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Extreme Makeover: Capitol Edition

Take a sneak peek at the ongoing Oklahoma State Capitol renovations

Extreme Makeover: Capitol Edition

The Oklahoma State Capitol undergoing major renovations. Photos by Ryan West

As a new state legislative session begins, thousands of guests will stream through the Oklahoma Capitol during the next few months and take notice of the building’s incredible transformation. Nearly every inch of the historic facility has experienced some kind of renovation or will by the time the project concludes in 2022. 

With updates and construction expected to be 80% complete by February, capitol project manager Trait Thompson said progress is steady. 

“In January, we finished four floors of offices for the House of Representatives in the west wing of the building, and in March, we’ll wrap up the roof work, completing a four-year exterior restoration process,” he said. 

It’s a tedious and time-consuming process preserving and restoring the Oklahoma State Capitol to the original glory it was supposed to hold when it was built in 1917. However, Thompson explained, many paint schemes and ornate, decorative features of the building were modified in the final phases of construction to cut down on costs as America prepared to enter World War I. 

“We brought in a historic paint consultant to identify prominent colors from 1917,” Thompson said. “Richer, darker, more vibrant colors bring out the nuances in the architectural plaster details.” 

View looking up to top of Capitol Dome with scaffolding
 Photo by Ryan West

Blue, green and dark pink hues that cover the capitol dome (added to the building in 2002) are carried throughout the floors in an ashlar paint pattern, creating depth and shadow. Painters also are applying a special paint scheme along wall plaster to create the look of limestone blocks—another feature that became too expensive to install during the capitol’s infancy 103 years ago. 

Thompson said generating not only momentum, but more importantly, funding for the renovation was a long, uphill climb that began almost a decade ago. In 2012, a vote to designate funding was proposed in the state legislature but received a mere 15 votes. The following year, a cash appropriation for the remodel was bundled into a tax cut bill that was tossed out by the Supreme Court and declared unconstitutional. Finally, in 2014, the state legislature passed its first $120 million bond issue to begin repairing and restoring the capitol. 

Click here to watch a time lapse video of Oklahoma State Capitol renovations in progress!

“We knew it probably wasn’t enough to do the whole building the way it needed to be done, but it was a good starting point for us,” said Thompson, who had previously worked as Pro Tem Brian Bingman’s policy adviser and had been appointed to the State Capitol Preservation Commission. “Through that commission, I began to understand the dire nature of the building and its condition.” 

Thompson was eventually named the capitol project manager to marshal the resources needed within state government to execute the multi-phase, multi-year undertaking. He serves as a liaison between the construction companies and the state, coordinating temporary space for state agencies within the facility to proceed with regular operations during the renovation. Thompson is involved in all progress and design meetings, working with contractors to stay on budget and on schedule. In the beginning stages of research, he and his team consulted with state officials in Kansas who had just completed a restoration project in the Kansas Capitol building. 

Decorative patterns are set in the early 1900s style
 Photo by Ryan West

“We wanted to learn what were some of the things they did well or poorly or that they wish they would’ve done differently,” he said. “The Kansas speaker of the house explained the state capitol is ‘a front door to the world.’” 

Oklahoma state officials spent months investigating the project before the design process launched. Construction on the interior began with Manhattan Construction Co. in 2015, and J.E. Dunn Construction started exterior renovations a year later. Between the two main contractors and their multiple subcontractors, around 300 painters, electricians, plasterers, trim carpenters, plumbers, mill workers, carpet layers, HVAC technicians and more are working at any given time in the building. With so many moving parts, the renovation is organized chaos under the watchful eye of Thompson. 

In 2016, a second bond issue was passed for $125 million bringing the total cost to $245 million in designated bond funds. With the project fully funded, the exterior and interior renovations continued moving forward in a seamless manner. 

“The historically renovated capitol project, when completed, will be the the centerpiece of pride for Oklahoma and a positive attraction for school children and adults all across the state and nation,” Rep. Harold Wright, speaker pro-tempore and renovation committee member, said. “My grandfather, from Weatherford, was the director of the first band to play in the capitol in 1917. I believe that our forefathers would be very proud of the renovation project, setting a new pace for the 21st century.” 

Internally, the building is now properly wired for Wifi and other data networks and has a fire sprinkler system for the first time. The original plastered ceilings that had curdled to a consistency resembling Swiss cheese have been restored; all plumbing, electrical, mechanical and HVAC systems are 100% new; the Supreme Court was renovated with its original bench and plaster still intact; a new bronze state seal, 14 feet in diameter, will replace the original version that exhibited inaccuracies in its symbology; and the gift shop, expanded restrooms, museum and space for nursing mothers will be offered in the new visitor entrance that is ADA accessible and more secure. 

“We’re tackling this one phase at a time,” Thompson explained. “It’s a nine-step process refurbishing the historic marble. We’ve hired a historic preservation consultant to help determine which areas are preservation restoration zones, rehab zones and adaptive reuse zones.”

Office spaces and furniture display a timeless and classic look of dark wood and granite countertops, and all stained glass will be repaired. All of the building’s original light fixtures were taken down and shipped to St. Louis Antique Lighting Co. for careful restoration, and the facility will be illuminated by 100% LED lighting by the end the project. It’s a constant cycle of repair, re-plaster and repaint.

“The capitol serves as a centerpiece for Oklahoma,” State Sen. Roger Thompson said. “The citizens of Oklahoma should have a capitol that is functional and one they all can be proud of.” 

Outside, the new copper roof is expected to last 80 years with proper maintenance; the 477 steel frame windows have been restored; masons have made 4,600 stone repairs while following a three-step cleaning process; can lighting has been added to illuminate the building’s south portico; and workers spent two months with spackle and putty knives filling in every crack and crevice of the capitol’s once-forgotten 18-foot-tall steel pocket doors, discovered in a layer of orange rust during the renovation. 

“Our state capitol was falling down, and it was not in a place where it could be impressive to visitors,” Thompson said. “All infrastructure was failing, and the existing electrical equipment was more than 50 years old. Now, I fully believe we’re going to have one of the top capitol buildings in the country.”

State Sen. Julia Kirt said she appreciates how project leadership has navigated the complex challenges of funding and space issues to create a capitol facility that is welcoming to Oklahomans of all ages and abilities. 

She’s also looking forward to seeing the artwork reinstalled and the new public art that is being commissioned for the project. 

“A well-maintained building can show a well-functioning government,” she said. “The capitol symbolizes so much and is an example of how we can plan and work together as a state with a long-term vision.” 

State Sen. Roger Thompson and renovation committee member supports the project and the vision behind it. 

“The capitol serves as a centerpiece for Oklahoma,” State Sen. Roger Thompson said. “The citizens of Oklahoma should have a capitol that is functional and one they all can be proud of.” 

The details, the history, the preservation—all of the features will dazzle guests from other states and countries for many decades into the future, but one of the most significant facts about this much-deserved renovation is that a majority of the work was completed by local tradesmen and women. 

“Everybody here takes a lot of pride in the work they’re doing,” Thompson said. “They’re the best of the best, and when this is done, this is going to be a job that was done primarily by Oklahomans.” OKL Article End

Bright afternoon view of the exterior of the capitol
 Photo by Ryan West