Barron: Zig-zag path to Capitol building grandeur

Barron: Zig-zag path to Capitol building grandeur


CHEYENNE —On two visits, I have remained stunned by the grandeur of the renovated historic Capitol building.

Particularly captivating are the historic Supreme Court chambers in the middle of the building.

For decades, those chambers were cloaked under false ceilings, drywall and fluorescent lights over two stories of offices.

As a decadeslong resident of the third floor of the Capitol building, I was pretty inured to ugly modern utilitarian offices. You don’t miss what you don’t have.

Fortunately the people in charge of the major Capitol building renovation had vision and knew what they wanted —a restoration of the building to its original design, down to the color on the walls. Ultimately, this meant stripping the innards of the building to its bones.

Although there were many people involved this massive $300 million plus project, two former Senate presidents, Tony Ross of Cheyenne and Phil Nicholas of Laramie, were the main drivers.

They provided the persistent push for quality and were in leadership positions which gave them the power to get the product they envisioned.

The history of the project is long and complicated. It was not an easy fix.

It began in 2003 when the Legislature established the Capitol Building Restoration Account with an allocation of $7.9 million.

Nicholas later added budget language to continue to appropriate to the account any surplus funds returned to the general fund.

“This is the Legislature’s project,” Ross and Nicholas told me at the time. And it was and is. The money piled up until about $100 million was available from that account when they got to the design phase.

In the meantime, the problems within the Capitol Building multiplied with water leaks, serious electrical problems, asbestos and no adequate fire protection system. Finally, one report said the building was a serous fire hazard for its inhabitants and a major liability to the state.

The first idea was to build an executive office building. As I understood it, the idea was to house the Capitol Building employees there during the repair work. The new space then could be used to move in state workers in private leased space all over Cheyenne.

No one, Nicholas said in an interview last week, was really happy with the office building idea.

The last Capitol renovation in 1980-81 was a “patch job,” Nicholas said, and those in charge did not want to repeat that.

That’s when they began to look around at other states and their capitol renovations.

Dave Gruver, then director of the Legislative Service Office, visited five states. When he returned, he recommended a total restoration of the Wyoming Capitol, not another remodel.

That’s when Moca came into the picture. The Salt Lake City-based architectural consulting firm specializes in “large, complex, politically challenging projects,” according to its website, and that included historical projects.

Their consultants recommended getting rid of the executive building entirely and cutting the Herschler Office Building in two, to get rid of the atrium and all that empty space.

It was a radical step and one of four major changes that took place during the time he was most deeply involved, Nicholas said.

The biggest change was the decision to start over; to admit they made a mistake.

They had to cut the cord, or the contract, with the initial architect, who wanted to take air space in the rooms for HVAC equipment among other ideas that clashed with the leaders’ vision of the restoration of high ceilings.

I attended the cutting-the-cord meeting and it was very tense. Nicholas voiced the general disappointment that the legislators were not getting the remodel they were promised.

When Nicholas retired from the Legislature, Ross became chairman of the Capitol Renovation Oversight Committee that rode hard on the project, a position he held until recently.

In the end, the Capitol restoration itself cost $120 million, or about a third of the total. The rest went to the expansion of the bisected Herschler Building and to the underground parts you can’t see that keep everything running.

At Ross’ behest, the Legislature in 2014 authorized the project with funding and created the Oversight Group on Capitol Restoration and Rehabilitation.

In 2015, the Legislature revised the original appropriation from $259 million to $290 million. Other adjustments followed.

Joan Barron is a former longtime capitol bureau reporter. Contact her at 307-632-2534 or


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