100 years young, Wisconsin state Capitol still timeless

It often feels like I’m drawn to Capitol buildings.

Growing up in Alexandria, Va., I lived a few miles from the majestic U.S. Capitol and all it symbolized for the nation. As a teenager, I was a low-paid “Uber” for reporters and photographers at the old Washington Star, dropping them at the Capitol so they could cover the events of the day.

During a recent trip to Columbia, S.C., our hometown guide for an impromptu Statehouse tour reverently pointed out walls pock-marked by shells from Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s artillery in 1865.

Another recent journey carried us past the golden-domed Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa, where scaffolding signals a $10-million renovation is under way; the towering Nebraska Capitol in Lincoln, one of three skyscraper seats of state government in the United States; and the gold-leafed Colorado Capitol in Denver, which overlooks the 16th Street Mall in the Mile-High City’s urban core.

Had I been a Halloween season visitor in St. Paul, Minn., Albany, N.Y., or Columbus, Ohio, I’m certain I would have been sucked into any — or all — of the haunted capitol tours that took place in those cities.

Wherever one roams in the United States, capitol buildings are a source of civic pride, history, protest, democracy, entertainment, and more for those who live in the states those buildings represent. The same is true in Wisconsin, where the state Capitol building is marking 100 years as a fixture on Madison’s isthmus.

A recent gala celebrated the Capitol’s past and offered a reason for hundreds of people to return to the building they knew so well — former legislators, ex-staffers, and more. Even for those who are familiar with the building today, it was a refresher course in how the Capitol was refurbished beginning in 1988 and lasting until 2002.

It was a $158.8 million project that some questioned because of the price tag, but which many praised for making sure the Capitol remained a working building while restoring its 1917 appearance. The project was carried out wing by wing and reversed features from earlier remodeling projects that had altered the original appearance.

Original decorative stencils were repaired or recreated, gold leaf was restored or replaced, marble and other stone from six countries and eight states was cleaned and polished, and ornate murals painstakingly reborn.

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The remodeling reflected the fact the Capitol is a bustling place, home to the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government. Modern technology was incorporated seamlessly into the architecture and more office space created. Major Wisconsin firms such as Affiliated Engineers, J.H. Findorff, J.P. Cullen & Sons and about 100 sub-contractors took part in one phase or another.

The goal was to remain true to the vision of two of the Capitol’s fathers. New York architect George B. Post designed the building in 1906 after a fire in 1904 destroyed the previous statehouse. Post died in 1913 before its completion. Madison architect Lewis Porter was superintendent of the Capitol’s construction from the time it left Post’s drawing boards until 1917, dying a few months after completion — some say due to complications from his overwork.

For some of the old-timers present in November, the gala offered a brief glimpse at how they recalled life in the Capitol during their tenure. While there were often knock-down, drag-out fights on the Capitol floor, Democrats and Republicans alike would gather at local watering holes later for bipartisan exchanges that seemed to solve more problems than they caused.

The national tenor of late has reached into statehouses from Alaska to Florida, and Wisconsin is no exception. After 100 years, however, the tradition is still one largely of civic debate inside a building that commands the respect of those who work and visit there.

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