifespan, we are often forced to address maintenance emergencies that costs a significant amount more than a planned renovation,” said Andrea Aggertt, the architect of the Capitol, who oversees the building’s improvements.

The structure’s iconic dome, taller than the U.S. Capitol’s, will not be affected by the project.

The project comes as the Old State Capitol, the Illinois statehouse up until 1876, which is a few blocks away and a noted tourist attraction, is also under renovation.

For this project, some construction has already begun in the basement, a section of the Capitol that’s connected to tunnels leading to the William G. Stratton building to the west and the Michael J. Howlett building to the south.

Prep work for the project began last year and the underground parking garage should be completed by early 2023, according to Aggertt’s office.

The preliminary work includes asbestos abatement in parts of the building. In June, some legislative staff and other employees will be moving to other offices and won’t be able to return until January 2025, around the time the project is slated for completion.

Scrapings on the north are evidence of consultants trying to figure out what was the original paint color when the building opened in 1888. The Capitol took about 20 years to complete at a cost of about $4.5 million.

“If we’re going to cut into all of these walls and replace the piping and the duct work and electrical that when we go back, we’re going to restore the Capitol to what we call ‘Capitol proper.’ So that Capitol proper timeline we are focusing on is the late 1800s to the early 1900s,” said Aggertt.

Security upgrades will be another priority for the north wing. In September 2004, an unarmed security guard was killed by a shotgun blast as he staffed a sign-in desk just inside the north doors.

The killing prompted the installation of metal detectors and armed guards, as well as armed secretary of state police officers at the entrance.

As part of the latest project, a two-level entryway will be built for public access.

Mezzanines between the first and second floors and the second and third floors were built in the 1960s and 1970s to give legislators more office space. Architecturally, they’ve proven problematic, Aggertt said.

“Unfortunately, there have been things that have destroyed what I’m going to call the fabric of the Capitol building over the years. Putting in the mezzanines, that was a huge one,” Aggertt said.

The mezzanine offices resulted in lowered ceilings barely tall enough for a tall person to pass under. State Sen. John Connor, whose office is on a mezzanine, said that’s only really a problem for someone who is taller than 6 feet. He’s about 5 feet 9.

“This definitely (has) a flavor of its own because of the unusual way of subdividing the floor,” said Connor, a Lockport Democrat.

The project will also aim to make the building more wheelchair accessible, Aggertt said. State officials promised the U.S. Department of Justice over 10 years ago to make 60% of the building’s entrances compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Right now, there is only one such entrance, on the building’s west wing.

“That means someone in a wheelchair can get in (those) doors, but they can’t come in the north or the east and the south; while (there’s) a ramp, that ramp slope does not meet ADA,” Aggertt said.

Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, who uses a wheelchair, said the planned improvements are “long overdue” after not being prioritized in the past.

“I mean, look, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed over 30 years ago. And the fact that we still are so far out of compliance is really, you know, unfortunate,” he said. “It is ... high time that we made the people’s house accessible for everybody.”

McConchie said the lack of access has been a problem in areas where the Senate convenes. At a redistricting hearing earlier this year, handicapped seating for committee members was inaccessible.

“So, I sat at a witness table because I couldn’t get back to where any of the other members were,” recalled McConchie, of Hawthorn Woods, who has served in the state Senate since 2016.

Many of the senate offices have limited accessibility. After he was elected, he had only a few to choose from.

“There was only I think three out of over 20 offices that actually met accessibility standards,” McConchie recalled. “So, I was limited in the number in which offices I could choose because, you know, most of them ... either the doors weren’t wide or other things. So, yeah, there’s a whole bunch of issues. I mean, this typically happens with a very old building like that.”

In the early 2010s, the Capitol’s west wing underwent a $51.5 million renovation that included a new stairwell and doors, waterproofing, roofing and accessibility upgrades.

Notably, some copper-clad wooden doors cost nearly $670,000. Then-Gov. Pat Quinn suggested the improvements were too over the top. “We don’t need a Palace of Versailles as our state Capitol,” he said.

While Illinois is in a slightly better financial position, the north wing renovations will cost more than four times as much as the project a decade ago. Aggertt said the work will be funded by Pritzker’s “Rebuild Illinois” plan, an ongoing six-year, $45 billion program to repair and upgrade roads, bridges, university buildings, state facilities and other infrastructure.

Despite the costs, Aggertt said it’s buildings like the Capitol, around for nearly 150 years, that often need the most work.

“What we’re trying to do is to restore the building back to the timeframe when it was built. It’s taken us a lot of studying and a lot of research to do that,” she said. “But our plan is that this building will last another 150 years for many people to enjoy.”

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com.

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