CHEYENNE — Since opening its doors in 1889, Wyoming’s state Capitol — which reopened to the public Wednesday after four years of renovations — has been a source of pride for generations of Wyomingites.
“It is central to the Wyoming story,” former Gov. Matt Mead remarked Wednesday at a ceremony celebrating the structure. “It is the most important public building in the state.”
Wyoming’s history was written here. While the legends that define the soul of the state were forged elsewhere — in the mountains, on the plains and in the untamed West — the state’s backbone was formed in the Capitol.
Women’s suffrage — a first for the young nation — was granted here, and decades later the structure played host to the creation of the state’s Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, a decision that even today essentially dictates how the state operates.
It was on the front balcony overlooking Capital Avenue that President Theodore Roosevelt addressed an eager crowd on a whirlwind 1903 tour of the state. He praised the spirit of the men and women who brought the territory to statehood status and the pursuit of a strenuous life, advising Wyomingites to “tread the path of duty and of greatness rather than mere ease.”
“We are not to be excused if we blink at (our problems), or if with selfish timidity we say we don’t have to settle it in our day, let those that come after us attend to it,” Roosevelt said in a speech that Gov. Mark Gordon reprised more than a century later at the base of the Capitol steps.
The building, in that sense, is a symbol of what Wyoming should be.
The Capitol’s halls and meeting rooms are now ready for the challenges of a new era in Wyoming. But though the building is fixed, the state it represents still has repairs ahead.
The permanence of place has a commanding influence in Wyoming. The state relies on the idea. The image of the cowboy — prevalent still, though no longer ubiquitous — remains as unshakable as the monoliths of Devils Tower and Grand Teton.
So it makes sense that when the Capitol building was crumbling after a century and a quarter, Wyoming’s leaders found themselves saddled with an immense responsibility: the physical task of preserving a central tenet of Wyoming’s identity.
“It was our turn,” Rep. Steve Harshman, a Republican from Casper, said in prepared remarks Wednesday. “We didn’t know that when we were born. But we knew that we had to do this work and do it right, just like our predecessors. We’re going to leave a beautiful, functional capitol; it’s going to serve our people well.”
Revived, the Capitol stands proud again. But even with the optimism on display at its opening, the Legislature taking up residency there will bring many of the problems the state has confronted throughout its history. Debates over funding the state’s education system — mandated in the state’s constitution — rage well after they were established. The state’s bills remain a long-standing concern, with the waves of commodity prices set thousands of miles away and dictated by actions taken even further off.
“The work never ends,” Harshman said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “We’ve got challenges — 40 years ago, they had challenges, and we’ll have challenges 40 years from now. The key is how people respond, and I think the people of Wyoming — particularly in this state — will pull together and work on it and find solutions. It’s a never-ending process.”
In a way, that process is also a permanent feature of life in Wyoming, embodying traits of an institution immune to change and enamored with heritage.
“We are a conservative state, and we don’t do well with revolution,” said Sam Western, a Sheridan-based author and adviser in former Gov. Dave Freudenthal’s administration. “We live iteration by iteration. It’s symbolically important that we repair this building. We take a civic and statewide pride in that. But it can’t be the whole enchilada. To celebrate is grand, but I want to see what’s going on tomorrow.”
The Capitol’s story can be read as harshly as it can be read proudly.
A handsome structure for its time, the building was nearly unrecognizable from its heyday when construction began several years ago. Floors and rooms that were never intended had been installed over the years, fundamentally altering the feel of its interior. Paint was applied, covering the visions of Wyoming’s ancestors. Meanwhile, the building’s core was neglected — its foundation shaky, the layout unsuited for modern fires, constituents in wheelchairs, brutal winters or searing summers.
Those could be addressed, and they were. But today, it’s Wyoming’s foundations that are shaking.
Coal, once king in Wyoming, continues to shrink. Earlier this month, a bankrupt company sent hundreds of workers home from two Campbell County mines, which have yet to resume making coal. Moody’s Investors Service said last week that U.S. coal’s share of power generation may fall to 11 percent over the next decade.
