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Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010 01:57 pm

New state architect chips away at Capitol Complex restoration

Renovations combine modernization with preservation


New state architect J. Richard Alsop plans to make the Statehouse safer and more accessible while maintaining its historical ambiance.

The Illinois Statehouse’s silver dome has been an integral part of Springfield’s skyline since workers laid the last limestone block in 1888.

Throughout the years, the Statehouse has retained its grandeur and status as the tallest non-skyscraper capitol at 361 feet. But where the zinc-plated beacon once stood lonely against a prairie sky, structures like the Howlett and Stratton buildings have appeared over the years to form the Capitol Complex.

Despite the ever-changing face of Springfield, the Statehouse has yet to fully join the 21st century. Capitol architects, construction crews and historical renovators are working to turn the Statehouse’s narrow, twisting stairways and outdated heating and air conditioning systems into modern, accessible amenities.

J. Richard Alsop, the new architect of the Capitol, has taken the reigns of the 50-year Capitol Complex Master Plan.

Alsop, who started in November, is responsible for developing and implementing the master plan, as well as overseeing contracts for repair, construction and renovation of buildings in the complex.

“I’m happy I’ll have the opportunity to create viable solutions and better spaces for people, even in the most restrictive buildings,” he says.

The North Carolina native says he’s still in the planning stages, but hopes to continue updating the Statehouse through day-to-day maintenance and restoration.

Alsop’s biggest project is upgrading the heat, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The upgrade is about halfway done, with Alsop’s team currently working in the west side of the building.

While these renovations may not seem particularly glamorous, they are extremely important for older buildings, says David Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

“The biggest challenge is accommodating modern usage in a building that wasn’t constructed for modern systems,” Blanchette says.

David Hrabal, of Vinci-Hamp Architects in Chicago, worked with Alsop to install new mechanical and electrical systems and to bring the Capitol up to current codes.

It’s important to strike the right balance between modernization and preservation, Hrabal says.

“The Capitol has been butchered very badly over the past several decades, he says. “Whenever we can, we try and restore or at least respect its original layout, but the needs of the 1870s are different than the needs now.”

Alsop’s hopes to return to the building’s original paint colors. Outside consultants will peel back layers of old paint to find the original color, Alsop says. Painters will strip the walls to that first layer for touch-ups.

Alsop’s biggest challenge, he says, is balancing the needs of multiple clients.

“In the private sector, we propose a solution to a client, and it might take three or four weeks to get a decision back,” Alsop says. “Here, you have got to take it to three or four different groups.”

Jim Riemer, executive director of the Capital Development Board, says he is not worried about Alsop taking on this responsibility.

“He’ll do an excellent job working with all parties,” Riemer says. “[Alsop] has great ideas, and he’s a valuable asset as we go forward with our plans.”

In his work to rehabilitate the Statehouse, Alsop says he hasn’t forgotten the legacy of the Capitol as one of the first visible symbols of the unique role of law and history in Springfield.

“It’s such an awe-inspiring structure,” he says. “No building is perfect, and it’s interesting to see those imperfections. Buildings mimic life in that way. It gives you something to work on every day.”

Contact Diane Ivey at divey@illinoistimes.com.

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