State of the State: A century of the Capitol's history is revealed as paint is scraped away

Dec 1, 2006

Bethany Carson
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

I take the scenic route to work every morning. I walk up three flights of the Illinois Capitol's grand staircase that lead to a towering piece of art above the Press Room door.

It's a 20-foot-by-40-foot painting of a 1778 peace treaty with George Rogers Clark and Native Americans at Fort Kaskaskia, and it almost looks small compared to the impressive depth and ornate detail of the stained glass dome soaring above the Capitol rotunda.

It's hard to imagine how such an elaborate architectural plan could have been built in 1868. But that's when Illinois broke ground in Springfield for its sixth state Capitol. It took 20 years and $4.3 million to build, and original architects John Cochrane of Chicago and Alfred Piquenard of France designed a lavish art museum as much as a functional Statehouse.

But over the years, style, function and budgets change. Unfortunately, historic preservation hasn't always been a priority, says Illinois' current Capitol architect, Donald McLarty. A 23-year veteran of historic building restoration, he came from Virginia to head the recently created Office of the Architect.

Original, detailed murals disappeared beneath more than a dozen layers of paint or white drop-down ceilings, he says. "There was a feeling that we've got to make this building look more modern and useful, and that's why so much of this got covered up." Besides, it was less expensive to maintain a uniformly painted wall than it was to maintain decorative murals.

"Finally," McLarty says, "people woke up and realized these are really treasures that we have, and we need to preserve them."

It's hard to imagine how such an elaborate architectural plan could have been built in 1868. But that's when Illinois broke ground in Springfield for its sixth state Capitol.

Since May, hundreds of workers have been renovating the Illinois House and Senate chambers and the first-floor rotunda. True artisans have been hired to bring black-and-white photographs to life in vibrant colors through research and interpretation of history.

Their challenge is to integrate modern building codes, fire safety standards, conveniences and technologies — Internet, air-conditioning — without destroying the historic fabric of the building, McLarty says, and to do it within the time and space available, which is not much.

The Senate work is on schedule to be finished before January, says Linda Hawker, secretary of that chamber. Though the House is not expected to be completed by the time the 95th General Assembly convenes next month, says Tim Mapes, chief of staff for House Speaker Michael Madigan, it will be done by February.

Hawker, Mapes and their new voice of experience, McLarty, have overseen problem-solving on upgrades of lighting, security, sound and legislative voting systems while restoring historic treasures discovered in the process.

In the Senate chamber, workers stripped the wall behind the press box and found an original pattern resembling the federal shield, with 13 stars and 13 stripes symbolizing the colonies. The original pattern is being restored, as are such details as the hand-sewn carpets in each chamber and roll-down desks in the Senate. They conveniently hide microphones, laptop computers and legislative voting systems wired throughout the chambers.

"You have to make changes that are reasonable and can fit the function," Mapes says. "You can't do everything. Would have been nice, but I'm not sure we ever would have gotten it done."

It all started as a necessary upgrade of a heating and air-conditioning system that had exceeded its 30-year life span by five years. But the project grew in scope as Mapes and top state lawmakers dared to ask, "While we're at it, could we…?" 

That's an expensive question, says Hawker. But the devil's advocate asks, if not now, when would it be appropriate to spend millions of dollars to unmask the history of the Statehouse?

That's where such contractors as Edward Magee come in. He's a super-visor for the New York-based EverGreene Painting Studios Inc. and has worked on the Illinois Capitol for months. The company analyzes chips of paint, uses a scientific process to determine the original dimensions of color and deduces history. Magee has photocopied black-and-white pictures of the original rooms and, voilà, he interprets what the spaces would have looked like in the late 1800s. "It's not about the money being spent," Magee says. "It's about doing the right job."

So far, asbestos removal has cost $7.5 million, according to Steve Brown, spokesman for the House speaker. Upgrading the heating and air-conditioning system could cost another $22 million, and rehabilitating the House and Senate chambers could near $10 million.

The transformation is monumental. It's still visible in a first-floor committee room. Above the representatives' seats remains a white drop-down ceiling that was installed in the 1970s. It's completely different from the other side of the room, where the public, lobbyists and reporters sit under a mural that looks like a Victorian skylight. Painters recreated gold flowers that wrap around white latticework surrounding what looks like natural blue sky.

In the House chamber, a former skylight had been filled in. A fire in the 1930s damaged the ceiling, which was replaced by an ornamental plaster one. 

No longer. What used to be a skylight is now a 7,500-piece lay light, a glass panel with artificial lighting above. The cathedral and hand-spun, 36-color antique glass has become the centerpiece of the chamber. 

Steve Brooks, owner of Brooks Art Glass Inc. in Springfield, fabricated the lay light designed by two Illinois firms.

Philip Hamp of Chicago's Vinci-Hamp Architects Inc. worked with Northbrook's Wiss, Janney Elstner Associates to design the lay light and art glass, which is based on the original space's mid-19th-century French style. 

Hamp's firm also designed the entire House and Senate renovation. 

"Our hope is that the chambers will have a 19th-century-effective look to them, based on EverGreene's painting and Brooks' art glass and all the artisan work that will give them a credibility and a dignity that they haven't had for a long time," Hamp says. 

"And I think we'll succeed in that." 


Bethany Carson can be reached at

Illinois Issues, December 2006