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Chamber Renovations Uncover Surprises At The Colorado Capitol

Colorado's state capitol is getting a major upgrade. A two-year renovation of the building's signature gold dome is complete and on the inside, work is underway on both the House and Senate chambers. Just like any remodeling project, some interesting surprises have been uncovered along the way.

"When I first came into the house I was sitting on one of the chairs in the chamber looking up at the gallery and there was a radiator that was crooked and broken," said Representative Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch). "And I said to the House Clerk, why don't we fix the radiator?"

Many a home renovation has started with those fateful words, "why don't we fix..." Colorado's capitol opened in 1894 and has gone through a few restorations since then. Chief Clerk of the House Marilyn Eddins had long been bothered that parts of the chamber haven't been upgraded.

"I had tried for three years to get that radiator tilted right," Eddins said. "And capitol complex kept telling me it was a big deal to do, they didn't have enough money. And it required a lot more than just straightening it because of the pipes it couldn't be done."

In fact, nothing happened until 2010 when Frank McNulty became Speaker of the House.

"He said while you're at it why don't you see what's behind the acoustical tile," Eddins said.

The walls and ceilings in both chambers were covered in the 1950s with what McNulty called nasty beige tiles. When workers removed them, that's when they found their first surprise.

"That really put an exclamation point behind why we were doing this, the intricate detail of stenciling on the walls," said McNulty.

What they found was ornate stenciling; the House has a green color, the Senate is red. Jill Eidie of New York-based Evergreen Architectural Arts spent three-and-a-half months hand painting the stencils. There was a lot to do, she said the stenciling was "everywhere from the ceiling to the floor."

Credit Bente Birkeland / RMCR
Detail of what workers found as they removed the acoustic tile that covered the walls in the capitol chambers.

"My hands have been all over this building that's for sure," Eidie said. "They really wanted to keep an eye on its history and preserve what was here. Sometimes people go in and don't have the budget or the time to respect what was there."

It's not just the stencil work. Patrick Tague, of Spectrum General Contractors helped removed the acoustic tiles. After spending countless hours staring at the paint underneath he noticed something.

"There's a shield in the center of the wall and it's surrounded by dogs; surrounded by what is an eagle," Tague said. "Right now there's kind of a leafy pattern."

What he's describing isn't visible to the naked eye, but he noticed differences in texture, and an infrared camera borrowed from the Denver Art Museum revealed the rest.

"No one ever anticipated that we find stencil under the stencil," he said. "We found out pieces of history that aren't recorded anywhere." 

According to legislative staff, it's been well worth the project's overall $6 million price tag.

"I know that's a lot of money but not when you consider what this building should be," said House Clerk Eddins. "After seeing some of the capitols back east in other parts of the country, this one looked a little shabby to me and it isn't, it's beautiful and it should be more beautiful. And it is more beautiful and the people that come to see this capitol are going to be even more proud of it than they are now."

There could be more discoveries waiting.

All the panels in both chambers have paintings, portraits, and profiles underneath the current restoration. Next, the acoustic tiles will come off the ceilings and skylights that were bordered up will be uncovered. The entire project will be complete in 2015.

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