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Righting the Statehouse

Project: Illinois State Capitol, Senate and House Chambers Restoration, Springfield, IL

Architects: Vinci | Hamp Architects, Chicago, IL; Philip Hamp, FAIA, partner; David Hrabal, AIA project architect

Contractor: CORE Construction, Morton, IL

By Eve M. Kahn

There was one bright side to the Illinois governor's downfall this winter – the constantly televised and photographed proceedings at the Springfield capitol. The statehouse interiors have never looked better, as their gilded coffers and mahogany woodwork recently underwent a painstaking yet fast-track restoration overseen by the Chicago firm Vinci | Hamp Architects.

Every visible surface has been analyzed and rethought, and through every channel underfoot or overhead, new infrastructure serves shrewdly engineered new mechanicals and AV systems. The rooms appear suitably stately, yet not intimidating or stuffy, and they offer more public transparency and access than ever before in the history of the 140-year-old Second Empire building.

The $17-million project, which has received AIA honors at the local, state, and national levels, has another claim to fame: coming in within budget and on time, it scarcely disrupted government meetings. The House and Senate only had to gather elsewhere for a few months, and then returned to quarters that seem utterly transformed yet retain maximum historic fabric. "We let the building speak for itself, in a way," says firm partner Philip Hamp, FAIA. "Wherever we needed to design new objects, we based them on the context and spirit of the place."

This smoothly executed, high-profile commission, he adds, had surprisingly modest origins in 2000: "The state just asked us to design new desks for the legislators." The scope soon expanded to chamber-wide restorations, but then was shelved as the government administration changed. By late 2005, Hamp had long put away the files; and then the Illinois Capitol Development Board called to jumpstart the work, adding the likes of ADA-compliant restrooms and corridor restorations to the program. Hamp's firm was allotted only a year or so to plan and execute everything, down to new stained-glass ceiling panels and bronze stair treads. Two-thirds of Vinci | Hamp's dozen staffers put aside other work to concentrate on the capitol. They held charrettes with state officials and organized road trips to neighboring capitols to see how other states' Houses and Senates live.

The contrast with Springfield conditions at times was striking. Although the Illinois government has been a fairly good steward of the building, which was designed by Alfred H. Piquenard and John Crombie Cochrane, some significant damage was done in the 1930s and '70s. Domed laylights, ruby-red scagliola columns, and mahogany scrollwork brackets were torn out. Plywood panels replaced etched-glass internal partitions, shield motifs stenciled on plaster walls were covered over, the carpets were all bland monochromes and acoustic-tile ceilings had been suspended in hallways.

To determine exactly how much material was missing and where, the architects used jewelers' loupes to scrutinize old photos of capitol interiors. They also studied Iowa's 1870s capitol, the only other statehouse that Piquenard and Cochrane designed. Collaborating with Vinci | Hamp on the detective work were some out-of-state experts. Jeff Greene of Manhattan's EverGreene Painting Studios determined and replicated the original palette of cream, beige, gold and Wedgwood blue on high-relief ornament across the House and Senate ceilings. John Burrows of J.R. Burrows & Co. in Rockland, MA, supplied an Axminster reproduction carpet with gold sunbursts on a crimson field (Robert Gfroerer of Cincinnati hand-sewed a linear mile or so of 27-in. wool segments along the chamber floors).

The capitol commission grew so complicated, with so many subs in action simultaneously, that Vinci | Hamp sent project architect David Hrabal, AIA, to live in Springfield for nearly a year in 2006-07. He supervised the gutting and reconstruction of the chambers, all while parts of the building were undergoing a $20 million HVAC upgrade. Contractors and engineers for the HVAC and restoration work (Vinci | Hamp collaborated with Henneman Engineering of Champaign, IL) performed nimble dances around each other, based on some 230 sheets of construction documents.

Huge air-handling units above the House ceiling were moved aside for installation of a steel-framed laylight replica. Within a new fluted and swag-ornamented plaster rim based on period photos, Brooks Art Glass of Springfield fashioned the radial pattern from art and laminated glass plus Lexan. Braces in that ceiling also support 800-lb. chandeliers – the statehouse's original fixtures – which St. Louis Antique Lighting restored.

"At the last minute," says Hrabal, "we realized that we should add motorized lifts to the lights. So we drilled holes for steel pipes in the basketball-size plaster bosses on the ceiling, then epoxied around the holes for the pipes, and braced the whole assembly in the attic. Every day there were issues to deal with like that, details there hadn't been quite enough time to work out in advance."

The rest of the building nonetheless remained open as the dramatic work progressed. "The tourists loved watching the craftspeople in action – mortising the hardware, stitching the carpets," says Hamp. "It became part of the public spectacle, part of people's sense of their ownership of the building."

In 2007, when the legislature at last moved back in, the public could observe the goings-on either from new cabriole-leg movable benches or balcony seats with lyre-pattern standards. The rooms blaze with new lighting (developed in consultation with Randy Burkett Lighting Design in St. Louis); to the roster of restored chandeliers, Vinci | Hamp added sconces and torchères with etched-glass spherical shades.

The legislators are easier to hear now, too, thanks to new speakers a few inches wide, snuck behind the speakers' podiums and tinted to match the surrounding mahogany or faux marble. Each legislator can lock an assigned mahogany desk: roll-tops for senators, slant-tops for representatives, made like all the rest of the ingenious woodwork by Imperial Woodworking of Palatine, IL. Each desktop is equipped with gooseneck microphones from British maker Clockaudio and custom LED-lit voting buttons (from Morton Automatic Electric of Morton, IL).

Politicians needing a break can exit through the chambers' 12-ft.-tall doors and relax in the corridors, which Vinci | Hamp has lined with EverGreene stenciled scrollwork, Decorators Supply moldings, and polychrome bands of marble quarried in Tennessee and Belgium.

Despite the project's vast acreage and tight deadline, Hamp says, the capitol administration "was a great client. They made this work their absolute priority." The Office of the Architect of the Capitol has since commissioned a lighting master plan for the building (which Vinci | Hamp is developing with Gary Steffy Lighting Design in Ann Arbor, MI). Building-wide HVAC renovations are still ongoing, and as they extend to the Senate's quarters, the government may well commission a replica of that chamber's long-lost laylight – a delicate radial of art glass in a square frame. "It could be a knockout," Hrabal says, "maybe even more spectacular than the House." TB

 

 

 
 

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