Wandering the West
January 21, 2009
The old saying in Washington and anywhere else lawmakers meet is, "There are two things you never want to see get made laws and sausages." The Utah Legislature begins its session next week on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City and it’s never a pretty sight when they get together to do the people’s and lobbyists’ business.
If the process isn’t attractive, at least the building is. From 2004 to 2007 the 1916-era Capitol was closed for restoration, and portions of it were shrouded in plastic wrap like Deer Valley’s St. Regis. It reopened in April of 2007 but I didn’t stop in to see the results until last week. When I used to ply the hallways regularly as a news reporter, I was too focused on chasing after newsmakers to spend much time looking around. But I know it never looked as good then as it does now. As citizens of Utah (I know, Park City is its own country within the boundaries of Utah) it’s worth a few hours nosing around because it really is something to be proud of again.
Prior to its closure, the original wide hallways had been enclosed for additional office space, leaving narrow passages along the marble railings. There were skylights above, but decades of grime left them darkened. When security became a concern, Capitol architects simply threw up walls of bulletproof glass outside the governor’s suite in the hallway. But worst of all, building codes during the 1912-1916 construction period were so substandard that there was genuine fear the whole thing could come crashing down, especially if an earth-quake shook the ground.
So, the building built for $2.7 million underwent a restoration that cost 100 times that, or $270 million. The biggest single project was underneath the building, which now sits not on the ground but on 265 base isolators. The base isolators are layered with steel and rubber around a core of lead. If a quake hits (and the experts say we’re overdue), the layers will start wiggling. In theory, and hopefully in practice, the whole Capitol building can dance about two feet in either direction on top of the base isolators. You can see the base isolators in a hallway on the first floor, where they’ve put in windows and lights to see the gizmos, which took two years to install.
The first floor, which really feels like the basement, is where you can meet a tour guide at the east entrance. The first floor is mostly a big open space with portraits of all of Utah’s governors. I couldn’t help but notice that Utah’s only woman governor, Olene Walker, has a portrait that’s noticeably smaller than most of the men.
The second floor rotunda is the heart of the Capitol. The dome rises 165 feet to a ceiling covered with a painting of the sky and seagulls the state bird that ate the grasshoppers and crickets that were devouring the pioneer’s crops those first years. The painting was carefully restored after years of grime obscured the whole thing. Around the dome and at both ends of the wings leading off of it are restored murals of Utah history, painted as part of the WPA project in the Depression, when the government hired starving artists to create public art.
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Around the floor of the rotunda I remember there were always four empty niches, usually filled with discarded coffee cups and other legislative detritus. Now, as architect Richard Kletting envisioned nearly a century ago, each niche has a bronze statue gracing it.
Also, duck your head into the Gold Room next to the governor’s office, where Italian tapestries, Russian and French furniture, Scottish carpet and other high-class doodads are meant to showcase that Utah is not some hick state, but a place of refinement and sophistication.
One floor up is where the House and Senate chambers are. There’s a new Park City related mural freshly painted in the House. You’ll see the Engen brothers Alf, Sverre and Corey building the takeoff jump for Ecker Hill. The Engens’ ski-jumping prowess there helped put Utah on the international skiing map back in the late 1920s. Ecker Hill is now part of the park in lower Pinebrook.
Opposite the new Ecker Hill mural is one showing the first woman to vote in Utah. In the Senate, new murals show Canyonlands National Park, with its red canyon walls ablaze in a setting sun, and a bucolic mountain meadow in Cache Valley.
Up on the fourth floor, with the old offices removed there’s room for the architect’s original vision an art gallery. Here displays will rotate. Currently there are a bunch of bronze busts of people without any labels on them, but they sure look important.
Utah has one of the better-looking state Capitol buildings in the country, especially now after restoration. And our governor doesn’t use it to sell Senate seats.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Guided tours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays
Insider tip: The food is quite good in the State Dining Room, which is open to the public in the Senate building, east of the plaza fountain behind the Capitol.