Two construction workers who helped renovate the relic that was the “old” statehouse leaned against a tree in Capitol Park, bundled up, drinking coffee, watching. They came to see people walk into the capitol for work, this first day of the 2010 Idaho legislative session.
When the capitol was officially rededicated this past weekend in a ceremony on the front steps that was surprisingly emotional, especially when the crowd sang “Here We Have Idaho” with nearly the gusto of a Boise State fight song, the two workers were appreciative. Then when thousands of people showed up for open house, they saw pleasure and excitement on visitors’ faces. They heard the compliments, stood near people who stopped to admire details they worked on, and watched children and families take photos in front of the restored woodwork and marble. They got to share the feeling of that day, and said they’ll never forget it.
Some Idahoans have complained about the $120 million it cost to repair and renovate the capitol building. Bloggers and commenters have written “it’s a waste of money” “times are hard and the legislature is spending money on themselves?”
Generally, politicians who vote to spend money on themselves are indeed galling.
But that’s not what happened here.
Plans to renovate the building began in the late 1990s. The budget was set when the economy was much better. And some repairs were downright urgent, and couldn’t be done properly before other things were done – properly.
Having worked in the Senate in the early 1990s and recently a few writing for NewWest.Net in the capitol basement, I’ve seen and felt the problems, dangers, and jerry-rigged setup that was the old statehouse.
It wasn’t just cramped. It was worn out, broken down, dirty, scarred and and moldy. The electrical, plumbing, and broadband infrastructure all needed major repairs. The elevators made alarming noises, visitors sat in broken chairs, and there were too few restrooms. Cell phones didn’t work in many areas of the building.
80 years of repainting had blurred the beautiful wood carvings. Upholstery and drapes were ancient and dirty, and random nasty furniture had become the norm. The magnificent marble-like columns, steps, mosaics and trim were chipped, gouged, and yellow as smokers’ teeth.
Access to legislators was a problem. A press corps and staff without modern technology was ridiculous.
All those things affected the public and the press as much as they did lawmakers. And citizens have a right to a statehouse built with their needs in mind.
The renovations are sturdy, sensible, and stunningly beautiful. They are classy and meticulous, but not lavish.
There are more and bigger public areas, including a new auditorium which will hold more citizens than has ever been possible. There are public lounges with comfortable seating and streaming video from the House and Senate.
There is full cell phone access, free public wifi throughout the building, more and better restrooms, better handicapped access, and new visitor centers.
The underground wings are bathed in natural light and bright marble, and representatives have office cubicles – not private offices. Until now, only leadership had office space. Representatives had their 30″ space on the House floor – and that was it.
There is a new room for the press. Some of us miss the moldy old basement bullpen with its orange shag rug room dividers, wacky layout, wagon-wheel sofa upholstered brothel style, cables strung along the walls, and ancient tacked-up news clippings and photos, but this new clean space is pretty darned nice.
I miss the front door with its chewed-off bottom corner, made by former Senator John Peavey’s dog, Jock. The sweet-tempered border collie would accompany his sheep rancher master into the Senate from time and time, and quietly make his way to that door to be let out by anyone who was used to the routine. But when Jock was desperate, he’d chew at the door until someone noticed him.
But everyone welcomes the magnificent re-do of the dome and rotunda, now the dazzling white of the original design, which makes the light and atmosphere of the rotunda and chambers glow. It’s dramatic enough to cheer up a bassett hound, which will be a bright spot in a year when the disagreements and compromises that are a natural part of governing are going to be especially painful.
There is value in having a statehouse worthy of Idaho and its people. But what is so often overlooked, especially when times are tough, is that there is value in beauty and artistic achievement. The new Statehouse is both worthy and gorgeous, and we should be pleased and proud.