Federal mineral royalties, by which the state has lived and died since the middle of the last century, have decreased substantially, making each bust hurt more and each boom feel a little less promising.
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Wyoming is working to shore up that foundation, however — sharing the optimism and “can-do” attitude expressed here by Roosevelt. Its leaders fight to keep coal alive in battles for clean coal research and new markets abroad, especially during a presidency friendly to those objectives.
“This is a day of hope and looking toward bright days ahead,” Mead said. “But you’ve got to be realistic too. When 600 miners lose their job, you hope the entire state feels sorrow around that. It’s a bad deal for their families, for their neighbors. And you have to ask, ‘Where do we go from here?’ And I think that’s going to continue to be a challenge for Wyoming. But we’ve had challenges in the past, and the long-term future, I hope, provides some relief from what we see now.”
A new coat of paint is nice, but a truly lasting structure requires more. Of the $116 million spent on the Capitol building itself, roughly $30 million was spent on the building’s foundation, Harshman said, helping to drive 620 pylons 35 feet into the muck, ensuring the structure’s longevity.
What about Wyoming itself?
“I think the metaphors about foundations are fine,” Western said. “But there are two parts to this. You have this new building, but who are you going to put in this new building? We have put people in that building who I feel have made unfortunate decisions about trying to forward the agenda of coal. I understand why they did it — coal has been good to Wyoming. But they did not make the best choices.
“We can have a great foundation, but it doesn’t matter unless we put the right people on those foundations.”
But if the Wyoming Capitol is a manifestation of the spirit of Wyoming, maybe something can be learned from its revitalization.
There were some significant challenges along the way, project manager David Hart said, throwing wrenches into a budget for which there was already immense pressure to meet. Early on, the project was roughly $35 million over budget. The dome had just been repaired a few years before, but during the project, the entire structure had to be rebuilt. And at other points, the project team found itself reimagining entire structures in response to the challenges it faced.
A poignant example, Hart said, came during cost-saving modifications for the adjacent Herschler Building, where the construction team called for the elimination of the atrium and an alteration to the layout, which substantially changed the flow of the campus.
“That was a challenge, because a lot of people were tied to that atrium — they liked it,” Hart said. “So we not only had to deal with a cultural thing, an emotional thing, but we were also changing the way the campus worked.”
Hart, who managed contractor relations and the project’s budget, found himself and his partner, Paul Brown, often balancing lofty aspirations with harsh realities.
Though they “weren’t always the most beloved,” Hart said, the team managed to pull the project together.
Mostly because they had to.
“It was hard to make that mind shift from where the design team started to where they actually ended up,” Hart said. “It wasn’t always easy, but once people understood the logic and value behind it, it kind of worked its way through.”
Building for the future
For Wyoming, the question of whether its foundation needs to be repaired or replaced is still up for debate.
As the state’s budget falls victim to diminishing returns from its core industries, some have argued the time has come for increased or more creative means of taxation — a solution antithetical to the Wyoming mythos. Others believe cuts can continue to be made, efficiencies found and budgets capped — though some, like Lander Republican Sen. Cale Case, have likened such a solution as a race to the bottom.
Change comes slowly in Wyoming. One of the state’s most radical and most crucial inventions, the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, didn’t come until a time of great desperation, said Western, the author. Since then, it’s been a fundamental part of the Wyoming way of life — part of its foundation.
“Desperation turned to unity,” Western said. “But there was still dissent, that this was not ‘the Wyoming Way.’ As it turns out, it was.”
Whatever the solution, lawmakers, like builders, have to work with intention. To close his speech on Wednesday, Mead urged legislators to continue their work on enduring issues like education and health care, to make laws like a craftsman lays a cornerstone and to be as open to new ideas “as the rotunda is open to light.”
“This is a time to reflect on our founders and what they did for Wyoming,” the former governor said in his speech. “They understood the future was theirs to build, and they did build Wyoming. And we must continue to do that now.
“The building is complete. Now the most important work can begin. Let us follow the path the builders set.”