School children in the newly restored rotunda at the Minnesota State House.
I was at the Minnesota State Capitol, “The People’s House”, a few days ago. On any day when the government is in session, it rings with the sounds of Minnesotans in the chambers and the rotunda, engaged in the ancient ritual of governance.
I was there to photograph two demonstrations scheduled for the day: Black Lives Matter and a gun control group. It appeared that the gun control group didn’t show which left me with some time to kill before Black Lives arrived. For the next two hours I explored the capitol building. It was time well spent.
Public buildings reflect the prevailing feelings about the place of government in our society. In 1905, when the current capitol building was completed, democratic government was viewed as the pinnacle of human achievement. The newly restored building declares the pride that those people felt in their community, state and nation. Throughout the capitol there are 54 allegorical murals that illustrate democratic virtues mixed with state history. The refreshed colors add an electric jolt to each mural.
In addition there are displays of Minnesota’s commitment to fighting for the Union during the Civil War. Restored battle flags and bronze statues of generals remind us of the sacrifice our ancestors made to defend the United States from the forces of secession and slavery.
Around the capitol there are paintings and bronze busts of people who made important contributions to Minnesota; people like Chief Wabasha III of the Medwakanton Band of the Santee Dakota, Hubert H. Humphrey and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Minnesota State Capitol is a celebration of democracy and the ability of people to govern themselves. In 1905 there was an optimism, a belief in a boundless future, and an understanding that government was necessary for that bright future to occur. In 1900, national voter turnout was 73% and in hotly contested 2016 it was 55%. Things have changed.
The beauty and symbolism of the capitol clearly show that Democracy and governance were sacred to Minnesotans. It’s a far cry from today when many of us consider government an intrusion or obstruction. We have replaced reverence for self-government with the mundane of government as a business.
Minnesota has had three capitol buildings. The first was built in 1854 for the Territorial Legislature, at the cost of $45,000 ($1,000,000 today). On March 1, 1881, the last day of the session, at 9 pm, as a crowd of 300 people watched the legislature struggled to get the last bills reconciled and passed, a fire started outside the chambers. No one noticed until a member of the Senate came into the chamber legislator and began yelling “Fire.” The only way out was down stairs surrounded by flames or through windows. Incredibly, everyone escaped the inferno that reduced the building to only its outer walls.
The second capitol was completed in 1883. It was a brick structure with an unimposing tower. However, being brick, it was fireproof. Unfortunately, the building’s poor ventilation and lack of space made it unsuitable for the job.
The situation continued to worsen until in 1892 when a bill recommending the construction of a new building was passed. In 1895 a design contest was held with noted architects from around the country competing. The winner was 35 year old Cass Gilbert with a design strongly influenced by the highly popular 1893 Chicago’s World Fair. On Jan. 2, 1905, after nine years of construction and at the cost of the sizeable sum of $4.5 million, Minnesota’s third capitol building was opened to the public.
From the beginning, people understood that the new capitol was something special. Today, it is recognized as one of the U.S.’s most beautiful public buildings.
Over the next 100 years the capitol underwent remodeling and redecorating, changes that accumulated like barnacles on the hull of a boat. Slowly, Cass Gilbert’s design was being covered up. And there were the maintenance issues of cracked plaster, water damage, and aging infrastructure. The capitol was showing its age.
Restoration – People’s House Reborn
Starting in 1984 the legislature began studying how to repair and restore the capitol. In 2008 exterior preservation of the dome began and in 2011 expanded to other damaged exterior facade. In 2013, a comprehensive program for the restoration of the capitol began and in 2015 the interior was closed to the public. Two days after Christmas, 2016, the doors were opened and the public got their first look at renovation. Some work will continue into the summer. The Grand Opening Celebration is in August.
In the end, the project will cost about $310 million. The restoration of the state house is a clear message ourselves and future generations that in 2017, Minnesotans still look towards the future.
The results are breathtaking. The colors of the restored murals are brilliant and the fine details easy to see. Every surface is either freshly painted using pigments matched to those of 1905 or polished to a fine gloss. Ready for another 100 years of being the People’s House.