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Renovation project kicks into gear

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ST. PAUL — A $273 million Minnesota Capitol building renovation will close most of the facility when construction workers return to the job today.

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The central rotunda will be among areas closed, along with all of the east wing and the ground and first floors of the west wing. The closures are a continuation of the gradual emptying of the Capitol during a three-year renovation project.

The governor’s and attorney general’s offices already have moved elsewhere, as have many Senate employees’ offices. The Minnesota State Historical Society, press corps and most others normally housed in the Capitol basement were removed last fall.

The House and Senate chambers remain open this year, and could be used if Gov. Mark Dayton calls a special legislative session to fund flood relief. They are scheduled to be used for the 2015 session, which begins in January. Plans are to use the House chambers for the 2016 session, but senators expect to meet in a building not yet constructed.

The shuffling comes with a renovation that gained legislative financial support because the Capitol’s exterior marble was crumbling, heating and air conditioning systems could not keep up with modern demands, and interior walls and ceilings show damage from years of a leaky dome. The dome has been fixed and workers have covered much of the exterior with scaffolding to work on the walls.

“The interior and exterior of the Minnesota state Capitol is a live construction site,” Administration Commissioner Spencer Cronk said. “We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to preserve this beautiful building for the next century, but with that opportunity comes some short-term inconveniences.”

Only 39 Democratic senators and 82 legislative employees now are housed in the Capitol, in smaller-than-usual offices. During a legislative session, about 360 work in the Capitol, with 320 there between sessions.

Legislative leaders hope a new Senate office building is ready before the 2016 session so senators and their staff can work there. There also is to be a temporary Senate chamber in the new building in 2016, as well as committee meeting rooms.

The House chamber is to be used in 2016, but most of the building will be closed to the public after the 2015 session until renovation is completed in early 2017.

There are no places inside the Capitol available for public events such as rallies that are common during legislative sessions.

The elaborate House and Senate chambers will be open for now, the Administration Department’s Curtis Yoakum said.

“We plan that they can remain open for the remainder of the year if needed for a special session,” Yoakum said.

Dayton said he may call a special legislative session to fund flood recovery.

House committee meeting rooms remain available in another building, as do three Senate Capitol committee rooms.

Dayton’s office has moved from the Capitol to the Veterans’ Services Building on the south end of the Capitol mall. Attorney General Lori Swanson and her Capitol staff have joined other attorney general employees who work at a downtown St. Paul building.

Other than the few Senate workers who stayed in the Capitol, Senate staff is scattered among other nearby buildings.

Outside the Capitol, built in 1905, the scaffolding workers use to fix the exterior will continue to move around the building, Yoakum said, as the entire exterior is fixed. Chucks of the marble walls have fallen, creating a hazard for Capitol visitors.

A street in front of the Capitol is closed, although it provides nine parking places for the disabled, Yoakum said.

Soon, much of the Capitol lawn will be turned into a staging area for construction materials. Already, two temporary parking lots have been built in front of the Capitol to replace those eliminated by construction.

One of the most visible features of the Capitol, the golden chariot Quadriga sculpture on the roof, will be enclosed for protection, and part of it will be removed for repair.

Inside, Capitol artwork has been removed or covered to protect it from construction damage.

While visitors may not be able to see the artwork or much of the Capitol, visitors continue to take Minnesota Historical Society tours at the top of each hour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday.

The Historical Society’s Brian Pease said that still on the tour agenda will be some of the latest governor portraits, House and Senate chambers, the Rathskeller cafe and, as weather permits, an outside swing to examine the Capitol’s exterior.

“We are optimistic about the changes to the tours,” Pease said. “When one door closes, we have the opportunity to open another, so we are able to add new information and a couple of tour stops that typically was not part of our regular tour.”

Tours include some information about the construction work.

Getting into the Capitol for the tours, or to conduct business, is a bit more difficult. The main south entrance is shielded by construction fencing. However, there is a gap near the middle of the Capitol the public may use to get to the Capitol.

Those taking tours will also have a tough time finding restrooms. Two small unisex ones are available, as are one small men’s and a small women’s restroom.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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