Gilded Age
5:22 pm
Mon August 26, 2013

Capitol Renovations Aim For Historical Look

The renovated west wing of the Illinois Capitol building features exit signs with an old-fashioned font.
Credit Brian Mackey/WUIS

In Springfield, the west wing of Illinois' Capitol building is nearing the end of a two-year, $50 million renovation.

Workers are putting on the finishing touches. Everywhere you look, you see a balance between modern building requirements and historical details.

The door handles are flipper style — that's easier to use for people with disabilities — but they're cast with the state seal. There are lighted emergency exit signs, of course, but they're in an old-timey font.

The main purpose of the renovation was to address safety concerns — fire exits were said to be drastically insufficient. But since that would require effectively gutting the space, the decision was made to return it to what architects call the "period of historic significance."

Architect of the Capitol Richard Alsop says in this case, that's 1867 to 1908.

"That's the time period where the original architect — his design intended for the building — and any renovations that were done, were either done with the original architect or those who shared his design intent," Alsop says.

Since that time, stenciling and scrollwork have been painted over. Spaces have been re-purposed. There was even an entire floor added — a mezzanine that had most recently been home to the Statehouse press corps. Alsop says these changes were not in keeping with the vision of that original architect, Alfred Piquenard.

"If you had gone to Piquenard and said, should the building have a mezzanine, he would have said, 'Absolutely not,' " Alsop says, affecting a French accent. "He would have said, 'no.' That's my worst French accent, I'm sorry."

Custom door handles in the newly renovated west wing of the Illinois Statehouse feature the state seal.
Credit Brian Mackey/WUIS

The current renovation removed the mezzanine and restores or recreates a lot of other French accents — like elaborate paintings and intricate chandeliers.

Money for the project came from a special construction fund -- not the regular state budget. The west-wing renovation comes after the House and Senate chambers were re-done several years ago. Alsop says the north wing is the next logical step, but there's no timeline for when that might happen.

Employees are set to begin moving back next month -- including the press, which will have office space in the basement, in what used to be the cafeteria.