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Work nears completion on multi-year restoration of Wyoming's Capitol building

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Capitol Renovation

A plasterer works around a restored skylight in the House gallery lobby on Thursday at the Wyoming Capitol in Cheyenne. Along with addressing fire safety, overcrowding and deterioration, a major goal of the ongoing renovations has been to restore the Capitol's historic appearance. 

CHEYENNE — Gleaming above the streets here, the gold rotunda of the Wyoming State Capitol stands as a symbol of defiance to the rest of the nation, intended to show those looking west in the 19th century that this rugged prairie tilled and tamed by the era’s frontiersmen was worthy of statehood.

A symbol of strength here for more than a century, the seat of all Wyoming’s power grew in size in 1890 and 1917. And as years passed and technology changed, the building changed to meet it.

Walls were built, carving up grand hallways for office space. They were painted over, and painted again, and the ceilings were built out to accommodate the needs of a new generation: electric light, telephone wires, heating and air conditioning. Underneath the structure’s new clothes, the skeleton of that building was beginning to show its age. The sewer systems were backing up, the walls were dirty and crumbling, and that gold dome that represents so much pride in the state of Wyoming was given a prognosis of 10 to 15 years to live. Renovations were approved and, in 2015, restorations on the building began.

Capitol Renovation

Wendy Madsen, special projects manager for the Legislative Service Office, leads a tour of the Wyoming Capitol on Thursday in Cheyenne. After the 1888 building was expanded in 1890 and 1917, large areas of public space including hallways and lobbies were carved up to add extra offices or make room for elevators. Those spaces will be restored as part of the ongoing project. 

After years of being closed off to the public, the building is (hopefully) set to reopen this winter. And on Thursday, the progress made over the past four years was on full display for the first time in a long time, showing signs of the vitality that the state’s founders had always intended when they approved plans for the building more than a century ago.

The project

While the restoration of the original Capitol building is the most visible project taking place in Cheyenne these days, the entirety of the project actually consists of four separate projects: That project, the construction of an underground administrative annex, a restoration of the administrative offices inside of the adjacent Herschler Building and an upgrade to the cooling plant that maintains the climate of the Capitol.

Though the interior of the Capitol itself is still rough with its rooms packed with spare planks and cans of paint, the most substantial work on the building has more or less been completed, extending the lifespan of the building for at least another century, Legislative Services Office Special Projects Manager Wendy Madsen said.

Capitol Renovation

The original two-story Territorial House Chamber is being restored as part of ongoing renovations to the Wyoming Capitol in Cheyenne. The Wyoming Constitution was debated and signed in the chamber, which served as home to the Supreme Court after Wyoming became a state in 1890. The space was later divided into separate floors.  

Most of the historic Capitol building itself — one of just 11 in the nation classified as a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior — was significantly outdated at the time work began. Some of the sandstone on the building’s facade was loose, the foundation and the rotunda shaky. The building’s foundation has since been fortified with 800 40-foot stilts that now prop up its base and the utilities that were once stored in the ceilings have been moved underground and into the walls.

At the project’s start, the building itself also presented a dangerous fire hazard, with poor ventilation and no sprinkler system. To solve the issue of smoke choking the tight hallways of the historic building, a massive vent and fan system has been installed in the basement of the Capitol and an expansive sprinkler system — once absent — has since been put into the building. It was high time, too: one review of the building’s safety said that, because of the building’s previous lack of a sprinkler system or proper ventilation system, everyone in the building would likely succumb to the smoke within two minutes should a fire take place.

Reviving the past

Through a plaster, paint-scented haze, exposed brick archways now lay bare in the dimly-lit expanse of the rotunda. With hints of grandeur, even while torn to shreds in the poor light, the widened halls echoed with the roar of activity, the vaulted ceilings free of three feet of under-hanging infrastructure. Flat stenciled walls have come to life in the lively, dynamic design of a trompe l’oeil pattern painted in rich, deep hues of burgundy and bronze.

Capitol Renovation

The Capitol extension will add large public meeting rooms between the Capitol and the Herschler Building. The below-grade expansion will be accessible from the basement levels of each building and covered by a grass lawn.

The designs were painted not on the walls themselves, but on canvas in studios outside of the capitol, Madsen said, not only to maintain consistency with the building’s interior design, but to make sure that upkeep of the structure’s artwork is less arduous and intrusive in the building’s principle hive of activity.

A “future proof” structure was a key focus of the team behind the planning of the project and, throughout the building, the evidence is apparent. Trenches nearly 2 inches deep have been routed into the brick and plaster walls, opening the structure up to television, internet and whatever new technologies may come in the future. The governor’s windows — once leaded — will now be bulletproof.

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For all the modern conveniences worked into the design of the new building, many of the classical design elements of the original capitol have been brought back to better align with the structure’s storied past. Finding out what those elements were, however, would prove to be more of an archaeological expedition than anyone expected.

With the various coverings and non-historic walls stripped away, one could actually see the different materials used in each era, marking the evolution of the building over the years and revealing its original intention. Prior to 1965, Michael R. O’Donnell, a special assistant attorney general, estimated fewer than a dozen photographs had been taken of the building, meaning numerous design elements involved in the early architecture of the structure were more often than not “discovered” throughout the restoration process. The original design of the paint on the walls was found only by stripping away new layers of paint that had come over it, for example, and in designing the former state library space, the discovery of Corinthian style columns being used as an original design element only occurred after finding one remaining example in the corner of the room. That column was then molded in plaster and numerous replicas were made.

Capitol Renovation

The Herschler Building adjacent to the Wyoming Capitol is being completely gutted and expanded to create additional office space. The added floor space will provide room for state employees who previously were worked out of leased offices or the overcrowded Capitol. 

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The commitment to historical detail is so thorough that some materials — the marble for the floors, the sandstone for the exterior — was tracked down to their original quarries in Vermont and near Rawlins, to ensure the utmost level of authenticity, Madsen said. Even the functionality of the building, built in the days before electric light, was taken into account — workers uncovered the structure’s windows and opened up the nearly 20 skylights that once illuminated the building.

“We’re trying to be really true to the building’s history here, to return it to exactly what it was,” said O’Donnell.

A statehouse for the public

In the renovation’s guiding principles written in 2015, the project team wanted to make the Capitol “a host to the residents of Wyoming for their direct and meaningful participation in government.” Much of the project achieves that aim, from the six new public meeting rooms included in the underground annex to additional gallery space, a conference center and even hookups to improve live video streaming of the Legislature while it is in session. On the campus, a grassy lawn, integrated with the surrounding neighborhood, is designed to create a welcoming window into government.

Capitol Renovation

A worker stands in a hallway of the Wyoming Capitol on Thursday in Cheyenne. Drop ceilings that once concealed HVAC, plumbing and electrical infrastructure have been removed, restoring rooms and halls to their original height and revealing long-hidden paint and woodwork.   

But it’s the symbolism of the project to Wyoming’s heritage that may mean the most.

With the walls laid bare, it quickly becomes apparent how the founders of Wyoming intended for their state’s Capitol to be something looked upon with awe and appreciation, from the 15-foot high arches lining the hallways to its rich, wooden accents and marble floors.

It’s driving home the significance of this place — where Wyoming was born, where the first American women were granted the right to vote — that stands as the muse driving the vision behind this building: the very thing Wyoming’s forefathers intended it to stand for.

“For years, we were always led to believe this was always meant to be this little, territorial capitol,” Madsen said. “Now we know what this building was really meant for: to show that Wyoming was worthy of statehood.”

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