POSTED ON JULY 20, 2011:
A Capitol Idea
Paying to preserve the "people's house" is matter of state pride
It doesn't seem possible, but it was nearly nine years ago that thousands of Oklahomans gathered on the state Capitol grounds for the fireworks and pageantry that commemorated completion of the dome.
The 157-foot-tall, 80-foot-diameter structure was the key piece missing from Solomon Layton's and S. Wemyss Smith's original design, shelved when the nation's World War I effort siphoned away materials originally earmarked for the state project.
Even though I'm a Capitol regular, and even though the dome has been in place for nearly a decade, I'm still captivated by its majesty -- not only because of its architecture, but also because it symbolizes what Oklahomans can accomplish if they set aside political, religious, socioeconomic and regional differences.
To me, that's an especially encouraging notion in an era when unemployment is scary high, state services are being slashed, political vitriol shows no signs of abating and the summer already feels way too much like the record-shattering scorcher of 1980.
I'm well aware, of course, that some still regard the $21 million addition as a fool's errand, a preposterous, if not criminal, amount to spend on grandeur rather than substance -- think: crumbling schools, prisons and highways.
And I'm painfully aware of the Republican-dominated Legislature's skewed spending priorities -- tax breaks for well-heeled special interests, tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy and reduced services especially vital to the most vulnerable among us.
Even so, I view the investment in the Capitol as an investment in Oklahoma. After all, the white limestone and pink granite structure is "the people's house" -- our house. It belongs to us all. And whether we like to admit it or not, it says a lot about us as Okies.
Do we dream big dreams? Do we keep our commitments? Do we take care of our properties? Do we share an over-arching sense of civic purpose? Do we care about our appearance?
It's not unlike improvements at the major airports in our two largest cities. You might not think of them this way, but both Tulsa International Airport and Will Rogers World Airport serve as de facto front doors to both cities and our state.
The first impression many visitors get of Oklahoma is when they emerge from the Jetway into the terminals in Tulsa and Oklahoma City. It's cliché, but true: You only get one chance to make a good first impression.
The Capitol is even more important. It's an iconic structure in most states, a must-see for many travelers. You don't have to be a political junkie like me to make it a priority. It's a draw because it gives visitors a sense of history and place, context for which to judge a state.
As far as I'm concerned, Oklahoma's Capitol isn't just OK. It's terrific -- especially since the seedy flophouses along North Lincoln were razed, the dome was erected, the legislative chambers were restored and Capitol devotees, including former Tulsa Sen. Charles Ford, committed their lives to outfitting it with some of the most interesting, historically significant artwork you'll find anywhere.
It's obvious, though, that Oklahoma's investment in its Capitol didn't end in 2002 when the dome was dedicated. And therein lies a significant challenge: As it approaches its centennial (construction began in 1914 and ended in 1917), Oklahoma's Capitol is in dire need of some TLC -- probably about $80 million to $90 million worth.
The needs are detailed in the 181-page State Capitol Building Historic Conditions report completed earlier this year by architects and engineers that gave the grand old structure a thorough going over.
"It is time," wrote Capitol architect Duane Mass, "for us to begin a dialogue on the maintenance of this historic structure."
The Capitol was built in an era when -- let's face it -- things were built to last. Structurally, it's solid and sound. But there are deteriorating parts that, left unattended, could reap dire consequences in the not-too-distant future.
Original parts of the electrical system are still in use -- for example, cloth insulation around copper, rather than plastic. Like the building itself, the plumbing system is approaching a century's use -- and is pretty well shot.
Even more modern additions to the building -- such as the elevators -- are in poor shape and need to be replaced. Particularly woeful: the 1960s-era tunnel that connects the east-side parking lots to the Capitol itself, allowing pedestrians (often school children on field trips) to avoid dodging oft-heavy traffic on Lincoln Boulevard.
When it rains, the tunnel leaks badly. Large, gray plastic trash cans and other plastic buckets are positioned strategically in a desperate attempt to catch the spillage. It's not uncommon for tunnel-users to slosh through standing water or inhale the distinct odor of mildew and mold -- a perfectly dreadful welcome to Capitol visitors.
As John Richard, the director of the State Department of Central Services, and John W. Morrison, the state's construction administrator, summed it up in the report:
"The exterior façade is rapidly deteriorating, exponentially, through seasonal weather extremes. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems are worn out. Life-safety systems -- fire alarms, fire suppression and emergency egress -- are woefully inadequate or nonexistent. Modern communications systems have been piecemealed over the years and will not support future innovations in technology.
"As with any major, historic building, it is time to restore and preserve this priceless asset and make it ready for its Second Hundred Years."
It won't be easy to muster the political will to pump $80-$90 million into state Capitol repairs during a time when teachers are getting pink slips by the thousands and other state workers are being furloughed.
But think of it this way: You wouldn't let the electricity in your home reach the point where it becomes a fire hazard or the plumbing a health hazard before you did something. You'd protect your investment. You'd spend the money to fix it.
What if we don't commit the financial resources necessary to restore this Oklahoma treasure? What if something terrible happens -- a fire or some other calamity? What if the building eventually is allowed to deteriorate to the point it's too costly to repair?
According to experts, replacing the Capitol would cost roughly the same as Oklahoma City's new 850-foot-tall Devon Tower: about $750 million.
If we're really serious about getting the most bang for the taxpayers' buck, then it's a no-brainer: it's much smarter to pay now than later. Costs are only going to increase. Plus, we won't have to make excuses about how we've allowed the inexcusable -- an officially designated National Historic Landmark to lapse into disrepair.
And we won't be left to answer a most embarrassing question: Have we no pride?
-(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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