Rare rooftop excursion shows Capitol facelift

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Workers are restoring and replacing thousands of leafs, balls, swirls and other details this summer that had been scrubbed from Michigan’s Capitol dome by the elements since it was built 136 years ago.

The dome, towering 267 feet above the lawn, has been wreathed in construction scaffolding for $6.5 million worth of top-to-bottom Capitol repairs that include repointing mortar joints in the building’s stone block walls.

“The biggest challenge has been the number of ornaments we ran across that we hadn’t realized were gone,” said Ronald Staley, senior vice president for chief contractor The Christman Company of Lansing and project manager for the prior 1988-1992 Capitol restoration project.

It’s a labor of love for Christman construction superintendent Jon Brechtelsbauer and a crew of 30 to 40 workers on the May-late October project.

“Born in Michigan, I couldn’t be at a more-iconic place to work every day,” Brechtelsbauer said.

Michigan State Capitol Commission Vice Chairman John Truscott and Christman executives took the Capitol press corps on a rare rooftop excursion Tuesday morning to the construction worksite. Later in the day, they were to escort state lawmakers on the same tour.

Truscott, who wants Michigan residents to know about the painstaking care with which their statehouse is being restored, said his research suggests the Tuesday visit by members of the press and lawmakers will make the first visit by nonconstruction workers to the Capitol roof in the building’s history.

The towering structure in the heart of Lansing is home to the state House of Representatives and Senate, committee meeting rooms where lawmakers debate and craft legislation, offices for key legislative leaders and ceremonial offices for the governor and lieutenant governor.

This summer’s project is a follow-up to extensive restoration work on the Capitol from 1988 through 1992, also led by Christman. Quinn Evans Architects of Lansing are the company’s project partners.

“What we’re fixing now was what wasn’t addressed, wasn’t fixed at that time,” Staley said. He described the work as “long-term intervention ... preserving Michigan’s history.”

The dome, whose final tip rises about 167 feet above the Capitol’s sloping roof, appears to be made of stone, but actually is swathed in sheets of galvanized iron in the upper portion and cast iron at the base. Rather than carved stone, its columns and ornamentation were stamped from metal sheets or molded from molten iron poured into forms.

Iron became a popular building material in the 1830s because it could bear weight, be cast into ornamental shapes and was relatively fire resistant, according to Christman officials,.

The restoration work includes replicating and reattaching hundreds of ornate corbels, modillions (supporting brackets), balls, leafs, sections of dentil (repeated use of small blocks) and other architectural details missing entirely or ground down by weather through the years.

In early August, crews will give the dome two fresh coats of white paint. The scaffolding will start to come down in mid-August. Plans call for completion of sheet metal and stone restoration on the building by late October and substantial project completion by November. The work began in May.

Chad Clark, project manager for the current work, said the dome again will have all of the details intended by its designer, Elijah Myers, who was the leading architect of government buildings in the last half of the 19th century. It will be the first complete restoration of those details since the building was inaugurated in 1879, he said.

Work on the dome includes sheet metal patching at failed and corroded seams as well as replacement of all exposed caulking.

On the stone portion of the building, workers are repointing failed mortar joints and replacing deteriorated stone modillions and dentils with hand-carved replicas. They are scrubbing cornices and porticos to remove heavier stains and repainting all exterior doors and windows.

Truscott said the Capitol Commission next wants to repaint interior walls and replace carpets stained by water that leaked through the roof or that are threadbare from daily wear and tear.

For more information, visit www.mistatecapitol.com.