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Thursday, March 7, 2019 12:08 am

Old State Capitol needs paint

And that's just the beginning

Shades of a rundown shack: One of Illinois’ most iconic historic buildings has seen better days.
Photo by Bruce Rushton


It’s a bird, it’s a plane…

No, it’s paint flaking away from the upper reaches of the Old State Capitol.

While state legislators decry crumbling roads and bridges, less noticed is the Old State Capitol, where wooden columns beneath the dome are in obvious need of love. Twice in the past five years, the state has put out bids to paint the columns and re-roof non-domed parts of the building where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous House Divided speech. But the work hasn’t been done.

In 2014, the state Capital Development Board decided bids to repaint the columns were nonresponsive, says Michael Norris, historic sites division manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. New bids were received in 2015, he says, but for naught. “About the time we thought we were going to get it awarded, the governor stopped construction in the state altogether,” Norris says.

Plans have shifted since then, according to Norris. Instead of repainting, the department might replace the wooden columns with ones made from composite materials, Norris says. A final decision hasn’t been made. On the one hand, composite materials require less maintenance and look like wood from the ground. On the other hand, a lot of effort went into making the Old State Capitol as authentic as possible, and composite columns didn’t exist in the 19th century.

Norris allows that composite columns wouldn’t sit well with the late Earl “Wally” Henderson, an architect whose firm was in charge of disassembling the building in the 1960s, then reassembling it after an underground parking garage was built and an added-on first story removed – it had been used as a courthouse before restoration work began. Henderson, who died in 2016, wasn’t shy about retelling efforts he and his colleagues took to make the building as it was when Lincoln was alive. “He’d say, ‘What have you done, Michael?’” Norris says.

Beyond the columns and flat sections of roof, windows on the Old State Capitol also need work, Norris says. The state also plans to conduct tests to see how well the dome’s roofing is adhering to material beneath, he added.

The Old State Capitol isn’t the state’s only historic structure that looks old for the wrong reasons.
Four roofs at Lincoln’s New Salem are worn out, Norris says, but the state has had trouble finding a contractor to replace them. “There’s not a lot of people who want to do wood shake roofs anymore,” Norris says. Chimneys at the site also need repair, as do wooden parts of buildings that contact the ground, he said, and the sewer system needs replacement. At Oak Ridge Cemetery, the obelisk at the Lincoln Tomb needs tuck-pointing.

Some projects are funded, Norris says, while others, he’s hoping, will get money if the state passes a capital bill. He doesn’t dismiss a suggestion that the Department of Natural Resources attach a blue tarp to the Old State Capitol’s dome to get legislators’ attention. That sort of thing has been considered, he says, but not in Springfield. He’s not kidding.

In Cahokia, the Jarrot Mansion, the oldest brick home in the state, has plastic spread over a worn-out roof that has leaked to the point that interior plaster and paint has been damaged. “We intended it to be a temporary solution until the state kind of got its act together and put a roof on the building,” says Molly McKenzie, chairwoman of the Jarrot Mansion Project, a nonprofit group that helps support the mansion. The group paid a contractor $15,000 to install the plastic more than two years ago and reattach it when wind rips it loose.

The plastic is black. McKenzie said her group wanted orange in hopes of sending a signal to the state: Fix this roof. “Black was a thicker mil, so it was more durable,” McKenzie explains. “Quite honestly, the company thought we were crazy.”

McKenzie is optimistic. Bids have been received for a new roof, and a preconstruction meeting scheduled. The plastic, she notes, can’t last forever.

“It’s supposed to be temporary,” she says. “If the wind whips it, it tears up.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


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