$245 million Illinois Capitol Building renovations unearth history

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Judy Lamelza

Special to Chicago Construction News

A momentous renovation is underway at the Illinois State Capitol building in downtown Springfield, unearthing a treasure trove of historical elements and architectural surprises that have remained concealed for generations.

This project is not only breathing new life into a historic landmark but also presenting unique challenges and uncovering intriguing elements that resonate with professionals in the field. As project workers dive into the restoration, they’re uncovering a captivating narrative of the building’s past.

The Illinois State Capitol’s renovation has unearthed previously unknown original components that have been hidden for over a century. This process is offering a glimpse into the construction techniques of yesteryears and offering an invaluable opportunity to reconnect with the building’s rich history.

“It is a pretty overwhelming feeling to have this position and to be in charge of such a historic renovation of this building,” said Andrea Aggertt, architect of the Capitol project. “I am speechless, daily. I am excited to be leading this and I’m excited for the future of the Capitol building. We have even found horse hair and grass stuffed in walls.

“They grabbed whatever they could to insulate or to pack in a void. There literally is grass from the 1800s put in as part of the plaster backing. They also had some leftover marble and shims, so they put them there as well.”

The Illinois Times reports that the ongoing renovation has yielded astonishing revelations, uncovering long-forgotten original features of the building that date back to its 1876 construction. Among the surprises are elements like wall insulation crafted from horsehair and grass, concealed trusses and fireplaces, traces of historic fire damage, and openings that have remained concealed for over a century. Discoveries provide a tangible link to the architectural ingenuity and craftsmanship of the past.

Among the notable surprises are the original trusses discovered on the fourth and fifth floors—previously unknown structural features that necessitated adjustments to the project’s course. Chris Vartek, project architect at Vinci-Hamp Architects, shares that these wrought-iron trusses were an unexpected revelation that required innovative problem-solving.

Restoring the essence: Preserving authenticity amid transformation

The scope of the project, encompassing interior, exterior, and underground components, is immense. This ambitious undertaking has instilled a profound sense of respect and awe among the commercial construction professionals involved. Not just an office building, but a cherished historic symbol and a bustling tourist attraction, the Illinois State Capitol holds a special place in the hearts of those dedicated to preserving its legacy and authenticity.

Echoes of the past: Unveiling centuries-old work

The ongoing construction project is peeling back layers of time, revealing the centuries-old craftsmanship that underpins the building’s original finishes. Each floor holds secrets from bygone generations of workers, and these hidden details are being brought to light as the restoration project meticulously uncovers the building’s historical façade.

The restoration extends beyond uncovering the past. The project involves the removal of more recent additions, such as mezzanine floors that were added in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These additions fragmented the building’s original high-ceiling rooms, masking intricate details beneath drop ceilings. Molds have been made of original architectural elements so new castings can be created to replace columns, finials and other details that were destroyed when the mezzanine floors were added.

Changes were also were made to enhance both accessibility and functionality, such as:

  • Creating new north entryways
  • An underground parking garage
  • A conference center beneath the west lawn

As the renovation delves into the building’s original finishes, a treasure trove of craftsmanship from the 1800s is being unveiled for the first time in generations. Long-lost elements, such as original doorways bricked shut and hidden fireplaces, are being brought to light. This exploration of the past is a testament to the dedication of commercial construction experts in preserving history.

Reviving heritage: A collective endeavor

The Illinois State Capitol’s North Wing renovation is a collaborative effort, involving architects, contractors, government officials, and stakeholders who share a vision of preserving a historic gem. As the project unfolds, it reflects a commitment to safeguarding the building’s legacy while reimagining its role for the present and the future. Through meticulous restoration, the Illinois State Capitol’s remarkable journey continues, bridging the gap between the past and the present.

Navigating unexpected challenges

The restoration project hasn’t been without its surprises. Among the unexpected discoveries were original trusses on the fourth and fifth floors—hidden features that necessitated adjustments to the construction plan. The unexpected nature of such findings showcases the adaptability and problem-solving skills of professionals like Chris Vartek, the project architect from Vinci-Hamp Architects, renowned for their expertise in historic restoration.

Judy Lamezla is an editorial reporter at Databid.com

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