By Eli Yokley
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —
A fire alarm that echoed through the state Capitol last week forced lawmakers, staff, visitors and others out of the building during a tense week as this year’s legislative session nears its end.
It turned out to be minor episode and firemen let everyone back in the building about 30 minutes later.
The timing of the scare, however, came as lawmakers were preparing to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the groundbreaking for the Capitol, and it reminded everyone that the previous Capitol had burned down in 1911 after a lightning strike hit the dome and ignited an unstoppable blaze.
That scare and a centennial celebration on Monday also came as lawmakers are advancing a couple of measures that would pay for the Capitol’s restoration, and extend its life for another century.
The Missouri House of Representatives has approved a governor’s amendment to House Bill 19 that would appropriate some $121 million of surplus revenue for various projects, including nearly $50 million for stonework, window repair and other structural improvements to the Capitol.
State Rep. Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage, a member of the Missouri State Capitol Commission that is appointed by the governor, said the $50 million, while a start, is not nearly enough.
Stalactites are hanging from the Capitol ceiling in the basement, concrete on the walls is chipping and splitting, and rebar is exposed in places.
Another source of additional revenue for Capitol work could be a $1.2 billion bonding package that lawmakers are considering. It has been proposed to pay for construction needs on college campuses, state buildings such as the Fulton State Hospital, and improvements at Missouri parks. It specifically carves out up to $100 million for the state Capitol.
But a bond issue that would help restore the Capitol still needs to get out of the Capitol, meaning lawmakers must approve it. Voter approval also will be required if the measure passes the Legislature.
Lawmakers have until May 17, their mandatory adjournment.
Flanigan said the Capitol deserves the investment.
“It is the most recognizable structure of the state of Missouri. There are so many people that come and walk through and get a favorable impression of our state,” he said.
“It’s our flagship building in the state, and we absolutely need to make sure that it’s well maintained,” said Cathy Brown, the director of facilities and maintenance.
Several lawmakers viewed some of the most troublesome spots during a tour earlier this month. Without advocating for a particular funding strategy, Brown said something will need to be done.
Flanigan said one of their top priorities would be sealing the windows and installing a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system to reduce humidity in the building. That would have to happen first, he said, before restorers could even think about taking on an effort to preserve some of the historic paintings and murals in the building.
“This is a museum,” Flanigan said of the Capitol. “You can look around here and see a bunch of pieces where paint is coming off and things are falling down.”
Some of the safest paintings in the building, however, are the ones with the closest connection to Southwest Missouri. The Thomas Hart Benton murals have been relatively protected for the past few decades, said Bob Priddy, a veteran Jefferson City radio reporter and another member of the governor’s Capitol commission. At one point, the Benton murals, which were originally painted on fabric panels, began to show signs of deterioration so an air monitoring system was installed at the time and the windows in that particular room also were sealed.
Aside from the artwork, Flanigan said the Capitol also needs improvements to its foundation.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said in addition to upkeep of the Capitol building, itself, he hopes the state will spend some money on renovating parts of the nearby Post Office Building (which was designed by the same architect who designed the Capitol), as well as the Missouri Department of Transportation building, which connects to the Capitol via an underground tunnel.
If they were to do that, it is Richard’s hope that they could provide staff more room to work, and lessen the need for first-floor mezzanine rooms — used by many freshman and Democratic lawmakers — which Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said may be out of compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Priddy noted that there was a plan at one point in the 1930s to build a new annex to the Capitol for committees, staff and even lawmakers, but the plans were scrapped.
“Well, 100 years later, here we go,” an optimistic Richard responded.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Dirt was turned for the new state Capitol in Jefferson City in 1913. The cornerstone was laid in 1915, the first government offices moved into the structure in 1917 and the building was dedicated in 1924.